Beyond a cup of TEA – Gorkha Students JNU

Untold stories of hunger & starvation deaths of Tea garden workers in Darjeeling ,Dooars & Terai!
Behind the idyllic hills, the scenic gardens, the “romance of the two leaves and a bud”, and the “smiling faces” of the workers, what remains carefully hidden is the ugly truth of subhuman wages, more than a thousand starvation deaths, and seething anger. The ongoing wage negotiations in the gardens in the hills, dooars & the terai have yet again brought to fore what the West Bengal government and the industry wishes to brush under the carpet. It gives us yet another opportunity to speak up against the lies and cunning of the industry as also the complicity of the state in depriving the workers of their basic minimum level of sustenance.

Untold stories of hunger & starvation deaths of Tea garden workers inDarjeeling ,Dooars & Terai!
Untold stories of hunger & starvation deaths of Tea garden workers inDarjeeling ,Dooars & Terai!

The ongoing crisis in North Bengal, the historic demand for Gorkhaland and the solution provided thereof is reflective of the sustained colonial exploitation and domination which finds its most blatant reflection in the Tea industry, where “Darjeeling Tea” is romanticised. This region of Darjeeling Hills, Terai and Dooars is mostly featured by tea gardens and the population engaged in it. Approximately, 80% of the people forms the constituency fettered in this gigantic machine of production which is totally based on the exploitation and immiserisation of the working populace of this region since the days of British colonialism. The huge profits extracted from this exploitative tea plantations (according to the Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce, tea industry in the hills generates an average of Rs. 450 crores revenue annually, equal to that of the tourism industry in the region) has been in continuation creating a vicious cycle of poverty and continued appendage of the local work force for generation after generation for this industry.

The minimum wage paid to unskilled tea labour in Kerala is Rs.124, in Assam it is Rs.158.54, in neighbouring Sikkim it is Rs. 200 while the same in Darjeeling comes to a meagre Rs.90. Even the minimum wage paid in West Bengal for MNREGA comes to Rs. 151. The tea workers in North Bengal don’t even get the minimum wage as they receive Rs 90 . Mass casualization of workers is another problem because of which even the base minimum services (health, rations and lodging) that the tea estates were to provide under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 can’t be accessed by a majority of its labourers. Whereas, the price of first flush (the costliest batch in the tea production cycle) is deliberately kept a secret by the owners to ensure that workers don’t raise their demand for higher wages.

Minimum Wage of  unskilled tea Labourer in different states
Minimum Wage of  unskilled tea Labourer in different states

Although the wage of workers’ were increased from Rs.45 in 2001 to Rs. 90 in 2011, keeping the annual inflation in mind, this increase in wage was not sufficient enough to compensate the rise in prices. (Purchasing power of Rs.90 of 2011 = Purchasing Beyond a cup of TEA: Untold stories of hunger & starvation deaths of Tea garden workers in Darjeeling ,Dooars & Terai! power of Rs.120 in 2014) Therefore, keeping the annual inflation of 8% in mind, any increase in wage below Rs.107 (over 3 years) will not be wage increase at all but rather be a wage cut. Hence the current proposal of increasing Rs.40 in three years will be actually a wage freeze. Presently the income per annum of the management Rs. 48,72,477 which is 150 times more than that of the workers, i.e., Rs.32,400.

Mangers earn 150 times what workers earn.
Mangers earn 150 times what workers earn.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) too in its 2005 report clearly bemoans the sad plight of tea workers. It states that the Tea Board which is the regulating authority of the Tea Industry has failed to fulfill its stipulated function. They have continuously ignored wage and provident fund defaults of tea estates, while portraying this crisis only as a marketing mismanagement. The ILO report also suspects that there is collusion between the planters and the State which is highlighted by the non implementation of the Tea Act, 1953.

In the last decade more than 1200 tea workers have died due to acute malnutrition and starvation. As recent as January 2013, 95 workers of the locked out Dheklapara Tea Estate in Dooars sent a letter to the Chief Minister seeking her “order” to kill themselves because they were suffering from acute starvation. Studies show that 70% of the people of the closed tea garden suffer from chronic energy deficiency III stage. Such is the scale of deprivation and dispossession of livelihood. The Supreme Court’s order dated 06.08.10 categorically directs the Government of India to carry out its statutory duty under Tea Act 1953. The Act mandates the Central Government to take over the management/control of the tea undertakings/units (under section 16 B/D/E) and take steps thereafter to ensure that the interests of the workers are well protected and dues are all paid in time. Sadly the constitutional duty to uphold the ruling of the highest court of the country has not been carried out neither by the Central Government nor by the State Government. The tea workers therefore are forced to languish till they die of hunger and malnutrition. Such lack of empathy by the government towards the people living in that region is not just unconstitutional but highly criminal. Human trafficking is also very rampant in the region. A report of a joint study by Unicef, Save the Children and Burdwan University (in 2010) estimates 3,500 minors alone were trafficked from 12 gardens of Dooars only. It’s certain that the total number of people forced into sex trade will be much higher when we add up those from Darjeeling Hills and the Terai region.

Thus we must stand by the just demand of the workers to increase wages from Rs.90 to Rs.320. We reject the recent offers by the Planters and Government of abysmally low wage hike of just Rs. 21 and Rs.40 in phased manner in three years. We salute and stand in solidarity with the uncompromising struggle of workers for their rightful demand. Any attempt to break the unity of the workers or dilute the demands or betray the struggle must be resisted at all cost. We also demand: Reopen closed and abandoned tea estates immediately. Casual labour should also be brought under the purview of Plantation Labour Act, 1951. Backlog of unpaid Provident fund and gratuity should be cleared without delay. Declare and implement Minimum Wage for tea Plantation workers. Grant legal ownership of housing space to workers.

Submitted by : Dawa Sherpa – Gorkha Students, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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