Kolkata: To discuss the distressed deaths in the tea gardens of North Bengal, a key meet was held on Friday. The meet was attended by top officials of west Bengal government including state labour minister Maloy Ghatak, Commissioner of Police Surajeet Purkayastha and chief secretary Basudev Chatterjee.
At least six people have died in north Bengal’s Bagrakote tea plantation since October, the government says. But since the tea garden went into limbo in April – not abandoned, not shut down and yet not functioning – many more have died, workers say.
For 1,470 permanent workers and as many temporary ones, that has meant no wages, no rations, even no drinking water supply, they say.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has now stepped in. Based on a complaint by some workers of non-payment of provident fund, police called the owners of the garden, the Duncan group. The top brass skipped the meeting and sent some officials instead. And an angry chief minister said if they can’t run the tea gardens, the government will take over.
Tara Pradhan, a permanent tea plucker at Bagrakote, was not here when her husband Rajen died. He was 41. With no work, no pay since April, she had left him, ailing, to work in Ludhiana as a domestic help and send money home for medicines. Rajen died of septicaemia or blood poisoning on Saturday.
“I blame the tea garden for my husband’s death. They didn’t pay salaries, I had to leave and go look for work, my son also left. Husband could not work as he was ill,” she says as she performs the funeral rituals dressed in white.
Another house in mourning is Ratni Gawli’s. The 62-year-old died on Sunday. Her children are tea pluckers but had no money to take her to the hospital.
Etware Gawli, Ratni’s daughter, says, “My mother had diarrhoea and vomiting. We took her to a doctor. He gave some saline and said send her to a government hospital. But we couldn’t because we didn’t have money to get an ambulance.”
Mihir Roy, a senior executive at the Bagrakote tea garden for over 30 years, is baffled. “Till February, everything was fine. But from April, no rations, no firewood, only first aid medicine, no wages for workers. Even my salary is due for months. We don’t know why.”
From August, workers say they were told by management they could do “cash plucking” – pluck leaves from Bagrakote and sell them to “bought leaf” factories. For every kilo of tea leaf plucked workers get five rupees. If fit and able, a worker can make about Rs. 100 per day.
That is a little less than their normal daily wage. But earnings are uncertain. And the main component of their wages – rations, firewood, house maintenance, drinking water – are gone and it is hard times.
Rita Kami, a tea plucker, said, “Please inform the Prime Minister of our plight. We are in dire straits.”
The state government has just woken up to their situation and, since Monday, rushed rations and doctors but denies deaths from hunger.
Lodel Lepcha, an executive magistrate, says, “They have bikes, nice houses, how can there be hunger deaths? They are suffering from old diseases – tuberculosis mostly – but they won’t go to hospital.”
The tea plantation company Duncan has refused to comment and is even avoiding the police. Mamata Banerjee, touring north Bengal, issued an ultimatum at a public meeting near Bagrakote. “If they won’t run the tea gardens, government will take over,” she said.
But Bagrakote is one of 14 Duncan tea gardens in north Bengal that are in limbo right now. How many can the government takeover, locals ask.