India, tea garden brews tales of apathy and neglect by politicals

Workers in tea gardens of West Bengal, India, that produces Ctc tea for domestic consumption complain that they have been devoid of basic facilities while political parties make hollow promises during every elections which are never fulfilled.

Kolkata, 1st of May: Sudha Gop has been working in a tea garden for the past nine years in northern portion of West Bengal, around 600 kilometers from Kolkata, the State capital.

The 40-year-old plucks tea from the garden that goes into the factory for processing into a tea powder which is then packed and supplied across the country for consumption.

Tea worker Sudha Gop
Sudha Gop © Sourav Mandal

Gop gets a daily wage of Rs 250, $3 approximately, and she is not paid on the day she doesn’t turn up for work for health or other issues.

The homemaker resides close to Bandapani tea estate in Alipurduar district of Bengal along with her husband and daughter.

Poor wages

Her son, however, left for Kerala state in South India, six months ago, which is several miles away to do a menial job as her income is barely enough to run the household.

“My husband is unemployed and the family is dependent on me for daily bread. But the income from the tea garden is not enough. My house needs immediate repairs as the roof is leaking but financial crisis is a big hurdle. We are not only paid less wages but the payment is not timely. We are also devoid of statutory benefits like gratuity and provident fund by the company.”

She can derive solace from the fact that she is not alone in her trajectory as several thousands of tea garden workers also complain the absence of proper education for their children, health, drinking water issues and less wages. Bengal is the second largest producer of tea in India and contributes for 24 percent tea production in the country.

The tea industry is not only touted as the country’s second largest employer but also an industry that undermines labour rights and deprives workers and their families of the most basic needs.

The plains of Bengal produce Crush-tear-curl (Ctc) which is in high demand for consumption across the country.

Over 3.5 lakh people are employed in around three hundred tea gardens in that produce Ctc tea.

Despite providing the morning tea sip to millions of people across the country, tea workers suffer from dearth of basic facilities.

Basic facilities in tatters

The tea gardens run by private owners are normally located from far off the cities and tea management has an onus to provide health facilities to workers. But most of them fail to do so. Workers complain that the health centers in the tea gardens do not have any facilities beyond providing a first aid and medicines for flu or fever.

Omkar Valmiki, 65, a retired employee in a health care unit in a tea garden said that there are hardly any facilities and serious patients have to be shifted to far flung hospitals located 15-20 kilometers away.

“The health units in tea gardens have no basic facilities and often ambulances are also not available during exigency. They are maintained just for formality while we are left to fend for ourselves during emergency. Even doctors are not present in some health units.”

Omkar Valmiki

He alleged that the tea gardens owners purportedly shy away from giving better health and other facilities as it might trigger workers in other gardens to revolt against their management for arranging similar services there too.

Even the education services are no better as the schools are made to run on a thin staff, “The situation is so bad that a school in our area has single teacher for 180 students for over a decade. Most of the government schools run till Class 8 and students are forced to travel for twenty kilometers to get higher education. But their parents work in tea gardens and live in utter poverty that causes high dropout rate,” said Shekhar Gupta, a local social activist.

Workers also complain that there are no street lights and roads alongside the gardens become dark after the dusk raising risk of the attack from wild animals, “The tea gardens have leopards that attack humans if by mistake someone step into their territory. There also have been casualties. We have been demanding the installation of street lights but nothing has been done yet,” said Meena Valmiki, 50, a local in Bandapani tea estate.

Some of the tea gardens are closed for the past several years due to management issues forcing the workers to take up menial jobs for livelihood.

Suraj Tanti, 50 who used to work in Dheklapara tea estate in north Bengal said that the company shut down in 2002 leaving 602 workers jobless, “We have no alternative but to work as labourers in sand mining from river bed and earn a paltry Rs 130 ($1.56) every day which is very negligible but have no alternative as the company is closed. It is very difficult to run our household in such a meager income, especially in this time of inflation.”

Surai Tanti
Surai Tanti © Sourav Mandal

Fertile ground for human trafficking

Tea gardens have become hotbed of human trafficking thanks to poverty with the absence of basic facilities. Girls are trafficked to big cities on the pretext of higher income and then pushed into flesh trade.

As per the data published by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 67 cases were reported involving 93 victims of human trafficking in 2022.

When the Anti-human trafficking units (Ahtu) conducted raids, 103 victims, including 91 minors were rescued. In fact, between 2019 to 2021, the number of missing children in West Bengal increased by 22 percent rising from 8,205 to 9,996 whereas the national increase was 6 percent increasing from 73,138 to 77,535.

Siliguri city in North Bengal which is well-connected with Nepal and other Indian cities serves as the transit point from where the victims are transported to bigger towns and cities and even abroad.

No Political intervention

The workers, however, complain that despite suffering from plethora of problems, the political leaders have done nothing for them so far.

“The politicians come to our village before every polls seeking for vote and assuring us that our problems will be solved soon after coming to power. But nothing happens after the results are declared and the situation remains the same. In fact, the basic facilities like health and water have deteriorated over the years,” said Sunita Murmu, 35, a tea plucker.

Several tea workers on condition of anonymity revealed that they are threatened to vote or face severe consequences, “We are pressurized to cast our vote or face repercussions like removal from the job as most of us are contractual workers in tea gardens. We live in poverty and have hand to mouth existence therefore we cannot ignore them and have to vote against our wishes. The senior politicians just come here for photo opportunity in tea gardens and nothing beyond.”

State Chief minister Mamata Banerjee accused the central government of not doing anything for the tea garden workers, “We are working for one million tea garden workers and have build houses for them. We will do more welfare works for them after the elections. The central government always tries to create a huddle in our welfare schemes.”

Far from the political rumblings, tea workers demand basic facilities which is a requirement for any human being but even that seems to be a tough ask for these hapless people who is considered not more than a vote bank in world’s largest democracy.

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