Right now, the inequalities of the world and the limitations of the healthcare systems are leaving their daunting footprints on ordinary people of various countries. The global outbreak of the deadly Novel Coronavirus has made everyone suddenly realise the need for investments in a better healthcare over all other expenditures, which now seem useless. And behind these scenes, a more frightening situation of starvation and hunger is sharply escalating. The pandemic of hunger might end up claiming more lives than the pandemic caused by the virus.
In India, hunger had taken a pandemic proportion long back. In the Global Hunger Index (GHI) of 2019, India ranked 102 among 117 countries. In 2018 it ranked 103 and in 2017 it was at 100. Hunger and starvation spiral when minimum wages are not paid to the mass of workers and subsidised and quality essential services such healthcare and education are not available.
In the sectors and regions which are already reeling under poverty, the Coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns on work and mobility have become an added curse. One such sector in India is the tea gardens of West Bengal.
Tea gardens and their history of hunger:
Hunger, lockdowns and even social distancing are not new terms in the tea plantations of West Bengal. They only took new meaning here post the pandemic. For centuries the lush tea gardens in Assam and West Bengal have severely violated labour rights. Hunger and starvation pervades the daily lives of the 3,50,000 underpaid, overworked, malnourished workers in the 294 surviving tea gardens of the Dooars in West Bengal.
Moreover, the plantation labourers have always been forced by the management to maintain social isolation in order to ensure reproduction of the labour force within the gardens. The labour is not free to switch jobs or migrate unless they are retrenched and the garden is locked down by the management. Forced migration of other family members and human trafficking of children, especially girls, however, are common phenomena owing to the abject poverty of the workers. Tea gardens lack access to safe and adequate drinking water. Most hospitals and medical facilities in these gardens are abysmally equipped. They lack proper healthcare officials and even medicines. The outbreak of a viral epidemic in these places can therefore result in a human catastrophe.
The outbreak of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdown in West Bengal’s tea gardens:
In India, a full lockdown started on 23 March, after the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced it a day earlier. However, many tea gardens in West Bengal and Assam did not close down immediately, and, flouting the lockdown order, remained open until 25 March. The gardens finally shut down only after fears of the Covid-19 outbreak mounted. A joint deputation of 19 trade unions and organisations to the chief secretary of the state demanded full lockdown of the tea gardens and payment of wages to the workers during the lockdown. The first Covid-19 death of a 44-year-old woman on 30 March in Kalimpong Medical College fortified the demand for a full lockdown and the simultaneous payment of wages of the workers.
But the tea estate owners have a terrible history when it comes to labour rights. Moreover they were worried because this is the season of skiffing and plucking of the first flush tea leaves, which yields the most precious leaves, particularly for the Darjeeling variety of tea. Together, they did a quick math and estimated an impending huge loss for the industries. By 29 March they had demanded compensation from the government worth Rs 1,455 crore.
Flaunting their clout with the government, the tea industry managed to secure an exception to the lockdown right away. The central government issued a notice on 3 April directing that 50% of the tea garden workforce can remain at work in the gardens, provided proper measures for sanitisation are taken and social distancing is maintained. This was against the rule of the lockdown, as well as the much touted ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ sentiment. The tea crops clearly seemed more valuable to the government over the lives of tea garden workers, which have anyway not mattered for decades now.
The West Bengal government also declared on 9 April that 15% workforce can be used for skiffing and plucking the first flush leaves and again on 11 April, in a fresh notice, they directed employing 25% of the labour force for all activities of the garden, albeit with necessary precautions. It was decided that the workforce will be employed rotationally. As a result, it is mostly the permanent workers who were employed in most gardens.
For the labourers who are being put to work, social distancing goes for a toss as they throng the tea garden gates every morning or huddle together at lunchtime. “Some gardens have only provided soap for workers to wash their hands, others didn’t bother about even this much,” says Rupam Deb, a social activist who works for the rights of tea workers. The garden management wanted to continue work without any concern for the risks the workers are being exposed to.
Gradually, tea gardens raised the proportion of the workers beyond the one-fourth limitation. The workers were once again not in a position to oppose this. Bittu, 39, a worker from the Sonali Tea Estate who does not want his real name to be used, says that the gardens are working as usual. “Out of 358 permanent workers, 70-80 were working per day in the beginning, but gradually the number has increased,” he says. But while work has resumed, the payment are blocked due to the lockdown.
Bittu says that the management has not released three previous instalments of payments for the workers. Given a choice between hunger death and contracting Covid-19, the workers chose the latter. Infection is, after all, a matter of chance: death by hunger seems more inevitable and imminent.
For the workers of the tea gardens which had closed down, the difficulties are even greater. Sushma, 42, worked at the Bandapani tea garden that closed eight years ago. But even after it closed, the workers kept collecting raw tea leaves to sell them illegally in the open market through local agents. This practice would fetch them around Rs 130 per day during the first flush season ever since the closures. However, owing to the lockdown, the markets have closed, drying up a major source of income that sustained them throughout the rest of the year.
Moreover, after the lockdown, the meagre compensation of Rs 1,500 per month that they used to receive from the state government as an erstwhile worker of a now closed tea garden has also been stopped. Sushma is scared that she will not be left with any cash by the time the lockdown is lifted. They are solely dependent on the ration that the government is providing.
The ration disbursal in the Dooars region is done on a per-family basis. The registered monthly ration of 20 kilos rice, 15 kilos flour and 3 kilos of sugar is given to every family, irrespective of its size. Bigger families find it difficult to sustain on this much, but now it is the only source of food for everyone. Both Bittu and Sushma inform that the government has started charging Rs 13 per kilo of sugar and soon they will not be in a position to pay for it. Other essential commodities such as milk, oil, salt and vegetables have to be procured by them on their own. They are already cutting down on all these items and surviving on the simplest and most bland food.
The congested workers’ colonies of Dooars are not conducive for social distancing. In case the epidemic enters these colonies, the situation will be catastrophic. The already ill-equipped medical centres will not be able to contain the pandemic and this fear is looming large on tea gardens, alongside the fear of near-inevitable starvation.
The other major source of income for the tea garden workers in Dooars is the income of the family members who have migrated outside for work. With the countrywide lockdown halting all economic work of any kind, that source of income has also dried up completely. The migrant workers from Dooars are stranded in various parts of the country without work. They have themselves become dependent on relief food being distributed by the government or non-government agencies.
Rahul Oraon, 29, works as a helping hand in a restaurant in Bangalore. He has migrated from Sonali Bagan Tea garden, where his mother still works. He and four others are stuck in Bangalore without work. They received rations from the local police station on 7 and 18 April, which they are consuming judiciously—they eat once a day. They are unable to send money home and are struggling to find enough to survive on.
Similarly, Sunil Oraon, 31, from Bhatkhawa tea garden in Dooars had migrated to Jodhpur, Rajasthan to work in the timber line. He along with 12 others from Alipurduar are stranded without work. They did not receive any ration. “We made some distress calls and a local charitable organisation gave us cooked food. They assured us they will come whenever we call,” Sunil says over the phone from Jodhpur. “We took their food for about a week. But it felt like begging. We are workers and making the call every morning was an affront to our dignity. We wanted rations to cook food for ourselves but did not get any. Now we are buying minimum rations with the little we had saved and once we run out, we shall take recourse to begging again.”
Sunil’s wife, Sapna Oraon, is a casual labourer in Bhatkhawa tea garden. She is not earning since only permanent workers are employed in their tea garden. “She is managing on her own. I feel scared to talk to her these days. Both of us, miles apart, are living in hunger.”
This is the situation of all tea garden workers across Dooars. Fear of starvation is a phantom that has relentlessly haunted them throughout their lives. The new fear of infection has added teeth to their insecurity, which now constantly gnaw at them. The present crisis is draining their lives bit by bit as their meagre savings deplete with every meal.
The author has taught sociology at Ambedkar University Delhi, Jamia Millia Islamia, Lady Shri Ram College and IP College for Women, Delhi University. She is currently senior researcher at the Center For Equity Studies. The views are personal.