The tea garden workers of the Dooars and Terai region of West Bengal are facing a shortage of healthcare facilities amid the Covid-19 pandemic. With many of the tea gardens being closed due to the pandemic, there is a dearth of health infrastructure while those still open are seeing rising oxygen and vaccine requirements.
In view of the situation, the Joint Action Forum of Tea Workers, the nodal body of tea workers that spearheads agitations in the hills and plains of North Bengal, has urged Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to release the proposed Rs 1,000 crores for improving health standards of tea workers across country. In neighbouring Darjeeling district and Assam state, a similar health crisis is brewing. Besides North Bengal, the tea plantations are mainly located in the Northeastern states and South Indian states.
In this years Union Budget, a sum of Rs 1,000 crores has been allocated for improving the living standards of tea garden workers, especially women and children. The nodal body of tea workers’ union has observed that the pandemic has not spared the tea growing regions of the country and the impoverished tea garden workers, and thus, the budget allocation would help in fighting Covid-19 by facilitating better Covid care in the tea plantation areas .
The released sum should be used immediately for Covid care and relief for tea garden workers in these regions, demanded Jiaul Alom, the convenor of the Joint Action Forum of Tea Workers. Speaking to Newsclick, Alom said that several teams under the National Disaster Response Force have been formed, which, alongside the tea workers unions’ representatives, had visited the tea gardens and had organised vaccination schedules whereby inoculation of 60+ age group to 45+ age group took place in phases. The vaccination was carried out by teams of healthcare workers who visited the gardens with logistical help from the unions and the tea garden owners.
More than 11 lakh workers are directly employed in the tea industry, especially in remote rural areas, with most of them located in Assam and West Bengal, according to government estimates.
“In these times of pandemic, we are trying to get over the crisis in unison with the management. In one or two cases, the management is trying to take advantage of the situation to exert pressure on the tea garden workers and for those, we have informed the authorities to take action under the National Disaster Management Act. The Unions and the management have also set up a Covid administration last February, however, hindrance to that includes shortage of oxygen supply and vaccines and lack of referral centres nearby the tea gardens in case of serious patients,” Alom said.
“The exit and entry to the gardens are being strictly monitored and social volunteers are also working, but the healthcare units at the garden level are suffering from lack of beds,” he informed. Even the rationing distribution system in many cases are failing to support people and loss of livelihood is resulting in large scale migration, he added.
At present, the tea gardens are working at 50% strength resulting in the workers being paid six days’ wage every 12 days, which in turn is leading to a serious shortfall in the food habits and living standards. The production in the open tea gardens is also being hampered because of this.
Recently, at Kohinoor tea garden in Alipurduar, the police had to beat retreat due to protests when the garden owner, who had long-standing due wage of workers, tried to retake control of the estate by force armed with a high court order and an abiding police force. The tea garden owner Keshab Sinha had Rs 70 lakh due in wages to the workers of the garden apart from electricity and other overhead dues. It is notable that last year before the Durga puja festival, the owner had fled the garden to evade bonus payment to the workers.
The Indian tea economy is in a proclaimed ‘crisis’ with stagnant exports, abandoned plantations and declining or sluggish prices in the domestic and international markets.
While companies complain about low profits, which can be disputed in the current international upward tea market condition, tea plantation labourers have long been struggling with the closure and abandonment of their plantations, the non-payment or cutting back of wages and other statutory benefits, leading to declining living and health standards. They are even unable to make a living inside or outside of the plantations while labourers and their families suffer from malnourishment, forced migration and lack of basic facilities.