Tea Industry: Starvation Deaths in West Bengal

{Atanu Chakravarty, an AICCTU leader, recently visited North Bengal tea gardens to probe into the factors responsible for crisis in tea industry and the background of starvation deaths occuring in the region, even as West Bengal Labour Minister threatened to resign over the issue}

O NE: USHA CHHETRI, aged 28, mother of four children. She was a woman worker in Dheklapara Tea Garden of Birpara PS in Dooars (Jalpaiguri). The owners locked out this tea garden on 21 August 2002. She and her family were suffering immensely since then. Usha Chetri was one among the innumerable tea workers rendered jobless by the closure of tea gardens. Unable to carry on, she committed suicide by consuming poison on 3 December 2003. The number of such deaths in Dheklapara tea garden alone has reached a staggering 75.

Two: Mansi Tudu, aged 15, is an orphan now. Both of her parents worked in the Ramjhora tea estate of Jalpaiguri. After closure, her parents died of starvation and malnutrition. She is one among thousands of such adolescents. Now she has started working as a maid in three houses to feed her younger brother. Samir Biswas, health assistant of Ramjhora tea estate, informs that the death of 85 workers has been recorded in his tea estate till November 2003.

On the night of 22 October 2002, lethal epidemic of gastro-enteritis sneaked into Raimatang tea estate of Kalchini block. Ten persons including four children died within 5 days.

These are a few instances from among innumerable, sad, heart-rending episodes in North Bengal, particularly Dooars area. In the whole valley the dance of death has replaced tribal dances to the beatings of madal (adivasi drums). Tea estates of Kanthalguri, Rahimabad, Ramjhora, Mujnai, Dheklapara, Srinathpur, Kohinoor, Dhauajhora, Samsing, Chamurchi, Bamandanga, Tundu, etc. stand closed and abandoned. The supply of potable water, electricity, primary medical facilities – all has been stopped, although as per law the tea garden owners must continue to provide these amenities. People go to the nearby river to fetch water, but it is contaminated with pesticides. In a period of one year, 320 persons have died of gastro-enteritis and other stomach ailments and malaria.

In Kanthalguri tea garden, a total of 500 children have died. Around 200 children are on the verge of blindness owing to vitamin deficiency. According to a report, out of 5000 children suffering from vitamin deficiency in the closed tea gardens, around 2000 will turn completely blind in a few months if the deficiency is not overcome. (Anandabazaar Patrika, 20 November 2002)

The Labour Secretary has submitted a written recommendation to the Labour Minster suggesting a variety of projects to provide employment to and save the lives of thousands of starving people in a number of districts. He has also emphasised providing potable water, food articles, electricity and medical facilities to them. But the State Government is completely indifferent to this problem. More than 40,000 workers are suffering from starvation in the tea gardens. And most of the tea gardens don’t maintain death registers, so the exact number of persons who died is not clear. However, the sensitivity of the “cultured” leader of the “improved” Left Front could not be provoked.

Tea Industry in Crisis

Has the tea industry really fallen victim to a crisis? Is the Indian tea industry suffering due to imported tea in market competition? Has tea production really turned into an non-remunerative business?
Here are some facts which repudiate this hullabaloo of “crisis”.

  1. The British multinational Cadbury Schweppes has recently entered the Indian tea market with a cold tea brand “Snapple”.
  2. Another multinational Hindustan Lever is about to launch “Lipton” brand cold tea in Indian market.
  3. Another multinational giant has decided to come up with Coca Cola instant tea in the market. Hindustan Lever and Tata Tea have prepared to launch tea varieties with different flavours.
  4. Very shortly Amul Tea will also enter the tea industry.
  5. The oldest tea company of the world is Assam Tea Company. The owner of this company of Duncan McNeil Group is Jajodia. They are set to establish hundred odd tea bars in India and innumerable tea bars abroad in the next three years under the camouflaged name of “Camellia”. By now five Camellia tea bars are already doing enormous business in Kolkata. Witnessing this new strategy of these multinationals who are ready to grab the domestic tea market, one can easily understand that tea gardens remain a significant resource to them if they want to reap huge profits.
    But for many years we are hearing lamentations about the tea industry. Since 1999, retail tea prices have increased by 3% annually. Most of the good tea brands have increased their prices. Almost allthe tea produced in the Dooars and Terai region gets sold in the domestic market. It is a callous irony that these very regions have for a number of years been victim of unprecedented crisis and anarchy.
    It is a well-known fact that India was number one among tea exporter countries. From that place it has progressively declined to the fourth place. And Kenya, who started tea production in 1960 has risen to the top.
    According to a Commerce Ministry data, India earned Rs.1800 crore from tea exports in the year 2002, well above Rs.915 crore earned in 1994-95. However, comparison of production and import data of recent years with respect to the year 1999 reveals the opposite picture. Though tea production increased in 2000 and 2001, it fell in 2002. But exports kept on declining. With no control over tea import and progressive decline in the quality of Indian tea, import of tea is increasing and exports are falling.
    Why this decline in production, productivity and export?
    A horde of lumpen, speculator businessmen have gradually usurped the tea gardens. Following jute mill owners, these businessmen take away a part of surplus value generated in tea gardens to park it in extra-economic activities like speculation to reap huge profits in a short time. Thus old and sagging tea plants are not uprooted and new plants are not sown. This results in a fall in production, and the quality too gets degraded to a level where it cannot stand competition. In Boxaduar, Kathalbari, Riyabari, Devpara, Palashbari, Gayerkata, Banarhat – taking Dooras, Terai and Darjeeling region as a whole, 90% of the tea gardens are 80-100 years old. But productivity has come to a standstill because of not sowing new plants.
  • Retrogressive Trend in Restructuring of Tea Production

    In North Bengal there are two types of tea gardens. The first one are old type, known as “set gardens”, where they have a factory, workers' colony and hospital, etc. There are 300 registered tea gardens in North Bengal which have taken land on lease from the forest department for 99 years.

    The second type of tea gardens are new, relatively very small, but numerous, which are mushrooming in the past few decades. These unregistered tea gardens are spread wide over North Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts. They care a fig for plantation legislations, and sell tea leaves produced by poorly paid labour in the wholesale market. This “green tea” is transformed into “made tea” in “bought leaf” factories. Here, producing tea by employing contract labour reduces the cost in comparison to “set gardens”. Instead of registering these gardens, the government has legalised them by giving them “no objection certificates”.

    In this backfrop, there is a retrogressive trend of converting “set gardens” into “bought leaf” factories. It is clear that a large part of labour in the garden would thus become surplus. This labour shrinking, coupled with wage shrinking, has prepared the ground for a pincers-attack on tea-workers.

    A Novel Blueprint for Labour Shrinking

    The platform of tea garden owners in North Bengal, the Consultative Committee of Plantation Association (CCPA) is sending a proposal of employing workers for three-days-a-week from December to February. During this period the workers will get only half their the pay. During this period the only work is to nurture tea plants, which is known as “winter task”. In April or around the first rains, new leaves appear in the plants. That is the peak season, known as production period. This is a new strategy of breaking the pay structure – fragmenting it according to season. Moreover, they have intimated that they will not provide ration to the family members of the workers. And then, for the next five years no vacancies will be filled.

    The Torsa Tea Garden in Doors area reopened on 8 December 2003 following a negotiation held in the presence of the Joint Labour Commissioner of Jalpaiguri, in which the unions (affiliated to CITU, INTUC and UTUC) accepted retrenchment of 400 workers.

    The tea-garden owners claimed that it was not retrenchment, the 400 workers would themselves approach the owners for accepting retirement. The unions shouldered the task of supplying the list of these workers to the owners.

    The management of Raipur Tea Garden put the precondition of 30% retrenchment for reopening the plantation. Not only that, the loss of Rs.3 crore will be equally borne by workers as well as the management. There will be no obligation for arrears of wages or ration. The workers would work for six days a week but receive wages for only three days. The owner will provide only two weeks’ ration instead of four weeks. As regards arrears of bonus, new rates will be decided through negotiations. On acceptance of these conditions, the plantation reopened on 5 December 2003.

    The owners of Dheklapara, Kathalguri and Dalsinghpara have proposed to retrench 200, 738 and 328 workers respectively. Kohinoor Tea Garden in Dooars has also reopened on similar preconditions. Instead of checking this retrogression, the ‘Reformed’ LF Government is mediating such negotiations.

    The Labour Secretary has informed that presently 19 tea gardens are closed and 28,000 workers are jobless (Anandabazaar Patrika, 15 January 2004). However, workers of only four tea gardens in Darjeeling were getting an allowance of Rs.500 workers each. Only recently the state government has decided to pay the allowance to around 5600 workers of six closed tea gardens in Dooars area. This too after a number of them died of hunger!

    All this will soon give rise to massive workers’ protests. The explosive situation that was witnessed in Dalgaon Tea Garden centring the issue of recruitment will some day recur in Torsa and other tea gardens. Presuming this the Chief Minister came out openly in support of the tea garden owners when he cautioned the leaders during his meet with 17 trade unions: “Not to speak of bandh or strike, even staging gherao and protest in the tea gardens every now and then will complicate the situation. That will not be tolerated. Stern measures will be taken against such activities”.