The study, by Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury and her team, has brought to the fore starvation deaths, cases of workers being mauled by wild animals, trafficking of abandoned widows and children, increasing suicides and smuggling of contraband and burglary. Welfare schemes, the public distribution system and basic amenities, like safe drinking water, healthcare, primary education and electricity are practically non-existent in the remote areas, says the report.
Chaudhury, who is also national convenor of Save the Garden, Save Workers Initiative for Plantation Workers, says, We hear that the Union commerce ministry has planned a Rs 4,600-crore package for revival of sick and closed tea gardens. We want to ask how much of this corpus would be for the workers"
According to a recent report submitted by the Jalpaiguri district magistrate, 14 tea gardens, namely, Raipur, Shikarpur-Bhandarpur, Kathalguri, Chamurchi, Red Bank, Surendra Nagar, Samsing, Bamandanga & Tandu, Ramjhora, Dheklapara, Chinchula, Raimatang, Kalchini and Bhamobari have been closed. The land lease order for Kathalguri, Ramjhora and Chamurchi have been cancelled and for others the release order has not been renewed.
The closure has left the workers in the lurch as "there is no alternative source for employment and food security. In the last 15 months, 572 deaths have been recorded in Ramjhora and Kathalguri in Jalpaiguri district and 280 young girls were missing", says the report.
The situation in Darjeeling district tea gardens is slightly better. Here the Gorkha Council leader, Subhas Ghising, has said that gardens should be kept operating and workers should not agitate. "Of course, there are cases of under-payment and delayed payment of wages," says Chaudhury.
The study, entitled The Tragedy of Tea: Starvation Deaths and Disasters Stalk Lives of Tea Garden Workers in West Bengal, was carried out by a team that included member of Parliament, Krishna Tirath, former chairperson of National Commission for Women, V Mohini Giri, member of Planning Commission, Sayeda Hameed, chairperson of Centre for Law and Governance in Jawarharlal Nehru University, Amita Singh, member of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, chairperson of Women's Resource and Advocacy Centre, Ram Rajput, president, Rashtriya Shramik Congress, Sukhbir Singh and eminent journalist, Usha Rai.
The team conducted several public hearings in Jalpaiguri district.