THE wee hours of last Saturday morning saw the death of Malu Paik, a 42 years old permanent worker of Dhumchipara tea garden near Madarihat in Dooars.
Despite affirming the cause of death as cerebral attack, the block development officer (BDO) denies to credit the death to perpetual starvation.
The deceased’s elder son confirms that their family went without food for the past couple of days as nothing was left from the government dole of 5 kg rice distributed to them the previous week. For the past several days the family survived only on water. Even jungle tubers and tea flowers were scarce.
Malu’s wife Gita and the other son Dipraj had already left for Delhi in search of menial jobs. To get two ends meet, Malu sold off his bicycle and utensils, but sustainability eluded him as he had to kiss the dust. Yet Malu is not an exception.
Since April this year, as many as 13 emaciated workmen of the same Dhumchipara died of ailments caused by the prolonged stint of starvation.
At Bagrakote tea garden near Malbazar, perpetual hunger caused by corporate plunders claimed the lives of the workmen Ranju Kharia, Sushila Oraon, Parvati Lohar, Madhumaya Kami, Padamlal Bhujel, Mukti Santhal, Etowa Oraon, Kanchhi Rokeni, Satish Khadkar, Rajen Pradhan and Ratni Goala. This is since September this year.
Dhumchipara and Bagraote are two of the 16 gardens owned by the largest corporate house in Bengal tea sector, namely Duncans Industries Limited.
The other gardens under the same management are Rangli-Rangliot, Marybong in Darjeeling hills; Nagaisuree, Killcott, Tulsipara, Lankapara, Hantapara, Birpara, Garganda, Dimdima and Madarihat Land Project in Dooars, and Goaligachh and Patagora in North Dinajpur district.
These gardens, with over 29,000 permanent workforce and their dependents, have neither been abandoned, nor declared closed, yet left completely non-functioning by the formidable tycoon G P Goenka. Presently, Goenka’s claim to infamy has been to siphon off the entire capital and huge profit from tea to the company’s sugar and fertiliser industries in Uttar Pradesh.
Apart from depriving the workmen of their wage, bonus, subsidised ration, fuel, medical facilities, this unscrupulous management is also accused of defalcation of about Rs 18 crore towards the workers’ provident fund and gratuity dues.
To top it all, the same management had also hoodwinked several front line banks by borrowing money to the tune of crores of rupees in the past 4-5 years.
But the Goenkas remain immune to punitive actions like incarceration and property confiscation by the state government as they are pretty much counted among the privileged few corporate houses having close liaison with power that be.
And most of their tea gardens have been grounded to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction, invariably to delay the payments of all dues.
The famished permanent workers cannot even claim the Rs 1,500 per month government aid under the Financial Assistance to the Workers of Locked Out Industries (FAWLOI) scheme as the gardens have not yet been declared closed by the company.
Despite repeated persuasion by the recognised trade unions, Duncans management remained callous and spiteful. During the first official parleys, it even turned down the demand for part payments of the fortnight wages to the dying multitude.
Similar bleak reality prevails at Dheklapara, Bandapani, Madhu, Red Bank, Surendra Nagar, Dalmore, Rington, Kanthalguri tea gardens. All of these gardens are lying either abandoned or locked out by speculator-owners for years together. Lower Fagu, Sree Dwarika, Kohinoor and Panighata tea gardens have been declared closed in the recent past.
The lure to migrate out to places offering “better” job opportunities in search of subsistence wages has resulted in rampant activities of embedded traffickers.
Minor girls, aged between 10-17 years, are being whisked away to faraway places like Delhi, Bangalore or even to the Middle-East countries and sold into slavery, getting abused and raped as has been the fate of Bijita Ekka (15) of the closed Bandapani tea garden near Birpara.
Even at the functional tea gardens, the present oppressive wage structure and living conditions of the toiling workers, and the absence of alternative livelihood, have resulted in widespread distress, including the creation of famine conditions in the closed tea gardens.
In this context, in July 2014, five non-profit organisations of North Bengal under the stewardship of Dr Binayak Sen had undertaken a preliminary survey among the workers of then closed Raipur tea Garden near Jalpaiguri town, which had reported death of six persons prior to the visit.
The survey revealed an alarming proportion of people living with a low Body Mass Index, to the extent that the international criteria for the existence of famine could be said to prevail among the affected communities. The findings of repeat BMI census of the same garden as early as February 2015 remained particularly shocking.
Of 1,272 workers surveyed, 539 (42 per cent) had BMI value of less than 18.5. This is well above the 40 per cent critical value of a particular population, which is the baseline to bring a community within the category of famine affected.
Similar surveys conducted at Dheklapara, Red Bank, Bandapani, Diana, Kanthalguri tea gardens found communities whose sources of food and nutrition are seriously compromised, children that are unable to attend school, and communities with no access to health care. The only access to alternative livelihood is paltry sums of money earned by manual crushing of stones on the riverbed.
Come bleak winter and more deaths due to sheer hunger would continue to occur. Perhaps, a far more consolidated social movement, modeled on the recent vibrant wave of protest by women tea workers in Kerala’s Munnar, may achieve a dignified living condition of the famished tea workers in northern Bengal.
Corporate plunders are legion. Whither the voices of conscientious citizenry?
(Abhijit Mazumdar is working president of the AICCTU affiliated Terai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union. He lives in Siliguri.)
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