In June 2015, as part of research for a dissertation on the Plantation Labour Act of 1951, I visited the Dooars region of northern West Bengal, where many tea plantations are located. After China, India is the second largest producer of tea in the world. According to the 2014-15 report of the national tea board, India produces 23 percent of the global share of tea, of which 78 percent is produced in Assam and West Bengal.
But behind the production of this popular beverage a humanitarian crisis is unfolding. Over the past two decades, owing to various economic factors such as overproduction, fluctuating global prices for tea and increased competition from other countries, many tea plantations and estates have been abandoned or shut down. This has left plantation workers—already some of the lowest paid labourers in the organised industry sector—without regular sources of income, and at serious risk of starvation and malnutrition. A 2005 International Labour Organisation Report stated that more than 150 tea gardens had closed across the country, affecting more than 1 lakh workers. The report also said that though the centre had enough powers to effect relief under the Tea Act of 1953, the tea board continued to “look at the plantation crisis purely on a marketing end,” and “failed to fulfill” its role. A 2012 state-government survey of the 273 tea estates in West Bengal found that, since 2002, more than 1,000 people had died due to starvation. According to a 2005 nutritional study conducted by the West Bengal Agriculture Worker’s Association, more than 75 percent of the children living on the plantations are malnourished. The study also found that, according to the World Health Organisation criteria for body-mass index, the four open gardens it surveyed in Dooars all classified as “starving communities.”
But this is not all. Though the Plantation Labour Act of 1951, under which most tea estates are established, guarantees wages, housing and medical care, they are rarely made available. The plantation workers live in close quarters and in unhygienic conditions, making them susceptible to various diseases. The 2012 state survey found hospitals in only 166 of West Bengal’s 273 plantations, of which only 56 had full-time doctors available. But once the plantations are abandoned, the access to medical care also disappears.
Issues such as illiteracy, alcoholism, forced migration and trafficking are common. An activist working with Shakti Vahini, an anti-trafficking NGO, told The Hindu that in the first ten months of 2015, about 2800 victims of trafficking from West Bengal were rescued from various parts of the country, and that the tea gardens were the most vulnerable regions for trafficking. There are hardly any employment opportunities, except irregular jobs such as collecting stones and cutting wood. The rural employment scheme is being implemented, but there is little work, and the scheme’s payments are often late. Male members of many families have begun moving to other states to look for work. Ramesh Minj, a ward member of the Bandapani panchayat in the region, said he felt he could sense the melancholy in the tea gardens. “With every dying plantation worker,” he said, “The gardens too are dying a slow death.”