The Plight of the Tea Plantation Workers of Dooars

Tea plantation workers of Bandapani have started spraying pesticides and pruning the tea bushes to save the closed garden from going wild. Ashutosh Shaktan
Tea plantation workers of Bandapani have started spraying pesticides and pruning the tea bushes to save the closed garden from going wild. Ashutosh Shaktan
24 June, 2016

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.”

Tea plantation workers of Bandapani have started spraying pesticides and pruning the tea bushes to save the closed garden from going wild.
Workers from the Birpara tea gardens, which is closed, on their way back from the Ganderpara tea garden. When a tea garden closes, some of its workers take up work as casual labourers—without the benefits of permanent employment, such as fixed wages and medical care—at nearby plantations.
Birsa Oraon, a tea worker, sits in his house in Birpara tea garden, waiting for his son to return home. Oraon has a swollen face and eyes, and suffers from severe malnutrition. The only medicine in his house is cofdex, a cough syrup.
Many workers of closed tea gardens take up irregular work as wood-cutters or stone collectors. These workers are loading stones—rocks known as dolomite—into a truck, close to the Indo-Bhutan border.
Some unemployed workers from the Bandapani tea garden carrying wood collected from the nearby forest to sell in the Birpara market. During the rains, the rivers in the area come to life due to flash floods, making them near impossible to cross after a heavy rainfall.
A drunk tea worker in bandapani tea garden. The unemployment resulting from the closure of the tea gardens has led to surge of alcoholism in the region. Unable to afford the market brands, the workers drink a cheaper, locally brewed drink called “hadiya.”
Workers of Bandapani tea garden burn bicycle tyres to chase away an elephant from their village. Many of the tea plantations in Dooars are located in human-elephant conflict zones: elephants inhabiting the region often raze the plantations in search for food. Every year, between five to ten lives are lost in elephant raids.
The body of Arvind Rai, a tea worker, resting in his house in Bandapani. Rai had a nervous breakdown. In the wake of the plantation closures, deaths have become common s in fixtures in the region.