Starvation deaths in the tea gardens of north Bengal are back to haunt the state government with three workers succumbing in the last five days, officials said Saturday. The deaths — the government attributed it to “malnutrition” — have been reported from the closed Raipur tea garden on the outskirts of Jalpaiguri district.
“While two of the victims are women, the third, 42-year-old Jeet Bahan Munda is a male. Munda died late on Friday,” SDO Jalpaiguri Seema Halder said.
Halder, who was sent to the tea estate by District Magistrate Pritha Sarkar, to assess the situation and submit a report, said the district administration has provided money to Munda’s family to perform last rites after they expressed inability to do so because of poverty.
According to sources, one of the three “malnutrition” victims was suffering from TB for a long time. A PTI report put the number of deaths at the closed tea garden at six. However, it could not be confirmed whether the other victims — another woman and two infants —- had died of starvation or malnutrition.
The state government has deputed North Bengal Development Minister Gautam Deb to inspect the closed tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district, while DM Pritha Sarkar has been instructed to prepare a list of the closed and sick tea estates.
In a letter to the state government, former MLA and UTUC leader Nirmal Das has said that seven tea gardens are lying closed and labourers have been severely affected by malnutrition. He has appealed to the government to take remedial measures and provide relief to them.
Labour Minister Purnendu Bose confirmed the three “malnutrition” deaths in the Raipur tea garden. “The tea garden is closed for quite a time. The tea labourers do not get proper food and that is why they suffer from the diseases caused by malnutrition. We are looking into the matter,” Bose told reporters in Kolkata.
His cabinet colleague Food Minister Jyotipriya Mallick, however, blamed the tea labourers’ refusal to come out of the estate for medical treatment for the deaths. “Even if the government makes all the arrangements for the treatment of the sick tea garden workers, they do not come out of the tea estate. That is why they suffer from serious diseases and succumb to them,” Mallick said.
The tea workers, however, claim that despite promises and assurances made by various governments, including the present one, they hardly ever get any help. They also accused the state government of doing precious little for the closed tea gardens, including the Raipur estate.
Most of the 640 workers of the 826-acre estate that has been lying closed since September 2013 —- it had earlier remained locked out from 2003 to 2009 —- earn a living selling green tea leaves or as daily wage labourers, if they get any work, under the MGNREGA schemes. At least 200 workers have migrated to other states as labourers.
Significantly, the tea gardens had earlier too witnessed starvation deaths. At least 14 such deaths have been reported from the closed Bundapani tea estate on the foothills of the Himalayas in last one year, said Ghyan Prakash Thapa, general secretary of the coordination committee of the Bundapani Trade Union.