A state minister has claimed that continued “delay” in wage payments to tea plantation workers in North Bengal could lead to starvation.
Speaking at a series of agitations that the TMC held in the region on Tuesday, north Bengal development minister Goutam Deb said, “Since most don’t have bank accounts, they will face problems in withdrawing wages from banks. The nearest banks are located around 10-15 km away. They will lose a day’s wages if they go to banks to withdraw their cash. These poor people have no alternative source of income and ultimately it will lead to starvation of the tea workers,” he said.
The spectre of starvation has been a constant companion for tea garden workers in north Bengal, which, according to some reports, recorded 1,200 hunger deaths after tea estates began shutting shop from 2002 to 2007 – a claim contested by the TMC government.
Officials admitted that the continuing cash crisis could have devastating consequences for the vulnerable tea estate workers.
Deb added, “We are trying to tackle the situation through the Food Security Act. We will talk to the administration whether rations can be arranged on credit for tea workers and likewise.”
“We are poor people,” said Mithun Lohan, a tea garden worker at Dhumchipara. “I don’t think the government realises how poor we are. We get rice at Rs 2 per kg from the state. But even then it is difficult for us to ensure that we’ve enough money to buy food for our family. If we miss a day’s work to go to an ATM or a bank that means a loss of Rs 120 for me. I can’t afford that.” Following demonetisation, the RBI has asked tea plantations to open bank accounts for workers.
Salaries have always been paid in cash in tea gardens. But on Sunday, banks set up camps at tea gardens and saw hundreds of bank accounts being opened in the first few days. But like Amita Tanti, another worker, explained there were reasons why many had consciously avoided banks.
“We know our money will be safer in a bank. But there are no ATMs here. We have to spend on travelling at least 10 kms to go to the nearest bank that works. Our problem wasn’t that we were getting paid in cash. But that tea gardens, without warning, would shut and not pay wages,” she said.
Last year, reports of deaths of tea garden workers due to starvation rocked the government, prompting CM Mamata Banerjee to announce relief packages despite her government contesting the claim.