TWO TEA garden labourers allegedly died due to starvation in Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts, even as the administration maintained that the deaths were caused by prolonged illness.
This comes days after an international fact-finding mission of the Global Network for the Right to Food had visited tea gardens in North Bengal and in Assam last week. The team had found “high levels of malnutrition and human rights violations” among the workers not only in the closed tea gardens of North Bengal but also in Assam. The team had subsequently met finance minister Amit Mitra and labour minister Moloy Ghatak, the latter of whom is said to have told the body that the state government’s “hands are tied” in the matter as labour laws governing the tea gardens “fall under the purview of the Centre”.
The two deaths, reported in a span of two days, therefore, appear to validate the team’s finding, although the district administration denied starvation as the cause behind the deaths.
RSP-affiliated UTUC leader Nirmal Das said a woman tea labourer, Budhni Oraon (37), died of starvation on Thursday after not getting wages for nine months by the tea garden in Birpara area (Alipurduar), which had been facing stalemate for several months. Oraon’s family, too, claimed she was ailing as they were not getting any ration.
A district official, while confirming the death, however said the woman died due to ‘natural ailment’ and that her family was “not starving” since the said tea garden was still functioning.
In another incident, a labourer, Mahabir Mahali, who was employed at a tea garden in Jalpaiguri’s Banarhat area, now closed, died Wednesday. On this, too, the administration and the family held different claims, with the former rejecting assertions made by the secretary of Joint Forum of Tea Garden Labourers, Chitto Dey, who cited “acute financial stress due to closure of the tea garden” as a factor contributing to the death.
These deaths come close on the heels of the death of two labourers last month. Then, too, the administration had maintained these deaths were in “no way starvation-related”, with officials asserting that the workers were “regularly being supplied rice at Rs 2 per kg”.
The state government had last month announced a package of Rs 100 crore for all tea gardens in North Bengal to cover facilities such as the provision of electricity, water, schools and medical treatment.
The last week’s “finding” by the international body, though, claims little was being done.
Flavio Valente of FIAN International said the situation in the tea gardens, and especially the closed ones, was “very serious” and needed to be investigated further. “We found a serious violation of human rights including right to access to water, health, education, decent wages apart from right to food being flouted. What we saw was not isolated to a few people but the entire tea garden workers’ population is under threat of serious malnutrition. We found child labour and forced migration increasing in the various gardens we visited. In one of the gardens, out of the 1700 families, 700 women had already left for elsewhere in search of alternate occupation,” Valente said at a press conference Thursday.
Anuradha Talwar of the body said that while the Supreme Court had issued clear directives in 2004 regarding closed tea gardens, these were not being implemented. “Every day some death or the other is being reported. What is preventing the government to bring its own law?” asked Talwar.
In its recommendations to the state , the team has said the tea garden workers must be consulted on schemes that involve them, their rights to organise be protected, union leaders be protected from harassment by the management and urgent action be taken to protect their human rights. The team had visited five tea gardens in North Bengal.
[With PTI inputs]