The tea tribe community accounts for 17 per cent of Assam’s population. It is economically backward and most tea workers live in quarters next to tea gardens in poor health conditions.
Till Friday, 69 tea workers have tested positive for Covid-19 — one has died, 26 have recovered and 42 are under treatment. Officials say a large-scale transmission in tea gardens could become a major challenge for the administration.
In a letter dated July 28, state Labour Commissioner Ghanshyam Dass wrote to assistant labour commissioners and labour inspectors, “If due to any reason there is community spread of Covid-19 in the labour lines [residential quarters of the workers next to the gardens] it will lead to a major catastrophe as the present medical facility available is not sufficient to cater to a pandemic situation in the present day scenario. Thus this might lead to high mortality.”
“So all officers are directed to do the needful in coordination with the district administration and convince the tea garden management and unions to carry out testing drive of the tea garden workers as soon as possible, so that if there is any infection it may be contained at the earliest,” the letter stated.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Dass said the tea workers’ community was vulnerable, but stressed that the situation is currently under control. “We are keeping a close watch and coordinating with the health department and district administrations,” he said.
Pallav Gopal Jha, DC of Dibrugarh, which has many tea gardens, said the administration is conducting rigorous contact tracing in the gardens through ASHA workers. “All persons with symptoms of Severe Acute Respiratory Infection, Influenza-like Illness or fever are being tested,” he said.
Jha said the positivity rate within the tea workers’ community is currently low.
Gonsu Gosain, the president of a labour union of a tea estate in Golaghat district, said, “Yes, there is fear but work is going on in keeping with strict hygiene norms. We are maintaining one-metre distance between workers, washing hands frequently and constantly wearing masks.” Although there are no cases yet in the garden he works at, Gosain said, “We have to be careful in our residential quarters. There are no cases in our garden, but there is fear.”
Golaghat DC Bibhash Chandra Modi said, “Till now, there are hardly any cases in tea gardens in this district. We have held meetings with garden managers and sought cooperation from various unions. Everyone is cooperating. We have disallowed entry of any unknown person in the gardens and labour lines.”
The DC said he has started a WhatsApp group on which representatives of gardens in the district post photos and videos of daily sanitisation and physical distancing during work.
Lakshmanan S, Assam’s Mission Director of the National Health Mission, said there was nothing to be especially worried about tea workers as the government is taking all precautionary steps in industries where people work in close contact. “A tea garden is an open space and the risk is less. The state government had given clear guidelines on how to work in tea gardens months back,” Lakshmanan said.
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