Updated: May 8, 2021 8:36:51 pm
At least 500 workers across 90 tea gardens in Assam have tested positive for Covid-19 in the second wave of the pandemic, authorities said. While many gardens have reported sporadic cases, officials said that it was a worrying trend, with nearly 200 workers testing positive in an Upper Assam tea garden earlier this week.
On Thursday, 193 workers, including their family members as well as some members of the management, tested positive in Dibrugarh district’s Zaloni tea estate. Nearby in Maijan tea estate, another 66 tested positive. On Thursday, 46 people in Biswanath district’s Pratapgarh tea estate (Nilpur division) tested positive, as did another 50 in Golaghat district’s Borsapori tea estate. All four gardens have been made into containment zones now, with work suspended in both Zaloni and Nilpur.
“We are monitoring the situation,” said JB Ekka, Principal Secretary, Labour Welfare and Tea Tribes Welfare departments.
There are about 800 tea gardens in Assam and large-scale Covid spread was flagged up as a cause of concern in 2020. In a letter dated July 28, 2020, former 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.”
“While the most cases have been reported in Dibrugarh district, the others have reported sporadic cases but that is worrying too, since there is a possibility it may spread,” said Ekka. However, he added that the authorities were taking focused steps to tackle the situation, including testing, contact tracing and mass vaccination drives.
The tea tribe community — brought to Assam by the British from states like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal in the 1850s— accounts for 17 per cent of the state’s population. The community is marred by economic backwardness, low literacy, with most tea workers living in cramped quarters called “labour lines” next to tea plantations. The residents are known to have poor health parameters, including high maternal and infant mortality rates as well as rampant hypertension.
“It is a worrying trend especially because the workers’ immunity is not good considering health parameters,” said Pallav Jha, DC, Dibrugarh district, which has 177 tea gardens. “But luckily most cases have been found to be asymptomatic, so it is under control.” Jha said both Zaloni and Maijan were medium-sized gardens and the positivity rate was 20 per cent when they tested. Those who have tested positive are now being kept in staff quarters within the garden — but as cases increased, some have been taken to government health facilities.
Vaccination drives in coordination with the district administrations have started but slowly. “Vaccines are not available to the extent we want,” said Ekka.
According Apurba Sharma, Medical Inspector of Plantations, in-charge of Dibrugarh, Sivasgar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, gardens are usually isolated from the surrounding areas, apart from one day in the week when the workers go to the haats (weekly markets). “Last time, because of a complete lockdown there was no movement and possibly why community spread did not happen,” he said, “This time there has been movement. In fact, there were three back-to-back markets organised last week. Moreover, younger family members nowadays go to nearby towns or small tea garden factories to work during the day. It is possible they bring back the infection in the evenings.” He added that the Standard-Operating Procedures (SOPs) which were drafted last year for tea gardens are now being followed strictly again. “Between the first and second wave it had become lax,” he said.
On Friday, the Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (ATTSA), in a press release expressed their concerns about the spread and made a series of demands for the tea garden community including instituting Covid Care Centres with oxygen support in each garden, vaccinations for workers and families, N-95 masks distribution, among others.
“It is impossible to isolate in the labour lines. A quarter meant for one family measures eight by eight feet — how is it possible to quarantine like that?” said Dhiraj Gowala, President, AATSA. “We demand that each garden get a quarantine facility, or at least there should be one facility for a bunch small gardens,” he added.