April 27, 2018 marked nine years of the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) — part of the World Bank Group — investment in one of India’s largest tea producers, Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL). The company has 25 tea plantations in Assam and West Bengal, with the Tata Group as its major stakeholder (41 per cent by Tata Global Beverages and 25 per cent by Tata Investment Corporation) while the bank owns 16 per cent.
Two local Adivasi rights groups in Assam chose the same day to send an official complaint to the World Bank Group’s independent complaint office, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) to bring to notice the increase in deaths and injuries in three tea plantations (Hattigor, Majuli, and Nahorani) of Assam in the past nine years.
The letter cites incidents such as this one: “On March 19, 2016, a worker died in the Hattigor tea plantation hospital at the age of 40. He had been a pesticide sprayer for many years and had tuberculosis, which was known to the Hattigor plantation hospital. According to his family, he was riding his bicycle while carrying pesticide cans one day, when he became dizzy, and fell to the ground, injuring his head and neck. His family took him to a local hospital, called Mangaldai Hospital, where blood tests were conducted on 17 March 2016, but little done by the way of effective treatment. He was brought back to the Hattigor tea estate and died two days later in the Hattigor garden hospital.”
Six deaths in three plantations have been recorded from 2012 to 2018 after the complainants interviewed workers from the three plantations (Hattigor, Majuli, and Nahorani). “We hear stories of tea workers – often young women and men – and their children, who have died following work-related accidents, prolonged exposure to hazardous pesticides, and a lack of adequate medical care,” said Wilfred Topno, Secretary, People’s Action for Development (PAD), who filed the complaint along with Promotion and Advancement of Justice, Harmony and Rights of Adivasis (PAJHRA). The letter also highlights other areas of concern: poor sanitation and housing, pesticide exposure, and low wages.
The first complaint about the conditions in the APPL-run plantations to the CAO was filed in February 2013. In November, 2016, the CAO released its findings — and in response, the IFC formulated an action plan based on its 2014 audit by independent NGO Solidaridad. As part of this plan called Project Unnati, the body has set certain goals to improve the living and working conditions of the workers by 2017. The complainants, however, feel that none of the promises have been met.
“The World Bank has utterly failed to exercise its leverage to address the CAO’s damning findings,” said Anirudha Nagar, South Asia Director of Accountability Counsel, a supporting organisation. “While APPL management lines their pockets, the Bank should be providing funding and ensuring budgets are appropriately directed towards the health and safety of workers in the face of preventable deaths. The Bank is not being the honest, neutral broker it holds itself out to be.”
When The Indian Express reached out to Aaron Rosenberg, Head of Public Affairs, IFC, he said in an email response: “Any loss of life is tragic and our sympathies go out to those who lost beloved family members. We are looking into the circumstances surrounding these deaths. In addition to other measures in its environmental and social action plan agreed with IFC, APPL is implementing specific, time bound measures to reduce the risks of pesticides to worker health, including reductions in the use of dangerous chemicals, provision of protective clothing and gear, limits to how long workers can work with pesticides before rotating out and safety training and upgrading medical facilities.”
A spokesperson from Tata Global Beverages replied to The Indian Express via email saying, “We had commissioned an independent third party Solidaridad to make an assessment into the living and working conditions of the workers at the APPL plantations in 2014. Based on a detailed assessment of action areas, requirements and corresponding resources, APPL is now pursuing a phased Action Plan to improve living and working conditions at their plantations.”
According to a report by Accountability Counsel, APPL’s 21 tea plantations in Assam have more than 155,000 people living and working there. Eighty percent of the workforce in these plantations are women.