Shankar Deheri, 45, and wife Surji, residents of Hathkhola village in north Bengal’s Alipurduar district, were forced to skip lunch on Monday, as there was no rice or flour at home. Luckily, their three children will get food – at the local anganwadi centre, Surji said.
Until recently, Shankar worked at Mujnai tea garden in Madarihat, about 55 km from Alipurduar town. The tea garden closed on December 2018, leaving all workers jobless. Deheri now works as a labourer in a stone quarry, earning Rs 100 for breaking a five-by-five-foot stone of one foot height. He gets work twice or thrice a week.
Eighteen kilometres away, at Dalmore tea gardens in Birpara, Gopal Tamang, 50, works as electrician in the garden, earning Rs 6,000 per month, and still waits for his wife, Binu. In 2011, when the garden closed, Binu was lured by a tout with promise of a job in Saudi Arabia. Gopal said they initially spoke over the phone. “But then she just disappeared,” he added.
His son and daughter-in-law work as labourers in Kerala.
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As Alipurduar goes to the polls on April 11, the two families, it can be broadly said, represent the raging issues of this area: the miserable condition of workers of closed tea gardens, migration in search of work, and trafficking of women.
With six out of 66 tea gardens in Alipurduar having closed down, the retrenchment has sparked migration and trafficking in the area, NGO officials working on the field said.
Locals said most young men go to different parts of the country, especially to Kerala and Delhi. Girls and women are lured by touts and trafficked to different cities, and even abroad, they said.
The issue of closed tea gardens, and out-of-job workers, have been raised by both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee in campaign speeches. And each has blamed the other – while Modi has called Banerjee a “speed breaker” in way of welfare in the tea gardens, the latter has accused the Centre of not doing anything despite its tall promises.
On ground, both Dasrath Tirkey, the sitting MP of Trinamool Congress (TMC), and BJP’s John Barla, expected to give him tough competition in the polls, give equal weightage to these issues.
The RSP has nominated Mili Orao, and Congress candidate for the seat is Mohanlal Basumata.
Tirkey, a three-time RSP MLA from Kumargram, joined TMC in 2014 and won the Lok Sabha seat that year, defeating RSP’s Manohar Tirkey by 21,397 votes and ending the Left party’s continuous victory run on the seat since 1977.
BJP’s Birendra Baran Oraon got 3,35,857 votes and a share of 27.30 per cent – against Dasrath’s 29.46 per cent and Manohar’s 27.72 per cent.
Barla, once a leader of tribal welfare outfit ‘Adivasi Bikas Parishad’, is trying to pool in voters from tribal and Nepali-speaking communities, and has received a shot in the arm with Bimal Gurung faction of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), popular among Nepali-speaking people, having extended support.
The TMC is banking on CM Banerjee, who has held five public meetings in the constituency.
Trinamool leaders show work done by Banerjee’s government – in 2014, the state government made Alipurduar, until then a sub-division of Jalpaiguri, a separate district with projects such as a university, medical college and an engineering college coming up.
But local residents say neither the Centre nor the state has addressed the situation of the tea gardens, and those work, or worked, in them.
Dasrath Tirkey told The Indian Express, “The situation was inhuman under the Left Front administration – there were regular deaths due to hunger in closed tea gardens. We have tried to open the gardens. One reopened this Sunday. Since forming the government (in 2011), Mamata Banerjee has raised daily wages from Rs 67 to Rs 176. Among other help, we give workers rice and flour at Rs 2 per kg, free admission in schools for their children.”
However, he added, “connectivity needs to be developed between tea gardens and the main roads”.
While Tirkey called Barla a “turncoat” for having “betrayed adivasis and joined hands with Gurung”, the BJP candidate accused the state government for the miserable condition of tea garden workers. “They (workers) are exploited by owners and contractors. They get only Rs 176, and we demand minimum wages. In some gardens, workers are paid even less,” Barla said.
Gopal Pradhan, president of Dooars Cha Bagan Workers Union, affiliated to RSP, meanwhile, said the “primary demand” now is minimum wages and land deeds for tea garden workers. “The state government has failed to address these issues,” he said.
Gita Das, an ASHA worker in Hathkhola village, most women and children in the area suffer from malnutrition and low hemoglobin due to lack of proper food. “This makes them easy prey to diseases,” she said.
Partha Pratim Sarkar, director of ‘Godhulibazar North East Samiti for Empowerment of the People’, an NGO working for tea garden workers for the last 10 years, said, “Universities, medical colleges and other development initiatives are meaningless for tea garden workers who do not get food every day. They cannot afford to go to hospitals. Migration for work and trafficking have become a reality – girls are sold to brothels, and youths often end up as bonded labour.”