Tea workers--distressed in the organized industry in North Bengal.

AuthorSen, Ratna
PositionStatistical data

Introduction

The distress of tea workers ranges from subsistence wages and various deprivations to death from malnutrition and starvation. Ironically tea workers get wages through tripartite collective bargaining and various benefits under plantation legislation. Reports of about 100 starvation deaths since January 2014 in the tea gardens in the Dooars, North Bengal (plains lapping the Himalayan foothills) appeared in newspapers (TOI, 7 July 2014; Gupta &Bhattacharya, 29th July 2014). A decline in tea production during October 2013 and in 2014 due to drought was noted in Assam and West Bengal (Tea board, Jan 2013; Indian Tea Association Press Release, 26, 04, 14). The issue was serious enough to be raised in Parliament [TOI, 5th August, 2014: 8), claiming 1000 starvation deaths since 2002, with media claiming closure of 28 gardens (TOI, 12/8/14).The Supreme Court appointed Special Commissioner on Right to Food, also commented on the deaths when he visited Bengal on 5th August (TOI, 6th August 2014). But do workers of other organized industries die if there are some closures or production decline?

The tea industry is one of the oldest in India (first garden established in 1839) and has some problems of obsolescence and low productivity. Many employers claim non-viability. But total production of tea in India has increased from 874 million kgs in 1998 to 1200 million kgs in 2013, domestic consumption from 650 million Kgs to 926 million kgs., and average auction prices from Rs 77 to Rs 128, according to the Indian Tea Association. The emergence of thousands of small growers in North and South India also vouch for a growing market. Working and living conditions and benefits for workers in tea plantations are governed mainly by the Plantation Labor Act, 1951 (PLA), under which, tea workers are entitled housing and house maintenance, drinking water, sanitation, canteen (replaced by subsidized food grains/ rations), medical facilities and maternity leave, weekly off, paid annual leave, creche, welfare officer, recreation and educational facilities.

There is disagreement over how many gardens are closed or sick (6 and 30-40, according to union leaders). The Tea Board was not unduly concerned, the Chairman remarking that "thousands, such deaths may occur"(TOI, 26th July 2014: 17). Interestingly, the welfare programs and schemes of the Tea Board (Tea Board Report, Labor Welfare: 61), do not address issues of sickness, closure, worker distress or starvation, although Rs 3.34 crores on account of defaulted dues of employers have been written off. There is controversy on the cause of deaths as well. While several NGOs, working in the area and the media term them as 'hunger deaths', the administration, over several years and even some trade unions, deny starvation. However, all admit that poor diet and malnutrition are chronic, leading to anemia, TB, diarrhea, dengue and malaria (TOI, 1 August 2014: 7). Not surprisingly, there have been several violent incidents, with workers venting their frustration on management. For instance, in March 2014, the Assistant Manager, Dalmore TE (Birpara) was hacked to death and on 22 November 2014, the owner of Sonali TE was killed (Telegraph, 23/11/14: 1).

After these reports, the Government of West Bengal decided to extend MGNREGA to closed gardens, give rice and wheat at Rs 2 per kg, under the Antodyay Scheme and pay Rs 1500 monthly under the FAWLOI (Financial Assistance to Workers in Locked Out Industrial Units) scheme (TOI 17 Jul 2014, 18:11 IST). But the payments have been neither universal nor regular.

Worker deaths are not confined to the last two years. Talwar (2005: 7) writes that the Dooars crisis started during 2002-04, when 22 plantations closed down, and in response to a writ petition, the Supreme Court appointed Commissioners to suggest relief measures. The then state government made special efforts to revive the gardens or find new employers, or to form Operating and Management Committees (OMCs) with members from all operating unions, for plucking and sale of green leaf, maintenance and payment of wages, as well as provide monthly payments from FAWLOI. As a result, 18 gardens were reopened by September 2005 (Talwar, 2005: 9). However many workers suffered severely. In one garden, a worker of 42 years had a body weight of 29 kgs., and 48 other families were in similar condition (Talwar, 2005:20).

The role of the Government (State and Centre) in this continuing crisis has been inadequate. For instance, action to recover the huge dues of workers has been almost absent, with just a single case for recovery of PF. Schemes for alternative employment provided a maximum 6 days per month. The OMCs generally functioned only during the plucking season and many workers did not receive minimum wages (Talwar, 2005: 22).During 2013-14, the attitude was more lackadaisical, with ministers rushing to the gardens only after newspaper reports and United Tea Workers Federation (UTWF) commenting, "the administration simply has no idea of what is going on" (TOI, 29th July 2014).

This study is based on field visits in November 2014, which found 5 gardens closed and several others sick, with intermittent closures. The distress of tea garden workers is not confined to closed gardens, extending in fact to the entire industry, including the gardens which are running well. The ninth conference of the All India Plantation Workers' Federation (AIPWF) held in Agartala in November, 2013, emphasized that plantation workers were among the poorest and most exploited, but the owners of plantations were reaping huge benefits. A 'March to Parliament' on December 12, 2013 was decided.

Dooars Plantations & Industrial Sickness

The 1.7 million strong plantation sector in India, is dominated by tea with more than a million workers. While Assam and Bengal (Dooars, Terai [foothills] and Darjeeling mountains) have the heaviest concentration of large tea plantations in the country, tea is also spread over Tamil Nadu and Kerala (Sivananthiran & VenkataRatnam, 2002: 12). Darjeeling provides the more famous aromatic teas. The gardens in the Dooars have been prone to sickness from the 1960s-70s (Wikipedia), two characteristics having a bearing on this feature. First, these plantations each have hundreds of hectares of land, leased from the government on payment of land revenue, each lease to be renewed every 30 years, subject to the condition that it will be used for tea production alone. The boundaries of tea estates therefore include, in addition to plantations and nurseries, paddy land, labor villages or lines, worker family cultivations, waste and unused land (Sen, 1996: 53). Management can easily abandon a garden. At the same time, workers of such gardens have little access to alternate employment, because of their isolation. The second characteristic is the labor intensity of tea production, which depressed wages. In the early years British tea planters opted for migrant labor(mainly tribals from Chhotanagpur and Singbhum districts of Bihar) and a captive labor force on low wages (Sivananthiran& VenkataRatnam, 2002 :16] who were not allowed to unionize (Rege Commission, 1944). However, skilled, technical and machine jobs as well as office work is usually done by local employees with some education. Unionization gained only in the post-Independence period and today the industry has dense unionization.

The sick gardens survive mainly on institutional finance from banks and the Tea Board. However, there are other reasons for closure--conversion of land under tea to urbanization, as happened to ChandmoniTE, near Siliguri in 1998 (Biswas, 2013) or liquidation, like LooksanTE in 2003 (Talwar, 2005: 10). Researchers view the situation as an "artificial crisis created by tea garden owners including a distinct strategy of casualization ... to deprive workers and weaken the trade union movement" (Roy, 2015).

The approximately 150 Dooars gardens employ about one lakh permanent workers, with women (52%), being the backbone of plucking operations. According to unions, another one lakh casual workers (mostly from worker families)...

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