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Thorny Gardens: Doctors in Assam Tea Estates Fear Mob Violence amid Covid Crisis ​

Majulighur Tea Estate in Assam.

Majulighur Tea Estate in Assam.

There has been a rise in incidents of groups of workers attacking the doctors, dreading Covid testing and treatment, or following a death.

At 81, Dr Basanta Goswami is in a dilemma. Should he go back to the Majulighur Tea Estate and rejoin duties or quit and come down to Guwahati and stay at his apartment in Uzan Bazaar to spend a carefree retired life? The former superintendent at Kanaklata Civil Hospital in Tezpur has been serving as a medical officer at the Assam tea estate for the past eight years. He was 72 when he took on his responsibilities at the garden and has been trying to ensure the workforce doesn’t face the slightest discomfort. Things changed for the doctor, however, on June 10, when a group of garden workers came looking for him at his bungalow.

“I was on my regular evening walk on the lawn of my bungalow when I heard a commotion outside. I asked one of my attendants to find out what was going on. Soon this group came charging towards me and one of them pointed at me, shouting, ‘This is the fellow who closed our market.’ I realised that they were armed with sticks. Someone pushed me down. The attendants quickly took me inside. They stayed with me overnight though there were police guarding my bungalow. I could have died as their intentions were not good. My wrist got sprained and the doctors have asked me to take rest. I have not decided whether I will rejoin duties. My son who is a doctor in Gurugram has asked me not to go back as he is afraid. For me, more than the security, I feel humiliated. How am I to be blamed for the Covid lockdown? I am an old person and they did not spare me," said Dr Goswami.

Doctors facing the ire of workers is not unheard of in the tea gardens of Assam. In September 2019, employees at the Teok Tea Estate in Jorhat had beaten up 73-year-old Dr Deven Dutta, blaming him for the death of a worker. Bleeding profusely, the doctor succumbed to his injuries at the Jorhat Medical College and Hospital. Right after this, seven doctors posted in various tea garden hospitals had tendered their resignations, citing a security threat from workers in these estates. Many doctors were abstaining from work.

In May 2019, Prabin Chandra Thakur, a doctor posted in Dikom Tea Estate in Dibrugarh district, suffered several broken bones and fractured ribs after he was thrashed by a mob following the death of a woman worker who was injured when a tree fell on her during a storm.

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“I will never go back to my duties at Nirmala Tea Estate. I am worried for my family and young daughter who stays with me in the tea garden. I was not at the hospital as the manager had called me to discuss new issues on Covid management in the garden. They came searching for me in the hospital and then went to the bungalow. According to them, I am responsible for the rapid antigen test and vaccination in the garden. The workers are reluctant to take the test and even go to the Covid care centre if tested positive. They were asking for me at my bungalow when my wife called me up and alerted me not to come home. In my five years of service in the tea garden, I have understood one thing that the workers don’t trust us. On the slightest pretext, they want the patient to be referred to the civil hospital of the district. Alcoholism continues to be a bane and attributes to a large extent to their behavioural pattern. I have resigned; I could have been dead that day,” said Srimanta Baruah, practising doctor at Nirmala Tea Estate of Gohpur in Assam. The incident took place on June 13, 2021.

It’s not always the case. “In Duklangia Tea Estate of my constituency Mariani, there was no doctor for the past four months. Now a young dynamic doctor has joined and is doing well. However, the worrying fact is that the people are abstaining from tests and vaccination in the gardens. Some believe that the test invariably means one has to go to the hospital where people often die and the garden doctors to some extent are responsible for that. By and large, the vaccination percentage is low in the gardens. I have raised the issue of mobile medical units and their utility in the gardens in these trying situations. However, taking the law in hand cannot be accepted in any circumstance when there are several platforms of redress. The Labour Act, the labour inspector and Industrial Dispute Act are in place,” said Rupjyoti Kurmi, Congress MLA from Mariani.

The Indian Medical Association has been calling for adequate security measures in all health establishments in the tea garden areas since the death of Dr Deven Dutta.

“After the Dr Devan Dutta incident, we have been asking for CCTV installation in tea garden hospitals. Unfortunately, nothing much has been done so far. Incidents have been reported from Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Cachar besides those from the north bank. The scenario in the gardens is different. It’s a suppressed life lived in isolation and social seclusion for the doctor," said Satyajit Borah, president of the IMA Assam branch. “In the gardens, the doctors are burdened with administrative jobs besides their regular duties. There is a huge sense of insecurity among the doctors serving in the tea gardens. In such a situation, the gardens won’t get young doctors and will need to be satisfied with fakes and quacks.”

Borah added that according to the Tea Plantation Labourers Act 1951, all tea estates should have doctors for the healthcare of their labourers. While the responsibility of appointing doctors in the tea estate hospitals lies with the garden managements, the monitoring of the healthcare being provided to garden workers is that of the department of labour. According to the Act, there should be health inspectors to monitor the healthcare sector in tea gardens.

“The health department needs to be more proactive in the gardens. The department must interact with the doctors and the welfare officers in the tea gardens. Intensified awareness programmes need to be carried out. The problem is with the non-symptomatic patients. I fail to see the seriousness on the part of the health department. The third wave is yet to come and the second wave has been a very bad experience in the gardens. However, in no circumstance can incidents like these be allowed,” said Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, BJP leader and Member of Parliament from Jorhat, Assam.

The Indian Medical Association on May 18 called for a nationwide protest, demanding a “strict central legislation against violence on doctors and healthcare workers". Though a symbolic one in pandemic times, the protest in Assam will also highlight the issue of the doctors serving in the tea estates.

Doctors in the state this month boycotted OPD services, protesting the assault of a colleague. Dr Seuj Kumar Senapati was brutally beaten up by a group of people following the death of a Covid patient at the Odali Model Hospital in Hojai district on June 1.

A Sikkim-based doctor, Sumit Periwal, who was once intimidated by a mob, has been fighting for the past six years –demanding a special central law to protect doctors. His petition on Change.org which went viral has drawn 12.5 lakh people to support him. He has been documenting known attacks on doctors in every corner of India.

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first published:June 18, 2021, 14:12 IST