North Bengal: The shutdown of five tea gardens in West Bengal has pushed workers to the brink. They have been dying of malnutrition while some have even been selling their children to try and make ends meet.
Forty-five-year-old Ratia Kharia is one of the thousand workers who lost their jobs when the Bundapani tea estate closed. Struggling to make ends meet, he has been reduced to a bag of bones. Locals here claim 18 workers like Ratia have died due to starvation.
Ramesh Mahali, a tea garden worker, and his ailing wife have been fighting death with one morsel a day. "When I work, we eat, when I can't find any work we don't eat. Sometimes we borrow food from our neighbours and eat," Ramesh said.
Seventy-year-old Buddhi hasn't seen his son in months since he left for Ladakh for work. Today he barely has any strength left to chop wood for cooking. "I don't have money for food, I get Rs 15 or 20 a day. I don't get old age benefits from the government either," he said.
Close to 100 people have reportedly died of starvation and malnourishment in the five closed tea gardens of West Bengal. But the government continues to be in denial. "All this is bogus, there is no such thing. These things are created by the media," said Gautam Deb, the North Bengal Development Minister.
An embarrassed Mamata Banerjee government has finally set up a co-ordination committee to monitor the situation in the closed and sick tea gardens even as it continues to deny the reports of starvation deaths, but this stop gap arrangement aside, the biggest issue ailing the tea gardens is wages, which way below the minimum wage in the state leading to mass migration of workers and more worryingly trafficking of women and children.
Workers are paid Rs 90 for 8 hours a day to produce the expensive Darjeeling tea. In Terai and Doars, it is Rs 95 rupees day, in inhuman living conditions.
Thousands of women and children have fallen prey to touts to escape poverty. This boy was eight when his father sold him to one. After 6 years he was finally rescued from forced labour and slavery.
Meanwhile, there is no breakthrough over new wages. The workers want nothing less than minimum wages of Rs 206. But plantatation owners remain defiant, asking the government to bear the cost of housing, ration and electricity instead.
"We have been in discussion with the government both at the Centre and the state for a long time where we have been saying that structurally it's important that these costs are taken off the industry. It is important for the competitiveness of it and to make sure it is alive and ticking for the next 100 years," said Monojit Dasgupta, Secretary General, CCPA.
As the deadlock continues, a human catastrophe seems to silently unfold for Bengal.