KOLKATA: LAKSHMAN Santal finally got something to eat, a packet of puffed rice and boiled peas. Not fresh enough though, but this meagre and nearly-rotten food is his lifeline for at least two more days. Santal, a worker of Bagrakote Tea Estate in Jalpaiguri, was served this food as part of “sarad” (funeral ceremony) of his wife. Just because his wife Mukti Santal, 44, died of starvation a few days ago, and the neighbours arranged a kind of ritual for her that Lakshman could smell of something called ‘food’ after long hours of starvation.
This is not an exceptional human tragedy in tea gardens in West Bengal now. Tea gardens have become virtual killing fields for thousands of workers and their family members with every 24 hours bringing a death-news from here and there.
Bagrakote, owned by Duncan group, has witnessed more than 30 deaths in the last six months. This is one of the 16 closed gardens of the same group. The story is more or less the same in many such closed or formally ‘open’ but virtually closed gardens in Terai and Doors region in three northern districts of Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.
The humanitarian disaster is stark in gardens taken over by the state government. In Red Bank, the number of deaths is 72 from 2013 while it has touched 40 in Surendarnagar. Chronicles of starvation, severe crisis of food, complete collapse of basic amenities mark the seven closed gardens, run by the state government. There has been no effort on the part of administration to run these estates, neither providing workers with minimum resources for sustenance. Mamata Banerjee government, meanwhile, sold five gardens to private owners threatening the security of the workers. The private owners have already started retrenchment.
That a regime of crony capitalism has taken control of the state is further proved by the closure of six more gardens by Alchemist group, owned by TMC member of the parliament, KD Singh.
Nearly 25 thousand workers of Duncan group are facing extreme crisis while the owners have siphoned off money in other businesses.
There are 290 gardens in the Dooars (Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar) and Terai (Darjeeling plains and Uttar Dinajpur) with an estimated production of 221 million kg, providing employment to over 2,14,000 people. Since April this year, a large section of tea garden workers have not received their salaries, rations, not even drinking water and the heath centres in the estates have closed in series.
The callousness of the state government has become clear when they failed to provide minimum support to the starving workers through rural development schemes or providing temporary workdays in government projects. There is absolutely no planning for such safeguards.
The workers are on warpath. Joint Forum of 24 trade unions has initiated sustained movement demanding basic facilities and opening of closed gardens. Workers observed relay hunger strike in the last week of November and observed a strike on December 1.
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