Did they die of hunger? The question haunts Barak Valley
By Ratnadip Choudhury
THEY WERE subjected to inhuman exploitation since Independence. And now that they are dying, the quibble over whether it was due to starvation, malnutrition or disease offers no dignity in death — or hope for their kin.
In the past one month, the news of deaths in Bhuban Valley Tea Estate in Lakhipur sub-division of Assam's Cachar district took the state by surprise. The district administration puts the death toll at nine; human rights activists claim it is as high as 11. Ironically, the Barak Cha Shramik Union, the flag-bearer of tea tribes or Adivasis, says only four people died.
The state government claims it is probing the cause of death. But this offers little hope for the 1,000-odd people who know that the government and the tea tribe leaders have been party to this era of neglect.
The Bhuban Valley Tea Estate, owned by a Kolkata-based private firm, was declared sick last October. The garden and factory shut down on 8 October 2011, without paying wages for nine weeks; forget Provident Fund dues and other promised benefits. For four months, they survived on bare rations, with no means of alternative livelihood. Then they started falling ill, and some died without any treatment.
While the 500 permanent workers and an equal number of casual labourers fought their battle for survival, leaders of the Barak Cha Shramik Union, said to be close to the ruling Congress in Assam, chose to remain silent. The district administration, headquartered at Silchar, about 30 km from the tea garden, did not try to alleviate the distress in the Bhuban Valley. It could have at least tried to implement the five flagship schemes of the UPA government, like MGNREGA and National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). They are supposed to be operational in the region, but there is no sign of them on the ground.
"Just before the closure of the garden, we were told by the management that the estate is suffering losses and we must forget the dues," says Ram Prasad Tanti, a permanent labourer in the Bhuban Valley garden. "We were told that if the company revives, we will be employed again. We at once took the matter to the workers' union and the local MLA. They sided with the management, telling us to wait. During this period, so many people died. Had newspapers not reported it, many more would have died here," he says.
To save face, or out of genuine concern, the state government and local MLA and former minister Dinesh Prasad Gowala, who is also general secretary of the Barak Cha Shramik Union, is said to have "convinced" the estate management to reopen the garden on 9 February. But it seems to be a case of too little, too late.
"When the tea garden was closed down, no one bothered to think about an alternative livelihood for the labourers. They were left to die," alleges WA Lashkar, from the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee. "These people have no education; they do not know their rights. There is no mechanism in place to check the violation of labour laws," he adds. His group has now taken up the cause of justice for the laid-off workers.
When TEHELKA met the tea estate workers, it heard tales of people eating far less than required for survival and falling prey to disease. "Our family lived on one meal of rice and salt per day for three months," says Bablu Bauri. "My father died because he was unwell for a long time. His disease aggravated due to lack of nourishment. The local hospital does not have a doctor, we did not have money to either take him to Silchar town or bring a doctor here. He died in front of our eyes."
After his father Atul Bauri, 60, died, Bablu worries about how to save his mother Surabala, who is battling for survival. "We know the garden has reopened in name only," he says. "It might close down any day. We need alternative sources of income." But the fiscal condition of other tea gardens in Barak Valley is bleak; the neighbouring villages too are poverty-stricken.
THE TEA tribes have been a traditional vote bank for the Congress in Assam. The Tarun Gogoi government has been high on rhetoric about giving them Scheduled Tribe status. But this seems farcical when survival is at stake and wages are disgracefully low. Permanent workers get Rs 55.20 per day and casual workers get only Rs 41, whereas the minimum wage specified for the state is Rs 100 for unskilled workers, and Rs 120 for those who are skilled.
"From this wage, a permanent worker had to pay Rs 20 for rations," explains Prasenjit Biswas, eminent human rights activist of the region. "This is a violation of Tea Plantation Labour Act, 1951, Minimum Wage Act, right to food and livelihood. Thus, this is not only a case of gross violation of fundamental rights but also laws passed by elected bodies have been violated at will."
Poverty, death and an uncertain future stalk almost every household in Bhuban Valley. The hutments and hamlets that dot the landscape of the tea garden tell the same story. A story of narrowing options, desolation and despair — and increasingly, of death. Pratima Tanti, daughter of Susom Tanti, who died a month ago due to lack of treatment, spoke her heart out, saying, "My father was ailing, which meant we could have a meal only once a day. Since we had no money, he had to die an untimely death."
For children, there are seven Anganwadi centres under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to provide nutrition and healthcare for kids and lactating mothers, but none of the centres open more than twice a month in the garden, so say the local people. When a few Indira Awas Yojana huts were allotted to the garden, they all went to those close to union leaders. The health centre run by the NRHM does not have doctors. It does have stocks of medicines but paramedics did not turn up for duty when people were dying. The paramedics, in turn, allege that they are not paid regularly.
"An inquiry into the deaths is going on: We will have to wait for the final report. We will also find out if the Rs 10 lakh grant to the garden under NRHM was utilised. We are also looking into violation of labour laws," says Harendra Dev Mahanta, the Collector of Cachar district. Almost everyone who could have saved the poor labourers is now trying to pass the buck.
This is not unprecedented. A similar wave of deaths was reported from Pathini tea estate in 1991. The government and the union remained silent spectators in that episode as well.
With inputs from Arindam Gupta
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
(W A Laskar)
Barak Human Rights Protection Committee,
(15, Panjabari Road, Darandha, Six Mile,
Guwahati-781037, Assam, India
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