State govt. to hold a meeting with owners of 23 closed tea gardens on July 14

Political parties in the opposition, civil rights groups, and trade unions have stepped up pressure on the West Bengal government over the deaths of workers in at least two closed tea gardens of north Bengal.

Two delegations of MLAs of the Left Front and the Congress Legislature Party have visited Raipur Tea Estate and Red Bank Tea Garden over the past two days and expressed concern over the plight of workers.

Jeet Bahan Munda, a 45-year-old worker of Raipur Tea Estate died on June 31, while 40 -year-old Shekhar Nagarchi died at Red Bank Tea garden on July 2, triggering a fresh debate over the plight of workers of closed tea gardens.

Though locals claimed that malnutrition was the reason for death, the State government denied the claims.

Representatives of several non-government organisations and trade unions under the banner ‘Right to Food and Work Campaign West Bengal’ will also be sending a fact-finding team to the six closed tea gardens in the second week of July.

“We will conduct a detailed survey on whether the Supreme Court orders on providing food and relief and repayment of dues to the workers of closed tea gardens are being followed,” Anuradha Talwar, one of the activists associated with the forum of 31 NGOs and trade unions, said.

Stating that the fate of least 21,000 families in the 23 closed gardens in north Bengal hangs in balance, Ms. Talwar said activists want to set up a ‘permanent monitoring system for all closed tea gardens’ in north Bengal.

Observing that malnutrition and starvation deaths are closely associated with the low wages, Swapan Ganguly, another activist, said that the wages in tea gardens are as low as Rs. 95, when the minimum wage under the MGNREGA is Rs. 206.

“Unless the wages are increased, the crisis will remain. As per recommendations of the 15th International Labour Convention, their wages should be around Rs. 322,” Mr. Ganguly said, adding that tripartite wage negotiation of tea garden workers is going on.

Meanwhile, the Left Front delegation that visited tea gardens on Friday said that the food grains provided by the State government are not fit for human consumption. “We identified at least three persons in tea gardens, who require immediate medical attention. Other than making food entitlements, the State government has to ensure proper drinking water and other facilities,” deputy leader of the Left Front in the Assembly and former minister Subhas Naskar said.

Mr. Naskar, who led a delegation of seven legislators, said though the government is on denial mode over the starvation deaths, local officials admit there is severe malnutrition.

“We have collected the sample of rice given to the workers of closed tea gardens which is infested with worms. If the State government did not wake up to these deaths, more such deaths would occur,” Congress MLA and former minister Manoj Chakraborty, who was part of the 10-member team of Congress legislators, said. The 10-member delegation visited Raipur Tea Estate and Red Bank Tea garden on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the representatives of voluntary organisations met Food Minister Jyotipriya Mullick in the day, who assured them that the State government would hold a meeting with the owners of the 23 closed tea gardens on July 14.

The representatives also welcomed the setting up of a permanent committee of three ministers- Food Minister Jyotipriya Mullick, Labour Minister Moloy Ghatak, and North Bengal Development Minister Gautam Deb - to oversee the steps being taken for closed tea gardens.

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