A tea factory and its related infrastructure lies in ruins at the Lankapara Tea Garden in West Bengal's Madarihat block. Acres of tea plants have either turned brown or dried up in the garden suggesting years of neglect. The garden, home to thousands of tea workers, is located next to the picturesque hills that separate India and Bhutan, but has remained closed since the spring of 2015. For workers, the closure has meant poverty, malnutrition and an unforeseen malaise - tuberculosis.
Kamal Mangar, 25, queues up at a State-run health clinic behind the hospital that had been destroyed along with the tea factory. A health worker takes his weight and shouts 39 kg. The youth suffering from tuberculosis has clearly been reduced to a bag of bones.
There have been 11 cases of tuberculosis at the garden since 2019, the health worker at the State-run clinic said. Lankapara village has a population of about 7,500 and about 30% of people have migrated out for work. Kamal cannot go out for work to Kerala like did a few years ago because of his illness.
The youth’s father Kancha Mangar, who is also unemployed, said his son does not get the ₹500 per month welfare assistance given by the State to tuberculosis patients. Since the plantation has remained closed for seven years, the workers of the garden survive on five months of plucking (April to September) and selling the leaves through various committees run by workers.
About 30 km away from the Lankapara Tea Garden is Dheklepara Tea Garden which has been closed since 2002. At the entrance of the garden located in West Bengal’s Alipurduar district, stands the dilapidated structure of a tea processing factory, and a few rusted vehicles. Near the structure, a few workers of the garden are weighing a pile of tea leaves collected from plants that still survive in the garden.
A few meters away, at the workers' quarters, Praksh Tanti (56) lies on his bed well past afternoon. On June 15, he had been released from Birpara Sadar Hospital and the diagnosis states `Tuberculosis Pleural Effusion’, one of the most common kinds of extra-pulmonary tuberculosis. He cannot work and doctors have prescribed him a high-protein diet including eggs, which he said he cannot afford. His 22-year-old son has migrated out for work and does not keep in touch with the family. Like Mr. Mangar, Mr. Tanti too does not get the ₹500 per month assistance from the government.
Anuradha Talwar of Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, who has been working with unions of tea gardens in north Bengal, said that the closed gardens provide an ideal set-up for malnutrition and tuberculosis.
“For workers of gardens that have been shut, the State government provides free rations but there is no other forms of support. Therefore, malnutrition leads to tuberculosis among the workers,” Ms. Talwar said. She added that the government is also providing ₹1,500 per month to such workers under the FAWLOI (Financial Assistance to Workers of Locked out Industries) scheme.
Over the past few years, Ms. Talwar and other trade unions of north Bengal have raised the issue of malnutrition in the closed tea gardens. In 2015, the West Bengal Right to Food Campaign had reported a death due to malnutrition in a closed tea garden of the region.
There were also reports of malnutrition in abandoned tea gardens in the Dooars (Himalayan foothills) areas of districts like Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. In 2014, the State health officials admitted that 25 children suffered from severe malnutrition and low weight in the five closed tea gardens. The children had to be admitted to State-run hospitals in Jalpaiguri district. According to trade unions, about six tea gardens lie shut in the Dooars region of the State.
In the first week of October, the Alipurduar district administration provided FAWLOI to about 1,500 workers of Dheklepara and Lankapra tea gardens just before the Durga Pujas. The workers, however, say that the solution to their plight lies in reopening the gardens.
In the closed plantations of Darjeeling district, the situation is eerily similar. At the State-run health centre at Panighata Tea Estate, a health worker said that there are nine patients ( five male, four female) suffering from tuberculosis. Lalita Trikey (49), who had come to collect medicines for tuberculosis said that she sought medical intervention when she started vomiting blood. Ms. Tirkey who stays with nine members of her family, said that after the garden closed down, she had been travelling long distances to other gardens for work.
Phulmani Khalkho, an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) at the health facility said that even after completing the required dose, some patients have not gained weight. One of them, Tina Lakra (39), a mother of two children, weighs only 31 kg and has been out of work for almost three years.
The State government officials, however, denied the prevalence of tuberculosis in the closed tea gardens of north Bengal. “We have a very good screening process to locate TB patients so it does not matter if a tea garden is open and closed. Even in the time of COVID-19 we continued with the screening. Our aim is to eliminate TB in the region by 2025,” said Susanta Kumar Ray, Officer on Special Duty (Public Health, North Bengal.