Death and distress in Bengal’s Dooars tea gardens

In the lower reaches of the Himalayas in West Bengal, workers struggle with hunger, poor pay, and the intermittent shutting down of large tea plantations. The poverty is sometimes killing, reports Shiv Sahay Singh, who met those involved in the production of tea

Updated - April 27, 2024 10:44 am IST

Published - April 27, 2024 04:15 am IST

Workers at the Nagaisuree Tea Garden in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal.

Workers at the Nagaisuree Tea Garden in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal. | Photo Credit: Shiv Sahay Singh

Almost two months after her husband Dhani Oraon died at 58, allegedly of starvation, Asharani Oraon weighs 29.9 kg. When she was rescued by the district administration after pressure from tea garden unions and brought to a hospital on February 6, 2024, four days after Dhani’s death, Asharani weighed 26 kg. Dhani was a worker at Madhu Tea Garden in West Bengal’s Alipurduar district, which had reopened in December 2021 after being closed for about seven years.

Even with a blanket wrapped around, Asharani, 53, whose body mass index (BMI) on April 7 stood at 13.8 kg/m2 (denoting severe thinness), is frail and can barely walk. She mumbles that the hospital is feeding her “eggs, banana, and rice”. Still in shock, she cannot answer any questions about her husband’s death.

At Madhu Tea Garden, the old ramshackle hut of the Oraons, barely held together by tarpaulin sheets, has been razed by Rajesh Lakra, a local tribal leader, who has built a new shed for Asharani. He has launched a campaign on social media in support of tea garden workers, weeks ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. Hibiscus flowers bloom in the deserted compound.

Based in the Dooars, the ‘door’ to Bhutan, ranging between 90 metres and 1,500 metres above sea level, is a blue-sky, green-hill, flowing-rivulet remote area that people from around flock to, for a break. The region is different from Darjeeling — the other tea-growing area of Bengal that is cooler, wetter, more misty — with the tea itself tasting different. The Dooar brew is bright, smooth, and full-bodied, lighter than Assam, unlike Darjeeling’s GI-protected soft, smoky liquor.

“This year, 2024, marks 150 years of tea production in the Dooars area, as the first tea plantations in the region were set up in 1874, a few decades after Darjeeling,” says Bijoy Gopal Chakraborty, the president of the Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers Associations, a tea trader based in the Dooars.

The death of Dhani, a permanent worker, has raised questions about incomes lower than the minimum wage, food insecurity, and a sick sector’s use by politicians as a poll plank.

As per the Paschim Banga Cha Majoor Samity (PBCMS), a trade union representing tea estate workers, of the 150 big tea gardens, 18 (12 in Alipurduar and six in Jalpaiguri) are closed. The Tea Board of India statistics say that the annual production of tea from West Bengal in 2023 was 422 million kg, 54.5% of which was produced from the Dooars.

For the 3.5 lakh to 4 lakh tea garden workers, minimum wages and land ownership are key issues in the Lok Sabha elections, as the industry holds the key to seats like Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri, where elections took place in the first phase on April 19.

The uncertainty of closure

Neighbours and relatives of the Oraons say the couple could not get the benefits of the public distribution system because Dhani’s Aadhaar and ration cards were not linked, and the system could not recognise his fingerprints, common among people who do manual work.

Katya Kharia, one of the neighbours, says the family was receiving about ₹1,500 per month by way of FAWLOI (Financial Assistance to Workers of Locked Out Industries) when the garden was shut. When it reopened, the money stopped, but Dhani was weak and could not work. “We would help them with rice, but it was not sufficient,” Kharia says. She also complains that the wages, usually paid every two weeks, are sometimes irregular at the tea garden.

The starvation death allegation led to a fact-finding mission on February 4 and 5 by members of the PBCMS and the Right to Food and Work Campaign (RTFWC-West Bengal chapter), which is supported by organisations and individuals.

“The inaction by the government has made this entire population... already weak due to the long closure, vulnerable. Dhani Oraon, even though he was a permanent worker, was neglected by both the management and the government...,” the fact-finding report noted.

Asharani is not the only one who has an alarmingly low BMI. After the alleged starvation death, the PBCMS and RTFWC conducted a survey across seven tea gardens in Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts. Out of the 122 tea garden workers surveyed, 64 were underweight, with a BMI less than 18.5 kg/m2.

Marayam and Swati Oraon, two tea garden workers, complained that with the daily wage being ₹250 (West Bengal’s minimum wage is ₹376 per day even for unskilled labour), it is difficult to sustain families. “After opening the garden, the only advantage is that we do not have to go out to work in other places,” says Marayam.

Temba Oroan, another tea garden worker, is reconstructing his hut after an elephant attacked it and trampled upon its remains a few months ago. “I was given a torchlight and a tarpaulin sheet from the forest department, but no compensation,” says the feeble-looking Temba, busy on a Sunday afternoon at a betel nut plantation, to generate additional income.

Purbayan Chakraborty, a lawyer who was part of the fact-finding team, says as per the Plantations Labour Act, 1951, the tea garden management is mandated to provide for repair, which they never do, leaving workers to fend for themselves. He also adds that the Act mandates that the Assistant Labour Commissioner conduct an inspection and take necessary steps for rehabilitation, but such inspections are never done.

Laws and livelihoods

Over the past 10 years, the Minimum Wages Advisory Committee on Tea for the State of West Bengal has held 20 meetings, but has not been able to reach an agreement on minimum wages. This month, the Calcutta High Court’s Circuit Bench at Jalpaiguri directed the Labour Commissioner of the State to fix minimum wages within six weeks, to be implemented within two weeks. The last time the wages of tea garden workers were hiked was on April 27, 2023, when the State government raised the daily wage rate from ₹232 to ₹250. This was challenged by various tea garden managements before the High Court.

With more and more big gardens either turning sick or shuttering, small growers are contributing to the bulk of the production in the tea sector. The Tea Board of India data indicate that in 2023, small tea growers (about 34,000 in the State, with less than 25 acres per firm) contributed to 118 million kg (54.5%) of the tea production in the Dooars, whereas big tea gardens produced 112 million kg. In fact, across the State, small tea growers contribute 63.7% (269 million kg of 422 million kg) of all tea production in the State.

“This is because the governments, both at the State and Centre, are encouraging small tea growers. The big gardens, which employ a large number of workers, are not getting any incentives. The workers in small tea gardens are treated as agricultural labourers and do not have rights of wages and provident fund like big tea garden workers,” says Anuradha Talwar, a trade union activist and convener of PBCMS.

Unlike Darjeeling tea, which is struggling with low production, tea growers in the Dooars face price stagnation. “The tea from the Dooars has not made a brand for itself like Darjeeling tea or Assam tea has,” says Chakraborty, who approaches the subject from a trader’s perspective rather than a worker’s.

He adds that low rainfall in the Dooars is forcing planters to use pesticides. Last month, bought leaf tea factories (BLFs) wrote to the Tea Board of India saying that they would procure only green leaves that meet the compliance standards of the Indian food safety regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. The tea growers raised the issue with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee when she was campaigning for the Lok Sabha poll in north Bengal. She assured them that she would look into it.

Poll stops

In the last Lok Sabha poll, the region had overwhelmingly voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the 2021 Assembly election, too, the BJP continued with its electoral dominance. The Trinamool Congress leadership accuses the BJP of doing nothing for the tea gardens. “The BJP’s guarantee is a zero guarantee,” the Chief Minister had said while addressing a rally at Alipurduar on April 6, adding that her party had done more.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in 2019 had derived a ‘personal’ connect with the people of the Dooars, harnessing his chaiwala (tea seller) past, had during this election campaign blamed the West Bengal government for the plight of tea garden workers. Addressing a rally in Jalpaiguri district on April 7, he had said, “The tea gardens of Bengal are in the worst condition compared to anywhere in the country...The workers of the tea garden are being denied even basic facilities.”

The issue of land rights and dwelling too turned out to be crucial this election season. “Tea garden workers live on land leased by the company owner from the State government. So, they have no land rights and are subject to being harassed and evicted,” says Talwar.

She says in 2020, the West Bengal government formulated a Cha Sundari Scheme to provide free housing units to tea garden workers. Now, instead of houses, the government is issuing pattas for 5 decimals of land (a little over 2,000 square feet) under the Cha Sundari Extension Scheme, along with a ₹1.2-lakh bank transfer, to build houses. People fear eviction, whether they accept the scheme or not, as there is no clarity.

The closed Dekhlapara Tea Garden in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal.

The closed Dekhlapara Tea Garden in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal. | Photo Credit: Shiv Sahay Singh

A Cha Sundari dwelling unit at Dekhlapara tea garden in Alipurduar district is testament to why the scheme does not have many takers. Dekhlapara is a tea garden that has been closed since 2000. Houses and general infrastructure are crumbling. Yet, out of the 327 dwelling units, only 70 have been occupied.

Bishal Malpaharia, who has shifted into the Cha Sundari dwelling unit, says other members of his family live in the tea garden quarters. “This is for a small family,” he says of their home measuring 394 square feet.

Bishnu Tanti, a worker at Dekhlepara, says the garden was operational for eight months during 2023, giving people hope. He has not moved to the Cha Sundari dwelling unit, but Tanti has accepted the ₹1.2 lakh and is building a kitchen in his tea garden quarters.

Hundreds of workers have agreed to join the scheme and issued no-objection certificates for the land they currently occupy. They have received an initial cash transfer of ₹60,000. A few are still resisting.

 Workers at the Nagaisuree tea garden

 Workers at the Nagaisuree tea garden | Photo Credit: Shiv Sahay Singh

Bandhu Oroan says he is a fifth-generation tea garden worker. “My dwelling unit is spread over 10 decimals of land; why should I agree to a patta of five decimals?” he says.

Over the past few months, Kirsen Kharia of Nagaisuree Tea Garden of Jalpaiguri district has been trying to unite workers against accepting homestead pattas. Kharia says weeks ago a large contingent of police along with local authorities tried to survey the garden and threatened him.

“We do not want five decimals of land. We have been living in these houses for generations and want land rights for our dwellings. The entire exercise by the government is aimed at usurping our land,” says Kharia, who is associated with the Uttar Bangal Cha Shramik Sangathan.

Kharia says the government wants to sell tea garden land to corporates and shift the workers into an invisible remote corner. The activist refers to the 2019 Tea Tourism and Allied Business Policy of the State government, by which a maximum of 150 acres or 15% of tea plantation land could be used for tourism and other businesses.

Collapse and uncertainty

Several local associations and unions under the banner of the Joint Action Committee fielded an Independent candidate, Arjun Indevar, 62, for the Alipurduar Lok Sabha seat. His campaign was built on the demand of land rights for tea workers. Indevar is from the Madhu Tea Garden and says tribals, Gorkhas, and other locals have been working in the area since 1874. “The land of our forefathers was taken away under Section 6 (3) of the West Bengal Estate Acquisition Act, 1953. We are being made slaves and cannot even repair our houses,” he says.

Meanwhile, Kismat Mahali’s house has bricks falling apart; there is no electricity. “I have not received money under the Cha Sundari Extension Scheme. I need to build the house as soon as possible,” Mahali, a worker at the tea garden, says. Kharia, who was campaigning for Indevar, remains quiet as Mahali narrates how difficult it is to stay in the dwelling with her grandchild. “How can I persuade her not to accept the government scheme?” Kharia says.

April is tea plucking season and the slow process leaves room for chatter. At Nagaisuree, spread over hundreds of acres, women talk about leopard attacks in the garden and that adjoining gardens pay a higher incentive for those who pluck over 25 kg a day, the mandate.

A few hundred metres away from the tea bushes, there is a mobile crèche, where children play, unaware of the tea garden tensions.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.