North Bengal’s tea estates are witnessing an unfolding human tragedy as more deaths of tea garden workers were reported this month from the region. With the industry as a whole struggling from soft prices and a drop in output as climate change affects rainfall and weather conditions across the country’s tea-growing regions, several estates are reportedly being unofficially shut, leaving thousands of hapless workers in the lurch. And even at gardens that are operating, living conditions for the predominantly female workforce are said to be precarious, with access to housing, sanitation, healthcare and drinking water far from adequate. A delegation of the State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Labour that visited four tea estates cited malnutrition as an apparent cause for the recent deaths of workers and said the State government was not doing enough to resolve the crisis. Separately, an international fact-finding mission headed by the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition that visited tea gardens in West Bengal and Assam earlier this month painted a grim picture of extremely low wages driving thousands of families to hunger and malnutrition. With a majority of the labour landless, tribal migrants who have little to no other skills to help them find gainful work, the closures and unpaid wages in many estates are spurring a surge in the incidence of starvation. While West Bengal’s Labour Minister this month told legislators the government was providing jobs under the MGNREGA, medical vans and midday meals to workers at the closed tea gardens, and challenged opposition members to prove the deaths were due to starvation and not natural causes, there is a tacit admission that there is a crisis requiring the State’s intervention. The Minister’s comment that none of the death certificates show starvation as the cause of death is tragically ironic since acute hunger and dehydration leave a person too weak to work or even stir out seeking food or water as alms. The victim ultimately dies of organ failure or an opportunistic infection that the body can’t fight.
The bleak situation of these workers starkly highlights the absence of a social security net for rural workers, and specifically labour in the plantation sector. Unless governments both at the Centre and the State develop adequate mechanisms to safeguard the basic needs of non-unionised workers in vulnerable sectors such as the plantations, all efforts at labour law reform will be quite vacuous and bereft of any meaning to the key factor of economic productivity: the worker. Rising above partisan political considerations, the West Bengal government needs to act urgently to address the crisis and, if warranted, take strong legal action against the managements of tea estates that have landed their workers on the brink of starvation and death. A longer-term rehabilitation and re-skilling package is also required to help labour at the defunct estates find alternative work, and measures must be taken, separately, to rejuvenate this key employment-providing sector.