Tea Garden Workers Starve in Bengal; Worker-Turned- Owners Revive Failing Tea Estates in Munnar

May 13, 2007

News Contents:

October 13, 2007 : Ramjhora Tea Estate – A BBC report
September 5, 2007 : Tea garden closures, underfed families – some hard facts
September 5, 2007 : How are you Chandmani, after the ‘Change’?
May, 2007 : Fact Finding Report of Centre for Education and Communication (CEC) and United Trades Union Congress
May, 2007 : AHRC report on Worker Malnutrition
March, 2007 : Starvation Deaths Stalk Tea Plantations
Article : Worker – Turned – Owners Revive Falling Tea Estates in Munnar, Kerala

************************************************************************************************

October 13, 2007 : Ramjhora Tea Estate – A BBC report

By Chris Morris

It’s just after dawn on the Ramjhora estate in northern Bengal. In this remote region, not far from India’s border with Bhutan, tea has been the bedrock of the local economy for more than 150 years.

But five years ago this estate was shut down when the owner packed up abruptly leaving unpaid salaries and no alternative employment.

Weeds are now infesting the tea bushes, buildings are abandoned, and estate workers say that they have been slowly dying because they are not eating enough food.

Exact numbers are hard to pin down. But one study released recently estimates that more than 700 people have died in this region in little more than a year from malnutrition.

Not enough food

One of the community leaders at Ramjhora, Prahlad Sharma, says local people want to work, and they’re desperate for help.
“Due to malnutrition people started falling sick,” he says. “In the last five years more than 200 people have died on this estate alone.”

He puts most of the blame on the owner who abandoned the estate. And he also wants the state government, which has taken possession of the land, to make some effort to use it properly. “Until they put someone in to manage them our lives will be miserable.”

Lakshmi Gosain is getting her early morning supply of water – she’ll feed her three children with bread and tea.

Her husband died three years ago, and she’s had to give her fourth child to an orphanage. Last month there was more bad news – her tiny house was trampled by an elephant, a constant threat in this region.

Occasionally she works, breaking stones by the river. But she says she feels weak most of the time. It’s the same for everyone, Lakshmi says, and the reason is simple – they haven’t had enough to eat.

“They don’t have any rice,” she says. “They’re hungry and then they work with an empty stomach – so they fall ill and die. All of them died due to hunger and malnutrition.”

“That’s how my husband died,” she adds. “He worked hard without enough food – and he died because the tea garden was shut down.”

Some younger people have left, looking for work in Calcutta and Delhi. Others cross the border into Bhutan, working for a pittance at local construction companies. But the majority remain on the estate, waiting for better times, and hoping that sudden death won’t strike their families.

Constantly sick

These aren’t deaths caused by catastrophic famine – this is a green and fertile land. Instead, the insidious effects of malnutrition have weakened entire communities – making them vulnerable to anaemia, tuberculosis and severe dysentery.

When we arrive at Shamilla Gwala’s house it’s obvious that she has to make an enormous effort just to get to the front door.

A severe deficiency of iron has made her joints swell and she can hardly walk. Her eldest son died shortly after the estate was closed, and two of her other children are constantly sick.

The doctors want her to eat more green vegetables but she can’t afford to buy them.

“I have to rely on my younger son now,” she says, “to earn any money he can get.”

Like many others on the estate, Shamilla’s son still plucks tea. But the factory is closed – in fact it’s falling down – and there’s no investment coming in at all.

The quality of the leaves is deteriorating fast and people here have to sell what little they can pick for far less money than they used to receive.

Many of the estates which have shut down fell into disrepair after a fall in tea prices a few years ago.

Owners who’d come into the market to make a quick profit rapidly abandoned the estates when times got a little tougher.

Thriving

Ramjhora alone provided money and other benefits for more than 7,000 people. All that’s now gone.

The state government has stepped in with offers of help – providing food and medical aid. But workers say they get less than half the amount of food they used to have, and for some it simply isn’t enough.

Many government subsidies are creamed off by corrupt local officials, and promises made aren’t kept.

“The next few months is the worst time,” Prahlad Sharma says. “It’s cold, there are no leaves to sell, there’s no temporary work on other estates, and no-one can buy any food.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Drive up into the hills above Ramjhora towards Darjeeling, and the rain starts to beat down. But most of the tea estates here – like dozens of others across West Bengal – are thriving.

At the pristine Makaibari estates, Rajah Bannerjee started Darjeeling’s first organic tea production back in the 1980s – now he sells some of the most expensive teas in the world.

“Try this one,” he says, “it’s quite peachy. And this is ‘first flush’ – a very delicate tea. It’s eagerly sought after by most buyers globally.”

As we taste some of his most delicate brews, Rajah says there’s no reason why estates like Ramjhora can’t recover and prosper – if only someone would care.

“If we can do it up here in the hills, they can do it down there, they’ve got much more top soil. All it needs is a little bit of consolidated, concerted thought.”

But that’s in short supply at Ramjhora. And the people who live there feel trapped.

So this is a story which typifies the contradictions of modern India. On the one hand there’s innovation, creativity and progress; on the other there’s outright neglect, and a callousness which still has the capacity to shock.

************************************************************************************************

Tea garden closures, underfed families, and starvation in Bengal – some hard facts

By Ashok Ghosh, State General Secretary, UTUC.
Translated by Soumya Guhathakurta, Sanhati. Sept. 5, 2007

There are 14 tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district, 2 in Darjeeling district. The number of unemployed tea garden workers (in these 2 districts) is almost 20,000. In the closed tea gardens basic amenities like drinking water and electricity have been withdrawn. The ration system and hospital amenities have been withdrawn. Even then it is said (by authorities) that there are no hunger related deaths. As per government data, between 1 January 2006 and and 31 March 2007, the number of deaths in the North Bengal tea gardens is 571. Of these deaths, 402 are of those less than 60 years of age, 317 are male and 254 are female, 62 are children less than 10 years of age. Of the 571 deaths, 465 people died in their dilapidated homes, in other words no medical attention in hospitals were available in the case of 80% of the deaths. As per unofficial estimates, the total number of North Bengal tea garden deaths in the past 5 years is 2500.

As per recent NSS figures on underfed families in the the various states, there are 106 families per thousand (10.6%) in rural West Bengal (the worst figure) that are underfed for a ‘few’ months during the year. The comparable figure for Andhra Pradesh is 6/1000 (best figure) and 48/1000 (the state just above West Wengal as per this parameter). Further, there are 13 families per thousand that are underfed for the full year. This statistic is 0 for the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. Orissa at 13/1000 is at par with West Bengal.

The existence of starvation in West Bengal after 30 years of left front government although the foodgrain availability per capita in the state is 0.2 tonnes per annum or 550 gms per head per day, raises uncomfortable questions about the distribution system and the purchasing capacity (or entitlement) of the rural population. This after claims of successful land reforms and land re-distribution through operation Barga.

The establishment left propaganda machinery has been geared up to obfuscate facts and divert criticism. Manik Sanyal, district secretary, CPIM, Jalpaiguri district, has published a pamphlet which states that ‘from a recent health department report we come to know that the rate of death in the closed tea gardens is in no way worse than that prevalent in adjoining rural areas or that in the operational tea gardens. yet, attention is being drawn to the death rate in the closed tea gardens by vested political interests’. This pamphlet was published in july 2007.

This can be counterposed with the fact that the governor, Gopal Gandhi, on his recent visit to Ramjhora Garden noted 36 deaths in the last 15 months.

However, in june 2007, Sabyasachi Sen, Trade and Industry Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal admitted that poverty is the cause for a high number of deaths in the tea gardens of West Bengal. According to Sen the highest number of deaths, 68, was reported from Kalchini Gardens.

This article originally appeared in the Dainik Statesman.

************************************************************************************************

How are you Chandmani, after the ‘Change’?

An Eyewitness Report on the present state of Chandmani Tea Estate by Samik Chakraborty
Translated by Suvarup Saha, Sanhati

Do you recall the ‘Chandmani’ saga? It was the year 2003. We were introduced to new jargon by our ‘proletarian’ Left Front government – Satellite Township. A modern township in close proximity to a big city. This project of usurping the land of Chandmani Tea Estate to build a lavish township in the outskirts of Siliguri (in the northern part of West Bengal) and the events that followed soon exposed the true identity of the LF once more. An echo of the recent euphoria of ‘industrialization-development’ that is now centered around ‘Singur-Nandigram’ and the corresponding ‘inevitability’ of forceful land acquisition can in fact be heard four years back in history when Chandmani was ‘CHANGED’.

If you take the road to Matigada from Siliguri, it won’t be long before you reach Chandmani. About 551 workers earned their livelihood from this tea-estate built in 1929 covering a huge tract of land. This tea-estate had the same story to tell as the others in the area. During the British rule, the ‘adivasis’ from Bengal-Bihar-Orissa were made to work in these gardens as bonded labourers. Contemporary law, however, made this work hereditary. In 1998, Jyoti Basu entered into an agreement to scrap the garden and set up a satellite township instead. The owner of Chandmani had another garden in Subalbhita. The workers fought hard to save Chandmani and their livelihood; but ultimately some of them took alternate jobs offered to them in remote Subalbhita. At different points of time, the CPI(M) as well as the Congress did promise to fight on behalf of the struggling workers, but eventually each one of them started singing the tune of the garden-owners. The workers finally launched their struggle under one common united banner. It was 26th of June, 2003 when a huge armed police force came to take possession of the garden. The workers from their colonies also gathered and put up a brave face against the police aggression. Police first fired tear gas shells and then bullets, indiscriminately. Two of the protesters, Ranjit Jaiswal and Ram Bhagat were killed in police firing. Thus, the Buddhadev government achieved its first milestone in its quest of development at the cost of the lives and livelihood of the ‘disposable’ workers.

So we wonder how Chandmani is now, after four years of ‘development’? It is to find the answer to this question that we landed in the ‘changing’ Chandmani. The sign board reading ‘Chandmani Tea-Estate’ still flanks the road from Siliguri to Matigada. All along the right hand side of the road the glittering township – the Uttarayan Housing Complex can be seen to expand. On the left hand side one can locate new sign boards heralding the enigma of ‘Software Technology Park’. Leaving all the shine behind, we went on along the earthen trail towards the workers’ colony. Along that ‘kuchcha’ road, huge tracts of land of the Chandmani tea-garden lay guarded by barbed fences. Some one told us that during the acquisition in 2003, the government under police supervision had employed hundreds of labourers from outside to weed out the tea-plants from that vast stretch of land.

Just at the entry of the workers’ colony, some women were found selling haria (a kind of local liquor). They were erstwhile tea-pickers in the garden. In a voice of repentance they explained that they don’t really have an alternate livelihood. At the time of taking over, a lot was talked about compensation, alternate land, job in the construction activity of Uttarayan. A large number did not receive any compensation. The ones who did, exhausted it all in renovating their dilapidated dwellings or in similar such emergency activities. A few did get land too, but soon the garden-owner declared it to be impossible for him to provide any more land; he pointed towards Siliguri-Jalpaiguri development authority to arrange for rest of the required land. It’s redundant to mention here that such land transfers have not even been processed, forget about registration and other legal stuff. And how many tea-workers did manage a job in the construction work? Out of the hundred plus workers who are still alive or have stayed back in Chandmani, only 5-7 did actually get a job. In the mammoth construction activity of Bengal Ambuja, the majority of the contractors are from outside the region, and so are the workers they employ – local tea-garden workers are not welcome here. There is no standard rate of wage labour. It varies from 70-90 rupees a day, and there is a maximum of 20-22 days of work in a month. We talked to a lot of people out there who had themselves worked in the garden in various capacities as tea-pickers, factory workers and grass-cutters, or had parents that had done so. Once they were all permanent workers, but now the future is bleak. Word is out that soon their colonies will also be devoured by the ever-growing township.

In a local tea-stall we asked the evening crowd what the established political parties has done for them. The retort was unanimous. ‘All those pimps had finally declared that the garden had to go. Uttarayan is for the ‘big people’, and that is now their only concern.’

With the setting sun on our shoulders we passed the tea-garden office and the factory ruins to come up to the main road. There we met the son of ‘Shaheed’ Ram Bhagat. Luckily, the chap had managed to secure the job of a peon at Uttarayan at a monthly remuneration of 800 rupees. Before we left, we thought of for once witnessing the great show of development – ‘Uttarayan’ itself. A few construction workers accompanied us. At the very entrance, security stopped us. Maybe they realized that we were not really in tune. We were asked to get permission from the ‘office’. Who knows where the search of the office will lead us to. Office to Ashok Bhattacharya… Ashok Bhattacharya to Buddhadev Bhattacharya… Buddhadev Bhattacharya to Harsh Neotia…. The glowing neon lights summarized it all. ‘Uttarayan…… Siliguri is Changing’. True, it is changing. We feel it in our blood.

This article originally appeared in ShramikShakti, August 2007

************************************************************************************************

Fact – Finding Report of Centre for Education and Communication (CEC), New Delhi and United Trades Union Congress

Pipli Mahali, 34, was a permanent worker in Mujnai TE living with her husband Mani Mahali and a two and a half year-old son. However, she found it difficult to manage the household after the crisis in the tea estate began. Her husband was suffering from tuberculosis but, as the hospital was not equipped with any medicine, he died a slow death in early 2002. When the employers abandoned the tea estate in November, 2002, there was no foodstuff available in the estate at all. Hence, Pipli was forced to feed her son whatever fruits and vegetables were available in the nearby jungles. Unable to digest these wild fruits, her son succumbed to blood dysentery in November, 2002. Pipli now lives alone in a house and has sold off all her belongings in order to survive. She is suffering from tuberculosis and very few people visit her at home. She is helplessly awaiting her death.

Based on many such reports on deaths, starvation, wage cuts, fall in tea prices and closure of tea plantations in West Bengal, Centre for Education and Communication (CEC), New Delhi and United Trades Union Congress took the initiative in organising a Fact Finding Team to visit tea plantations in those states for an on the spot investigation.

Key Observations made in the Fact Finding Report from Kerala and Tamil Nadu

The Fact Finding Report Stress that there is a serious crisis in the tea industry of West Bengal. The major manifestations of the crisis are:

Closures and abandonment of the tea estates by the management

In the Dooars region of West Bengal, there are more than 19 tea plantations, which have been closed or abandoned by the owners. These tea estates include Rahimabad, Kathalguri, Ramjhora, Dheklapara, Mujnai, Srinathpur, Pathorjhara, Carron, Chamurchi, Dima, Kalchini, Raimatang, Peshok, Vettakver, Looksan, Sepoydhoorah, Shimulabari, Samsing and Putang. The senior managers have deserted these plantations. The closures have affected nearly 30,000 workers along with their families in these plantations.

Deaths due to Starvation and Drinking Contaminated Water

The tea plantations of the Dooars region have witnessed an abnormal numbers of deaths. More than 240 people have died in only four plantations between March 2002 to February 2003 in the Terai and Dooars regions. These tea plantations are Ramjhara T.E., Kathalguri T.E., Dheklapara T.E. and Mujnai T.E., where most of the workers are dying due to blood dysentery, liver cirrhosis, anaemia and cardio respiratory failure. An analysis of the death registers revealed that the death rates significantly increased after the closure of the tea plantations. The children and the aged constitute the largest number of the dead but many young workers were also dying. The number of female deaths in the age group of 16-35 is higher than the males because of a large number of deaths during childbirth.

Non-Availability of Food and Starving Workers

In West Bengal the management provides concessional foodstuff as part of the workers wages. However, after the closure or abandoning of the tea plantations, there was absolutely no food available for the workers. Some workers survived by selling their household items and by crushing stones, but many of them are starving and consequently suffering from acute malnutrition. The condition of the aged, women children and the ailing is the worst. In order to survive, some of the workers consumed any food that was available and cheap, resulting in chronic under nourishment or food poisoning and slow death.

Complete Absence of Drinking Water

As the electricity supply to the closed or abandoned tea estates has been disconnected, drinking water, which was supplied by the management to the worker households from common water tanks, has been completely stopped. Most of the workers fetched drinking water from the streams in the hilly areas of Bhutan. These streams are polluted because of the presence of dolomite – waste from the cement factories in Bhutan. The same source of water is also being used by the workers to cremate their dead. A sample of water that was being consumed by the workers in Kathalguri T.E. was sent by the Fact Finding Team to Quality Laboratory, New Delhi, (approved by the Department of Epidemiology, Government of India). The report found the water highly contaminated and unfit for drinking.

Non-Functional Estate Hospitals

In almost all the closed or abandoned tea plantations, the estate hospitals have closed down after the doctors left the estates. A few hospitals, which are still run by the compounders, have no medicines. There are no ambulances available to take the seriously ill or injured workers for advanced medical care to the city hospitals. Most of the people who were dying in these tea plantations could have been saved if the estate hospitals were functioning normally. There are many cases of women workers dying during childbirth. There is hardly any medicine left at the estate hospital and the inexperienced nurses are attending complicated delivery cases using kerosene lamps as the electricity connections have been cut off. In some plantations, there are ambulances, but are stationary, as there is no fuel available.

The Women Workers Suffer Most

The permanent workers in the tea plantations of West Bengal are mostly women, because they usually do most of the plucking work. As the main wage earners, women workers are under tremendous pressure. They are restricted by a lack of skills from joining other income earning activities, an absence of alternate employment opportunities and unfavourable conditions for migrating long distances in search of alternate opportunities of work. The Fact Finding Team came across many households where only the woman worker was staying at the tea plantations. They could not leave the security of the line room, which was allotted, to them and where they had been staying for generations. Many women workers had died due to pregnancy related complications. Some fortunate women had been shifted to the city hospital in a lorry when the workers pooled in money to help them out, but such cases were rare.

Condition of the Children

Most of the children in the tea plantations of the Dooars and Terai regions stopped going to school. Instead they were cooking food and carrying it for their parents who were crushing stones in the dry riverbeds. The Fact Finding Team also witnessed many children crushing stones along side their parents to augment the family income.

Non-Payment of Wages

The wages of the tea plantation workers of West Bengal are the lowest in the organised sector. The workers barely manage to survive with the paltry daily wages of Rs. 49.25 in West Bengal, which is lower than Rs. 65.88 in Assam (The tea garden workers in Assam and West Bengal receive concessional foodstuff as part of their wages) and much lower than the tea workers’ daily wages in Kerala, Rs. 76.17 and Rs. 72.62 in Tamil Nadu. These low wages prevail in spite of the fact that labour productivity in West Bengal is one of the highest in the country and so is the land yield and overall price of tea. However, due to the closure of the tea plantations, the workers have been deprived of even the low wages they were receiving. The Fact Finding Team found on their to visit the tea plantations, that the period for which workers had not received their wages in the above-mentioned 19 plantations varied between three to 10 months. In Mujnai T.E., workers had not received wages from April 24, 2002. Similarly, in Ramjhora T.E. workers had not been paid wages from August 10, 2002 and workers have not received their wages in Dheklapara T.E. from August 21, 2002 and in Kathalguri T.E. from July 22, 2002. It was reported that in the same region there were more than 15 other tea estates, which had not closed down, but were not paying regular wages or other benefits to the workers. The workers were surviving in West Bengal by crushing stones deposited in the dry riverbeds despite the fact that the total family earning of a worker through crushing stones was between Rs. 15 to 20 per day. Moreover, the stone crushing work was not available throughout the week.

Mounting Provident Fund and Gratuity Dues

All the 19 tea estates mentioned above had not deposited provident fund contributions for months now. They had also not paid gratuity to many workers. Anjuman Tea Company, which owns Mujnai T.E., owes Rs.55,46,498 as Employees Provident Fund (EPF) dues for February, 2002 to October, 2002 and Rs.15,01,829 for non-payment of gratuity from March, 2002. Similarly, in Ramjhora T.E. the company’s provident fund dues had gone up to Rs. 68,30,667 and it also owed Rs.13,85,147 in terms of gratuity. There are more than 15 tea plantations, which were still functioning but had defaulted in depositing the workers’ provident fund contributions.

Growing Unemployment in the Tea Estates

Thousands of workers were rendered jobless because of the closure of the tea estates. In some of the functional tea plantations, the managements proposed reduced days of work and not employing temporary workers.
The major factors behind the Crisis
* The Report stress that there is evidence of cartelisation in the tea auctions due to dominance of big corporations in the tea trade. The Report by International management consultant, A.F. Ferguson & Co about tea auctions on behalf of the Tea Board of India in 2002 severely criticised the existing rules.
* It has been also stressed that the average tea prices in the retail market is around Rs. 140/- per Kg while in the auctions it is less than Rs. 48 per kg. The report points out that the increasing clout of traders in tea business is a factor leading to present crisis.
* The tea export and import policy of government has also contributed to the present crisis.
* Mismanagement of the estates and siphoning-off of money for other business at the cost of the tea plantations are the factors leading to the present crisis.

Recommendations

The situation in the tea plantations is no less than a calamity with so many starvation related deaths. Therefore, immediate and continuous relief support should be given to all the tea workers in distress till the return of normalcy. The components of the relief package should be the following:
Safe drinking water
Free food grains
Medical facilities, including mobile hospitals
Assistance to school going children

* Most of the tea workers in these regions are Adivasis or Dalits; they should be extended welfare schemes and statutory benefits available for scheduled casts and scheduled tribes.
* To provide food relief the Public Distribution System (PDS) should be activated and strengthened. Moreover, the government should distribute food grains available at the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns at concessional rates to the starving workers.
* Since the health system in the tea estates has completely collapsed, it is necessary to arrange bi-weekly visits by specialist doctors to the tea plantations.
* The plantation owners under the PLA are duty bound to provide basic facilities to the workers. In case of failure on the part of the employers, the Central and State Governments should initiate a process of penalising the defaulting employers. Some of these tea estates could be taken over by the West Bengal Tea Development Corporation and restored to working condition.
* In many tea plantations, the workers are plucking leaves on their own with the help of welfare committees formed by the trade unions. However, there are no good buyers for the tea sold by these committees. The Government should facilitate the buying of these leaves for the workers at remunerative prices.

************************************************************************************************

AHRC report on Worker Malnutrition

In recent years, tea garden labourers in West Bengal have suffered from serious starvation and hunger-related problems. For the last three years, night blindness caused by malnutrition has spread rapidly in the Raimatang tea garden, in the Dooars area Jalpaiguri district. According to pharmacist Shibshankar Datta, at least 250 tea garden labourers are currently suffering from the disease. The disease is caused by the lack of nutritious foodstuff experienced by the labourers. It affects the full realization of their right to life, which the state government of West Bengal is responsible to protect. Moreover, the management of the tea garden, which is responsible to provide food to their employees, has not paid them their wages regularly, ignoring the fact that they do not have access to sufficiently nutritious food.

Not only men like Sandip Lama (25), but also women like Padammani Thakur (30), Shantimaya Limbu, and Maila Lama are suffering from the disease. Even children like Kajol Lohar (8), daughter of Jullie Devi, and Aniket Kumar (5), are suffering from night blindness.

Nigh blindness is cause by a deficiency of vitamin A, which in this case is due to the desperate food situation of the labourers. If it is not treated by the additional intake of vitamin A, it can eventually reach dangerous levels and result in complete and irreversible blindness. In early stages, night blindness can be corrected relatively simple through the intake of vitamin A. On children, a lack of vitamin A can have other serious effects, such as growth retardation and weakening of the immune system. Thus, the tea garden labourers and their families could be easily cured if sufficient food or vitamin A capsules were provided to them.

The poor condition of the labourers has not gone unnoticed by the tea garden management and the responsible state agencies, however, they have failed to intervene to improve the situation. Sunila Kumar, Assistant Manager of the Raimatang tea garden, has admitted the poor condition and, according to himself, informed the Health & Family Department of West Bengal about it. Similarly, Paban Lakhra, member of the Legislative Assembly of West Bengal for the Kalchini constituency, has informed the Health Minister of West Bengal, urging him to take immediate measures to provide relief to the victims. Bhushan Chakraborty, Chief Medical Officer (Health) of Jalpaiguri, stated that the disease is caused by malnutrition, assuring that health camps would be set up for treatment. In contrast, officials from the Department of Health cynically stated that the night blindness is caused by excessive consumption of Country Liquor.

However, so far nothing has happened, and both the tea garden management and the state government, especially the Health Minister, have failed to fulfil their responsibilities for the labourers. The state government ignores the situation and fails to provide adequate food to the labourers, and the tea garden management is not taking any steps to control and check the disease, nor has it paid them their wages regularly.

( From Asian Human Rights Commission, Masum, foodnetwork.net

************************************************************************************************

Starvation Deaths Stalk Tea Plantations
Source : The Epoch Times, March 28, 2007

KOLKATA, India—At least 150 people have died of malnutrition in eastern India in the past year after the closure of scores of tea plantations in what investigators say is a unique case of social breakdown in a heavily unionised sector.

“So many deaths in one period from chronic malnutrition has not been seen in any other organised sector before,” Anuradha Talwar, an advisor to India’s Supreme Court, told Reuters after conducting an investigation into the deaths in West Bengal state.

At least 16 plantations in West Bengal, in a remote part of the state near the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, were shut down two years ago after production fell and profits plummeted due to low yields from ageing tea bushes.

The Supreme Court has been investigating deaths at the plantations after several petitions were filed by former workers against the closures.

Experts say the deaths have stood out in a unionised sector like tea, where workers were given electricity, water, food as part of their emoluments.

While millions of Indians live in poverty, jobs in unionised sectors like tea are normally prized for the stability they offer workers.

India, the world’s largest producer of tea, has had state regulations to protect formal workers for decades and unions are strong.

But in this case, union protection appears to have collapsed.

More than 15,000 workers in West Bengal have been struggling to survive without any alternative means of livelihood and depending on rats, wild plants and flowers for food, Talwar said.

“It was appalling to find how the world’s largest tea producer treats its workers,” Talwar, who is due to submit her report to the Supreme Court, said in Kolkata.

In many tea plantations in West Bengal, employers did not pay wages owed to workers following the shutdown, Talwar and tea workers’ associations said.

A spokesman for the Tea Board, the umbrella organisation for tea companies, said an internal report on the situation had been sent to the government, but said the board could make no further comment because the matter was pending in courts.

The government wants the plantations to reopen.

“We are working on a plan to reopen the gardens by getting the employees to form a cooperative,” Jairam Ramesh, India’s junior commerce minister said from New Delhi.

“I have heard about reports of starvation deaths in tea gardens of West Bengal, but right now our focus is to find a solution to reopen the gardens,” Ramesh said on Wednesday.

Medical reports and death certificates of many dead workers show severe malnutrition and anaemia, Talwar said.

“I will drink water, but I am not sure what I will feed my three children,” Talwar quoted Phulmani Kharia, a 25-year-old woman in Varnavari, 660 km (410 miles) north of Kolkata as saying.

************************************************************************************************

Alipurduar, April 17: A Dooars tea estate downed shutters a day after workers assaulted its manager. Kartik Tea Estate today became the 16th garden to shut down in the region. The management was supposed to pay the workers a part of the salary for the past three months, ration and other dues on Saturday. Police said the workers gheraoed manager Bapan Bhawal after nothing was paid till Monday.

************************************************************************************************

Worker – Turned – Owners Revive Falling Tea Estates in Munnar, Kerala

By Archana Devraj

MUNNAR, Kerala, Apr 25 (IPS) – Faced with unemployment in their failing tea estates, about two years ago, tea pluckers in the rolling highlands of this southern state responded by forming cooperatives to buy out their former employers Tata Tea and turn the gardens into profitable enterprises.

So successful has the ‘Munnar story’ of participative management been that the World Bank (WB) recently sent a team to study it, and has plans to back similar initiatives in other major tea-growing areas of India, especially the famed Darjeeling district of West Bengal and in Assam state.

”A WB team visited us a few months ago. Clearly impressed by what they saw, the team members said they would be willing to fund similar initiatives in the north-east,’ ‘ T.V. Alexander managing director of the cooperative Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP), which bought out Tata Tea, told IPS.

The Bank is not the only one to take notice of the ‘quiet revolution’ in the tea gardens of Munnar. India’s commerce minister Jairam Ramesh said, during a visit last month, that his ministry was examining the ”KDHP Model” to revive nine other defunct tea gardens.

Ramesh said there were some 20 closed tea gardens in Kerala, affecting nearly 35,000 workers. The new initiative is being discussed with the government of West Bengal state where as many as 17 gardens have been closed, affecting some 50,000 workers.

The KDHP company, in which 13,000-odd ordinary tea pluckers and other staff now hold 70 percent of the stake, was set up on Apr. 1, 2005, some three years after the house of Tatas made known its intention to exit the tea plantation sector in Kerala.

Tata Tea, which owns the famed ‘Tetley’ brand runs world’s second largest branded tea operation with a presence in 40 countries. Its products in Munnar include instant tea.

The dipping fortunes of the Tata Tea reflected the state of the tea industry in India as a whole. While inefficient management was a factor, accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by India and fierce competition from new entrants into the global tea market like Kenya also took their toll.

One of the world’s major exporters of tea, India netted roughly 500 million dollars in profits from producing 200 million kg of tea, last year, with large chunks of profits estimated to have been eaten away by wildly fluctuating global prices.

The situation called for new strategies especially in plantation management, marketing and handling unions in an industry which happens to be the country’s second biggest employer — with close to a million workers on its rolls.

Given direct stakes in the fortunes of their company, KDHP worker-owners were not only able to wipe off the cumulative losses of
24 million US dollars run up by Tata Tea, within a year, but also register a post-tax surplus of 500,000 dollars as on Mar. 31, 2006. They also managed to declare a 14 percent dividend for its first year of operations.

In the first half of fiscal 2006-07, KDHP reported a pre-tax profit of 1.2 million dollars or five times the figure for the same period last year. The company hopes to post a pre-tax profit of two million dollars by the end of this fiscal that ends on Mar. 31, 2008.

There are worries. A proposed wage revision notification could impose a liability of over 1.5 million dollars and cut the profits, KDHP chairman Joy Joseph told IPS. ”But this is a story of vision, courage and leadership blended with innovation, teamwork and collective effort,” he added.

According to Joseph, the KDHP experiment was the first time in the history of the plantation sector in India, long a bastion of large corporate holdings, that workers have come forward to take over a company to save their own livelihood and also revive a failing company.

To be fair to Tata Tea, while exiting the plantation business in Kerala state, its management was clear that it would not hurt the
workers or allow the pristine misty-aired ecology of the Munnar hills to be disturbed by letting in industries other than tea.

High on the list of options considered by the management was selling the plantations to a third party. But this was dropped after it became clear that there was no corporate or other business outfits capable of turning around the plantations.

Initially, a cooperative model did not enthuse the workers since there were fears that it would lack professional management. But a plan was worked out combining worker participation with professional management. ”The unions were sceptical about the plan. It took several months of painstaking work to put the framework in place and convince the workers to give it try,” recalls Alexander, who was earlier a Tata Tea manager.

After a major bank stepped in as financial partner things became even easier. At present 97 percent of the KDHP workforce holds almost 70 percent of the equity. Tata Tea continues to hold 19 percent of the stakes while other parties have the remainder. The new company administers 16 tea gardens spread across 23,000 hectares.

Ascribing the remarkable turnaround in the company’s fortunes to increased worker productivity, Alexander says average tea leaf
plucking per worker climbed from about 25 kg a day to 40 kg. ”There is a sense of participation and ownership among the workers. They know that their hard work will result in more money in their pockets,” he adds.

A ‘flat’ management structure and a ‘bottom-up’ management plan has also served the company well. Advisory and consultative committees, consisting of workers’ representatives, are involved in the day-to-day functioning and decision-making in all areas — be it the estates, the factory, marketing or welfare.

Chandra, who worked as tea plucker for 17 years now sits on the KDHP board of directors as a representative of the workers. ”Earlier, we had nothing to do with profits or losses of the company. But, now, there is a greater sense of responsibility and involvement in these matters,” she said.

Chandra’s presence on the board, once considered a rarefied zone open only to the ”bosses”, has helped her to highlight several worker issues such as timely payment of incentives. ”With the workers’ day-to-day complaints and expectations finding ready redress, their morale has gone up resulting in greater productivity, ” she explained.

The consultative committees hold monthly meetings to advise on such issues as productivity enhancement, cost control, absenteeism and to review the performance of the estate and the factory.

According to Alexander a ‘productivity- linked incentive’ structure and policies focused on training, recruitment and remuneration have also worked to keep workers on their toes.

Tata continues to shoulder the social welfare projects of the gardens, which include a school for the disabled children of the tea garden workers and running employment generation units for them. These include vegetable dye, paper making and strawberry preserve units.

Sensing a hugely popular proposition, the trade unions quickly came round and cooperated with the changeover — though it meant a loss of collective bargaining capability under labour laws.

Not resting on its laurels, the worker-owned KDHP is now going on to explore niche areas such as organic tea, flavoured tea and speciality teas that are fetching good prices in the export market. (FIN/2007)