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

September 6, 2007

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 In the closed tea gardens basic amenities like drinking water and electricity have been withdrawn. The ration system and hospital amenities have been withdrawn.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.

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