Death in the tea gardens of Dooars, India

The starvation death toll has crossed 1,000 in under a decade, as colonial laws, unreceptive politicians and unrestrained estate owners continue to govern this neglected part of North-East India.

Medha Uniyal
15 July 2014
Darjeeling tea production at Makaibari Garden

Darjeeling tea production at Makaibari Garden. Demotix/Arindam Mukherjee. All rights reserved.

The tea gardens of Dooars, India, have seen 32 deaths from starvation in 6 months; it is a number high enough to cause a clamour within civil society, but is it sufficient to capture the conscience of the rest of the country?

India is a country of 1.2 billion people, a sixth of whom are chronically hungry. Despite being a food-surplus nation with an excess of grains that reaches 80 million tons in granaries, 2.5 million people die hungry each year and over 200 million are food-insecure.

But while these numbers are significant, they are not what shape the plight of the workers in the tea gardens. The northeastern number conundrum is different. Here, the problem lies in the numbers that have made tea plantation workers in West Bengal too insignificant a voter population for political concern; numbers that have reduced the seven states in North-East India to being referred to as “the 25-seats” in general elections (a trifle when there are 543 seats cumulatively); numbers that have made this abuse a part of a 150-year-old history and numbers that make this structure a profitable business model. 

What hides beneath the surface of the 32 deaths are the stories of 25,000 vulnerable workers in the Dooars estates and 1.1 million others employed by this exploitative industry, which, despite yielding high profits and quenching the global tea thirst, fails to quell the hunger of its own workers.

Plantation shutdowns

Over 1,000 starvation deaths have been reported over the last decade in the gardens of West Bengal alone. The spike in the death toll during this period has emerged from the direct repercussions following a large number of plantation shutdowns, mainly due to labour demands. Between 2002 and 2004, 22 tea gardens were shut, seven of which remain closed even today.

High mortality rates grip even the functional tea gardens due to harsh working conditions. But circumstances in the closed estates are exponentially worse. The “Right to Food and Work - West Bengal Network” NGO found a dip in the individual calorific intake from 2,763 calories, when the estates were operational, to a worryingly low 203 calories. With no medical facilities, the only thing that can worsen this already deeply desperate situation is the lack of means for workers to change their dire state. Low literacy levels of just 20 percent in these cloistered areas - about 60 percent lower than the national average - reduce their chances of even an alternate livelihood. 

Ghosts of the colonial past

In the last two centuries, the tea industry in India has come a long way, from its first consignment of 12 boxes for an auction in 1835, to today becoming the second largest producer of tea in the world and the second largest employer of labour in the Indian private sector. But this success has not translated into an improvement in conditions for the workers in this industry. And the continued exploitation comes saddled with historic baggage.

The isolated existence of these plantations, marked by barbed wire and a time zone of their own (known as the Tea Garden Time), is not accidental nor is it unintentional. It is the result of the persisting colonial laws that were originally aimed at ending the Chinese tea monopoly. The British established a parallel governance structure in plantations with limited involvement by the state. Low wages supplemented with housing and social benefits ensured the high dependence of the workers on their plantation owners.

Independence from the British marked a switch in governments, but not a shift in the method of governance. The high reliance on exploitative ownership continues, as do low wages (1.59 US dollars a day), that are determined by a tripartite agreement between the owners, the government working in tandem with the owners, and the trade unions which are affiliated to the political parties. The minimum wage decided by the government-owner-union nexus is not only lower than that offered by the government employment schemes for sustenance, it is also not comparable to the earnings of their counterparts from the plantations in South India (around 3.77 US dollars), despite tea from the Northeast fetching a higher price.

Consolidating exploitation

Today, the law of the land is determined by the Plantation Labour Act (PLA). This was introduced after independence, in 1952, with a promise to bring an end to the historic controls surrounding plantations that were established in the colonial era. Despite several amendments in 1981, the PLA has not proven to be radically different.  Instead of unravelling the system, the PLA has only consolidated and legitimized the structure, and is, in every sense, a derivation of the Plantation Act of 1934 that was developed by the British. It has failed to address the concerns of labour rights, wages and the protection of women workers, who are denied maternity leave, and yet hired in large numbers - they constitute about half the total workforce, unlike any other industry in India - to prevent violent mobilization.  It permits child labour with the mere requirement of an easily procured health certificate.

Yet the greater problem is that of non-compliance. Even the positive mandates of the PLA, which obligate the plantation owners to provide healthcare benefits, medical facilities, sanitation amenities and other statutory benefits, are not enforced. This has not just resulted in high levels of malnutrition, but has also resulted in sporadic episodes of mob violence and even killings.

A world of their own

The Indian states of the Northeast, which are attached to mainland India by a narrow 33 kilometre strip, are surrounded by international borders on all other sides. They are home to numerous insurgencies and secessionist movements and have been described by the World Bank as a region of “low-level equilibrium of poverty, non-development, civil conflict and lack of faith in political leadership”.

The tea gardens within this region are a world of their own. In the midst of an already neglected Northeast, a population larger than that of at least 80 countries remains hermetically sealed and silently oppressed in the tea estates. These spaces, which conceal a breeding ground for institutionalized slavery in the country, are situated minutes away from major tourist destinations, yet miles away from the imaginations of such visitors.

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