INDIA: Another starvation death at Dumchipara Tea Garden

ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION – HUNGER ALERT PROGRAMME

Hunger Alert Case: AHRC-HAC-001-2016

22 July 2016
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INDIA: Another starvation death at Dumchipara Tea Garden

ISSUES: Right to food; inhuman and degrading treatment; corruption; impunity; rule of law
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Dear Friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from MASUM about yet another starvation death in Dumchipara Tea Garden owned by Duncans group. The tea plantation has been shut down for a while now and this has exposed workers to hunger and starvation. The AHRC demands immediate intervention and urges the authorities in India to save and rehabilitate the workers.

CASE NARRATIVE:

Sabita Pradhan, 48, wife of Mr. Mani Pradhan, died on 14 January 2016, adding another death to ever growing list of lives ensnared by starvation in India’s tea plantations. She was a worker in the Dumchipara Tea Garden and had lost her job and livelihood when the Garden was shut down.

The situation does not look good even for the surviving workers rendered jobless by the shut down. With hardly any economic opportunity around, they are staring at starvation too. The non-availability of medical care facilities in the tea plantations only worsens the crisis. As a result, malnutrition, health issues, unemployment, unrest, distress migration, and human trafficking are on the rise in the said tea garden area. The conditions remain the same for other tea plantations in the area too. MASUM has listed the plight of many of them in the Terai and Dooars region, i.e. Bagrakot, Madarihat, Lankapara, and Birpara.

After learning about the worsening situation in the area, MASUM sent a fact-finding team to the area to inquire into news of a number of deaths. The team met permanent workers, casual workers, families of the deceased, medical assistants, village heads, and families of persons that migrated from the area in search of work. The workers expressed their anguish over the failure of both garden management and the government in ensuring their rights.

Dumchipara Tea Garden is located in Hantapara Panchayat in Madarihat Block, under Madarihat Police Station of Alipurduar District in West Bengal, India, and is located close to the India-Bhutan border. The total geographical area of the Tea Garden is 1040.8 hectares, with a total population of 5,356 people. A total of 1,111 families reside in Dumchipara Tea Garden. Out of the total workers, 1,918 are permanent and 1,100 are casual workers who worked at the garden before its closure. About 60 percent of the workers are female. Flouting labour laws, no Labour Welfare Officer was found to be employed in the Tea Garden.

Most of the managerial staff vacated the gardens after its shut down. Weeds are now infesting the tea bushes, buildings are abandoned, and estate workers say that they have been slowly dying because no money is left to buy food.

The owner of the garden has neglected developing a fair structure of wages mandated by the last Central Wage Board for the Tea Plantation Industry in 1966. The workers also claimed that sometimes they were paid their salaries in installments. They have not paid workers daily wages for the last 11 months. On an earlier occasion, they paid 40% of the dues to only 60% of workers in April 2015. Reportedly, last September, Duncans management provided 3 days’ payment for the month of May 2015 and 3 days payment for June 2015. The company has not paid a single penny to the workers after that.

To worsen the situation even more, owners have even stopped providing ration to the workers, giving rise to a famine like situation in the garden, located in an area that has virtually no alternative job opportunities. The MASUM team found that under these circumstances, a large number of workers and their families are starving. Prolonged hunger has also led to malnutrition, frail health, and abnormal reduction of body weight in the area.

A considerable number of people are suffering from a lack of appetite, tuberculosis, vomiting, abdominal swelling, nausea, jaundice, muscle wasting, vitamin deficiency, anemia, rashes, and other diseases. The team found stunted children and anemic adults, as many families are reported to be eating once a day.

The bleak situation of these workers highlights the absence of social security measures. A majority of the labour are tribal migrants, who have little or no other skills to help them to fend for themselves in the tea gardens. During the visit, workers said that trouble had been brewing in the Garden over nonpayment of daily wages and other dues, like provident fund, gratuity and ration. Dumchipara Tea Garden workers were paid a measly wage of Rupees 112.50 per day, like other tea gardens in Dooars and Terai region; this daily wage is much lesser than that in any other organized sector in India. And, even this meagre wage had dried up since April, despite the owners not officially declaring a Garden lock out, claimed Sumita Oraon, a woman worker.

The jobless workers and their family members these days have to walk a long path to attend work crushing stones by the riverbed, and they get a maximum of 40-45 rupees for a whole days work. The collection of stones from the rivers adjoining Bhutan is another source of income for a few workers. Many workers travel to serve as daily wage workers in other gardens. Others cross the border to Bhutan, working for a pittance with local construction companies. A lot of young workers have migrated to Kerala, Delhi, Sikkim, and Dubai in search of livelihood. The workers who do not have any alternate jobs and are old are the only ones forced to stay at the garden.

Distribution of ration is the prime responsibility of the management, as per Plantation Labour Act (PLA), and not providing the same is clear-cut case of flouting the law. Further, in Dhumchipara, a few families had been brought under Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) scheme after 10 months of closure of the food distribution system. Under this scheme, 30 kg rice is distributed, at 2 rupees per kg per month, and 5 kg wheat is provided, at 3 rupees per kg per weak. But food grains are substandard in quality. Reportedly, the way the food is distributed indicates rampant corruption. Records are not kept properly. Also, this facility is only for permanent workers and does not provide any ration to contract workers or casual workers who have been working for many years.

The closure of the garden has also led to a complete breakdown of health services. Regarding the provision of medical facilities in the Tea Garden, the Tea Garden Authority is obliged to provide a dispensary. However, the existing dispensary provided by the owners and management is under-staffed and not fully equipped. It also does not store the required medicines due to which workers have to rush to the Birpara Sub-Divisional Hospital in medical emergencies. A weekly health camp under the aegis of NGOs is being held every Sunday. Children are immunized in the health camps. But the temporary workers aren’t getting any benefit.

During the interaction with the workers, MASUM also found out that the management had cut off both water supply and electricity supply. Since April 2015, each household has been paying their charges directly to the State Electricity Board but has not got any supplementary benefit as mentioned in Plantation Labour Act, 1951 (PLA), which makes providing housing, sanitation, water supply, crèches, and medical care to the workers, a responsibility of the planter. Further, power supply is confined to select areas of the Garden. So, most part of the labour line is under complete darkness. Even the streetlights are no longer lit.

At the time the Garden was functioning, one big tank and taps in every house provided drinking water. Garden management had also constructed pipelines for drinking water supply to labour colonies. Reportedly, this pipeline was stolen. Scarcity of water became more prominent after management suspended water supply, soon after shut down of the Garden. Now, workers of the Dumchipara Tea Garden have to travel a few kilometers daily to collect drinking water. Last month, Garden management provided 4,000 rupees for pump repair, in order to restore water supply to labour lines. But this meager contribution was not sufficient to restore the water supply system. Recently, workers installed a new water tank and motor engine for pumping, with their own contributions. The water is released for one hour only. Within this short duration, the entire population of the labour line has to collect water.

Noticeably, the sanitation facility, along with the latrine, is in a deplorable condition in the labour line. Most of the toilets are open toilets, without roofing. Latrine walls are made of wood or tin tied with iron cable, whose front portion is covered with jute curtains. They use water discharged through open mud drain. This causes serious health hazards for the people and also threatens the outbreak of diseases like cholera or diarrhea. The problem gets compounded with the practice of open defecation that is prevalent in the practice of the casual workers who live close to the labor lines in tin roof huts.

The deterioration of the economic condition of the workers’ families has also led to a sharp hike in the drop-out rate at the primary and secondary level, as parents are withdrawing children from schools to save family expenses and engaging children in odd jobs for some income. They are sent to the local markets to work in shops, hotels and in buses and small cars as helpers, while the girls are being sent to work as domestic help for middle class families. The MASUM team was informed about a sharp increase in child labour as well, despite the ban on it. Workers’ children, especially their daughters, are often vulnerable to traffickers, who promise them jobs as maids in the city, but, in reality, exploit them as domestic slaves, exposing them to physical and sexual abuse.

Reportedly, despite living in abject poverty, most of the workers are not enlisted in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category. Thus, most of the benefits of the central and state governments do not reach the really poor population in the tea gardens. Even when they get work, like the work they got under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), the payment gets delayed by several months, defeating the Act’s very purpose.

The workers are not getting basic subsistence money offered by the state government scheme called Financial Assistance to the Workers of Locked out Industrial Workers (FAWLOI), as it applies only to the jobless workers of the units shut down for more than an year, and Dumchipara Tea Garden management has only served a notice for suspension of work, and has not closed the Garden.

Barring the exception of National Old Age Pensions being provided to a few beneficiaries, the workers are not getting benefits of any other social welfare scheme. There is no implementation of the National Food Security Act in the Tea Estate. The workers are deprived of other central government scheme i.e. Rajiv Gandhi Shramik Kalyan Yojana, Rajiv Gandhi Village Electrification Scheme, Rajiv Gandhi Home Scheme, Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY), etc. And, there is no maternity benefit scheme available for the female Tea Garden workers.

Even the intervention of constituting the Operating Managing Committee (OMC) at the Tea Garden, with the initiative of the trade union and passive support of the State, has not succeeded in alleviating the dismal conditions. This is a process in which workers pluck tea leaves and sell it to other estates or factories that do not have plantations. But, it turns out, some influential leaders, along with their vested interests, can use terror tactics to manipulate the functioning of the OMC, in connivance with the district administration, and deprive workers of their dues. In Dhumchipara, where young tea leaves exist, women go for plucking leaves from the Garden and sell them to “bought leaf” factories at the rate of Rupees 4 per kg, which is much lower than market price. So, formation of OMC, has not helped the workers make ends meet; only reopening of the Garden can bring them back from the brink.

The Garden has been closed since April last year and there seems to be no specific indication when the Garden will reopen. The future for the labourers seems bleak, if this condition prevails. The deaths of the workers and their family members clearly reveal conditions of starvation, and denial by the government, which lists the deaths as those due to illness, points to the deterioration of situation:

SUGGESTED ACTION:

Please write to the authorities mentioned below demanding immediate intervention into the issue and seek help for the starving workers. You may also demand that the government keeps a vigil on actions that threaten the livelihood and food security of the marginalised sections of the country.

The AHRC is writing a separate letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food as well.

To support this case, please click here:

SAMPLE LETTER:

Dear __________,

INDIA: Another starvation death at Dumchipara Tea Garden

Name of the victims: Workers of the Dumchipara Tea Garden
Alleged Perpetrators: Owners and management of Dumchipara Tea Garden
Date and Time of the incident: ongoing
Place of incident: Alipurduar District in West Bengal

I am writing to you to express my concern over deteriorating conditions of the workers of Dumchipara tea garden that have been shut down. I learnt that the situation is so grave that it resulted in the hunger death of Sabita Pradhan, 48, wife of Mr. Mani Pradhan, on January 14, 2016. She too was a worker of the Dumchipara Tea Garden and had lost her job and livelihood when the Garden was shut down.

The situation does not look good even for the surviving workers rendered jobless by the shutdown. With hardly any economic opportunity around, they are staring at starvation too. The non-availability of medical care facilities in the tea plantations only worsens the crisis. As a result, malnutrition, health issues, unemployment, unrest, distress migration, and human trafficking are on the rise in the said tea garden area. The conditions remain the same for other tea plantations in the area too. MASUM has listed the plight of many of them in the Terai and Dooars region, i.e. Bagrakot, Madarihat, Lankapara, and Birpara.

After learning about the worsening situation in the area, MASUM sent a fact-finding team to the area to inquire into news of a number of deaths. The team met permanent workers, casual workers, families of the deceased, medical assistants, village heads, and families of persons that migrated from the area in search of work. The workers expressed their anguish over the failure of both garden management and the government in ensuring their rights.

Dumchipara Tea Garden is located in Hantapara Panchayat in Madarihat Block, under Madarihat Police Station of Alipurduar District in West Bengal, India, and is located close to the India-Bhutan border. The total geographical area of the Tea Garden is 1040.8 hectares, with a total population of 5,356 people. A total of 1,111 families reside in Dumchipara Tea Garden. Out of the total workers, 1,918 are permanent and 1,100 are casual workers who worked at the garden before its closure. About 60 percent of the workers are female. Flouting labour laws, no Labour Welfare Officer was found to be employed in the Tea Garden.

Most of the managerial staff vacated the gardens after its shut down. Weeds are now infesting the tea bushes, buildings are abandoned, and estate workers say that they have been slowly dying because no money is left to buy food.

The owner of the garden has neglected developing a fair structure of wages mandated by the last Central Wage Board for the Tea Plantation Industry in 1966. The workers also claimed that sometimes they were paid their salaries in installments. They have not paid workers daily wages for the last 11 months. On an earlier occasion, they paid 40% of the dues to only 60% of workers in April 2015. Reportedly, last September, Duncans management provided 3 days’ payment for the month of May 2015 and 3 days’ payment for June 2015. The company has not paid a single penny to the workers after that.

To worsen the situation even more, owners have even stopped providing ration to the workers, giving rise to a famine like situation in the garden, located in an area that has virtually no alternative job opportunities. The MASUM team found that under these circumstances, a large number of workers and their families are starving. Prolonged hunger has also led to malnutrition, frail health, and abnormal reduction of body weight in the area.

A considerable number of people are suffering from a lack of appetite, tuberculosis, vomiting, abdominal swelling, nausea, jaundice, muscle wasting, vitamin deficiency, anemia, rashes, and other diseases. The team found stunted children and anemic adults, as many families are reported to be eating once a day.

The bleak situation of these workers highlights the absence of social security measures. A majority of the labour are tribal migrants, who have little or no other skills to help them to fend for themselves in the tea gardens. During the visit, workers said that trouble had been brewing in the Garden over nonpayment of daily wages and other dues, like provident fund, gratuity and ration. Dumchipara Tea Garden workers were paid a measly wage of Rupees 112.50 per day, like other tea gardens in Dooars and Terai region; this daily wage is much lesser than that in any other organized sector in India. And, even this meagre wage had dried up since April, despite the owners not officially declaring a Garden lock out, claimed Sumita Oraon, a woman worker.

The jobless workers and their family members these days have to walk a long path to attend work crushing stones by the riverbed, and they get a maximum of 40-45 rupees for a whole days work. The collection of stones from the rivers adjoining Bhutan is another source of income for a few workers. Many workers travel to serve as daily wage workers in other gardens. Others cross the border to Bhutan, working for a pittance with local construction companies. A lot of young workers have migrated to Kerala, Delhi, Sikkim, and Dubai in search of livelihood. The workers who do not have any alternate jobs and are old are the only ones forced to stay at the garden.

Distribution of ration is the prime responsibility of the management, as per Plantation Labour Act (PLA), and not providing the same is clear-cut case of flouting the law. Further, in Dhumchipara, a few families had been brought under Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) scheme after 10 months of closure of the food distribution system. Under this scheme, 30 kg rice is distributed, at 2 rupees per kg per month, and 5 kg wheat is provided, at 3 rupees per kg per weak. But food grains are substandard in quality. Reportedly, the way the food is distributed indicates rampant corruption. Records are not kept properly. Also, this facility is only for permanent workers and does not provide any ration to contract workers or casual workers who have been working for many years.

The closure of the garden has also led to a complete breakdown of health services. Regarding the provision of medical facilities in the Tea Garden, the Tea Garden Authority is obliged to provide a dispensary. However, the existing dispensary provided by the owners and management is under-staffed and not fully equipped. It also does not store the required medicines due to which workers have to rush to the Birpara Sub-Divisional Hospital in medical emergencies. A weekly health camp under the aegis of NGOs is being held every Sunday. Children are immunized in the health camps. But the temporary workers aren’t getting any benefit.

During the interaction with the workers, MASUM also found out that the management had cut off both water supply and electricity supply. Since April 2015, each household has been paying their charges directly to the State Electricity Board but has not got any supplementary benefit as mentioned in Plantation Labour Act, 1951 (PLA), which makes providing housing, sanitation, water supply, crèches, and medical care to the workers, a responsibility of the planter. Further, power supply is confined to select areas of the Garden. So, most part of the labour line is under complete darkness. Even the streetlights are no longer lit.

At the time the Garden was functioning, one big tank and taps in every house provided drinking water. Garden management had also constructed pipelines for drinking water supply to labour colonies. Reportedly, this pipeline was stolen. Scarcity of water became more prominent after management suspended water supply, soon after shut down of the Garden. Now, workers of the Dumchipara Tea Garden have to travel a few kilometers daily to collect drinking water. Last month, Garden management provided 4,000 rupees for pump repair, in order to restore water supply to labour lines. But this meager contribution was not sufficient to restore the water supply system. Recently, workers installed a new water tank and motor engine for pumping, with their own contributions. The water is released for one hour only. Within this short duration, the entire population of the labour line has to collect water.

Noticeably, the sanitation facility, along with the latrine, is in a deplorable condition in the labour line. Most of the toilets are open toilets, without roofing. Latrine walls are made of wood or tin tied with iron cable, whose front portion is covered with jute curtains. They use water discharged through open mud drain. This causes serious health hazards for the people and also threatens the outbreak of diseases like cholera or diarrhea. The problem gets compounded with the practice of open defecation that is prevalent in the practice of the casual workers who live close to the labor lines in tin roof huts.

The deterioration of the economic condition of the workers’ families has also led to a sharp hike in the drop-out rate at the primary and secondary level, as parents are withdrawing children from schools to save family expenses and engaging children in odd jobs for some income. They are sent to the local markets to work in shops, hotels and in buses and small cars as helpers, while the girls are being sent to work as domestic help for middle class families. The MASUM team was informed about a sharp increase in child labour as well, despite the ban on it. Workers’ children, especially their daughters, are often vulnerable to traffickers, who promise them jobs as maids in the city, but, in reality, exploit them as domestic slaves, exposing them to physical and sexual abuse.

Reportedly, despite living in abject poverty, most of the workers are not enlisted in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category. Thus, most of the benefits of the central and state governments do not reach the really poor population in the tea gardens. Even when they get work, like the work they got under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), the payment gets delayed by several months, defeating the Act’s very purpose.

The workers are not getting basic subsistence money offered by the state government scheme called Financial Assistance to the Workers of Locked out Industrial Workers (FAWLOI), as it applies only to the jobless workers of the units shut down for more than an year, and Dumchipara Tea Garden management has only served a notice for suspension of work, and has not closed the Garden.

Barring the exception of National Old Age Pensions being provided to a few beneficiaries, the workers are not getting benefits of any other social welfare scheme. There is no implementation of the National Food Security Act in the Tea Estate. The workers are deprived of other central government scheme i.e. Rajiv Gandhi Shramik Kalyan Yojana, Rajiv Gandhi Village Electrification Scheme, Rajiv Gandhi Home Scheme, Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY), etc. And, there is no maternity benefit scheme available for the female Tea Garden workers.

Even the intervention of constituting the Operating Managing Committee (OMC) at the Tea Garden, with the initiative of the trade union and passive support of the State, has not succeeded in alleviating the dismal conditions. This is a process in which workers pluck tea leaves and sell it to other estates or factories that do not have plantations. But, it turns out, some influential leaders, along with their vested interests, can use terror tactics to manipulate the functioning of the OMC, in connivance with the district administration, and deprive workers of their dues. In Dhumchipara, where young tea leaves exist, women go for plucking leaves from the Garden and sell them to “bought leaf” factories at the rate of Rupees 4 per kg, which is much lower than market price. So, formation of OMC, has not helped the workers make ends meet; only reopening of the Garden can bring them back from the brink.

The Garden has been closed since April last year and there seems to be no specific indication when the Garden will reopen. The future for the labourers seems bleak, if this condition prevails. The deaths of the workers and their family members clearly reveal conditions of starvation, and denial by the government, which lists the deaths as those due to illness, points to the deterioration of situation:

It is in this context that I urge you to ensure that:

1. The Tea Garden is reopened and the dues of the workers along with the backlog of unpaid provident fund is paid to them immediately

2. Tea garden workers are brought under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and provided standard quality food grain, as there are starvation death cases.

3. Casual workers, who are working on the Garden for years, are brought under the NFSA and given access to medical facilities. Their wages must also get revised and brought at par with that of permanent workers.

4. Minimum Wage Act, 1948 – for tea workers in the closed Tea Garden is implemented immediately as per present market standard.

5. The Plantation Labour Act, 1951, is implemented in letter and spirit and the workers are provided with housing, sanitation, water, crèches, and medical care.

6. All Tea Garden workers are provided Below Poverty Line cards until the plantation reopens and they are included in the Minimum Wages Act, and granted all the facilities and benefits for those classified under BPL sections.

7. The benefits of social welfare schemes like MGNREGA, old age and widow pensions, and so on reach the needy workers eligible for them.

8. Tea garden owners, flouting the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, as well as other labour laws, are prosecuted.
9. The Plantation Labour Act is revised to include a provision for state governments, in consultation with Tea Board of India, to take charge of the Tea Garden or suspend the lease of owners without any legal difficulties in case management violate right of the workers.

Sincerely,

_______

PLEASE SEND YOUR LETTERS TO:

1. Justice H.L. Dattu, Chairperson
National Human Rights Commsion
Manav Adhikar Bhawan
Block-C, G.P.O. Complex, INA
New Delhi-110023
Email:cr.nhrc@nic.in

2. Shri Rajnath Singh
Minister of Home Affairs
Room no 104, North Block, Central Secretariat
New Dehli— 110001
INDIA
Tel: +911123092462
Fax: +911123094221
Email:jscpg-mha@nic.in

3. Shri. Jual Oram
Union Minister for Tribal Affairs
1, Pt. Motilal Nehru Marg,
New Delhi – 110001
Tel : +91 11 23381499 / 23388482
Fax: +9111-23070577
Email: jualoram@nic.in

4. Smt. Mamata Bannerjee
NABANNA (14th Floor)
325, Sarat Chatterjee Road,
Shibpur, Howrah-711102
INDIA
Tel: (033)2214-5555, 2214-3101
Fax: (033)2214-3528
E-mail: cm@wb.gov.in

5. Shri Basudeb Banerjee
Chief Secretary
Government of West Bengal
Writers’ Buildings
Kolkata-700 001
INDIA
Fax: +91 3322144328
E-mail: cs-westbengal@nic.in

Hunger Alerts Programme
Right to Food Programme (foodjustice@ahrc.asia)
Asian Human Rights Commission (ua@ahrc.asia)

Thank you.

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