Tribal people in and around the shuttered tea gardens of north Bengal are living on the edge of destitution and are being forced to a life of hard labor and exploitation by local contractors to stave off starvation.
Sali Ram finds it difficult to hide his poverty under his tattered clothes. Clearly undernourished, the 52-year-old worker at the closed Nirpania tea garden in Birpara of Alipurduar district in West Bengal, around 700 km from state capital Kolkata, is the sole breadwinner of his family of five, including three small children.
It has been nearly 18 years since Nirpania stopped operations but about 500 of its workers are still getting work from a new breed of local contractors who have virtually gained controlled of the closed tea garden. Sali Ram earns a paltry Rs 70 after toiling for six hours every day under a blazing sun. Even that paltry wage is paid only after 15 days of work.
His earning is far less than Rs 159 (including Rs 9 for rations) that is paid to workers of functional tea gardens. Needless to mention, benefits like bonus, provident fund, gratuity and health facilities are distant dreams for him and his colleagues.
The local contractors have taken exploitation of workers to a completely new level by taking advantage of their extreme poverty that has been ruling the picturesque tea garden area for years now. “The tea workers of operational gardens are fighting for an increase in wages even though they get double the amount than us along with other benefits,” Sali Ram told VillageSquare.in. “We get a meager amount but still we work to fend off death waiting to devour us by sending starvation inside our houses. We manage to put some food inside the hungry bellies of our children by earning a nominal amount.”
Miserable living conditions
The condition of Nirpania tea garden is perhaps the worst among the 30-32 tea gardens that are defunct in the Alipurduar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Uttar Dinajpur districts of West Bengal. The staff quarters are shabby with no toilets. Villagers including women have no alternative but to defecate in the open. Elephants often intrude in the residential areas and destroy their shanties.
There are almost no health facilities, as the nearest hospital is in Birpara town around 7-8 km away, and the lack of transportation facilities often puts patient’s life at risk. The chances of survival of a critical patient are slim when the two nearby rivers are in spate during the monsoons. Children risk their lives daily by crossing a nearby railway bridge to go to schools during heavy showers.