India is the world’s second-largest producer of tea after China. 70% of its tea is consumed within India itself, making us the largest tea-drinking nation in the world. However, Indian tea industry workers are notoriously badly-paid and often live in grubby conditions. On an average, these workers receive around 50 rupees a day.
Assam alone houses nearly 800 large plantations and produces 52% of all the tea produced in India, almost 1/6th of the world’s tea. West Bengal and Assam tea production, however, still follows colonial-era labour structures, is trodden by corporate greed and faulty trade unions. This enables unjust wages here that not only go against the country’s labour laws, but also result in gross violations of human rights guaranteed under India’s Constitution.
Assam has among the highest maternal mortality rates in India, and workers suffer from high malnutrition, poor sanitation, and low literacy levels. Even ignoring accounts of child labour and allegations of human trafficking, the devastating poverty alone is enough to account for an unacceptable number of worker’s deaths on tea plantations every year. Extreme poverty among tea workers, fueled by cripplingly low wages and social isolation has led to rampant malnutrition and anaemia in this part of the country, often culminating in preventable deaths.
The situation is more or less the same in the northern parts of West Bengal too. According to the Right to Food campaign, an advisory committee to the Supreme Court that is monitoring the working conditions of tea garden workers, in the past year alone, at least 69 tea workers have died across Bundapani and four other shuttered tea plantations in West Bengal. In the area spread across the Dooars plains below Darjeeling, more than 16,000 people have been left in extreme poverty at the tea estates.
As a ray of hope, the Centre has planed to seek a report from the West Bengal labour department on the actual condition of the workers of the tea gardens in the state. Union Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said recently that she is serious about the worker conditions here. On reopening of closed tea gardens, the minister said the matter would be discussed with the state government. However, to a question whether the government has any plans to take over the closed mills, she said that such a step would not solve the problems.
“The report is necessary in the wake of several complaints of reduction of fringe benefits, lack of water, power, educational institutions, medical facilities, malnutrition and Provident Fund default”, she told reporters after holding a high-level meeting. According to PTI, the meeting was attended by Tea Board Chairman, Labour department officials, local MP S S Ahluwalia, local MLA Gautam Deb and representatives of several trade unions.
Although a lot needs to be done to uplift the working and living conditions of those who toil day and night to provide India its favourite drink, a call for action is much appreciated.
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