Bappa Majumdar, Reuters
Kolkata: At least 150 people have died of malnutrition in eastern India in the past year after the closure of scores of tea plantations in what investigators say is a unique case of social breakdown in a heavily unionised sector.
“So many deaths in one period from chronic malnutrition. It has not been seen in any other organised sector before,” Anuradha Talwar, an advisor to India’s Supreme Court, told Reuters after conducting an investigation into the deaths in West Bengal state.
At least 16 plantations in West Bengal, in a remote part of the state near the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, were shut down two years ago after production fell and profits plummeted due to low yields from ageing tea bushes.
The Supreme Court has been investigating deaths at the plantations after several petitions were filed by former workers against the closures.
Experts say the deaths have stood out in a unionised sector like tea, where workers were given electricity, water, food as part of their emoluments.
While millions of Indians live in poverty, jobs in unionised sectors like tea are normally prized for the stability they offer workers.
India, the world’s largest producer of tea, has had state regulations to protect formal workers for decades and unions are strong.
But in this case, union protection appears to have collapsed.
More than 15,000 workers in West Bengal have been struggling to survive without any alternative means of livelihood and depending on rats, wild plants and flowers for food, Talwar said.
“It was appalling to find how the world’s largest tea producer treats its workers,” Talwar, who is due to submit her report to the Supreme Court, said in Kolkata.
In many tea plantations in West Bengal, employers did not pay wages owed to workers following the shutdown, Talwar and tea workers’ associations said.
A spokesman for the Tea Board, the umbrella organisation for tea companies, said an internal report on the situation had been sent to the government, but said the board could make no further comment because the matter was pending in courts.
The government wants the plantations to reopen.
“We are working on a plan to reopen the gardens by getting the employees to form a cooperative,” Jairam Ramesh, India’s junior commerce minister said from New Delhi.
“I have heard about reports of starvation deaths in tea gardens of West Bengal, but right now our focus is to find a solution to reopen the gardens,” Ramesh said on Wednesday.
Medical reports and death certificates of many dead workers show severe malnutrition and anaemia, Talwar said.
“I will drink water, but I am not sure what I will feed my three children,” Talwar quoted Phulmani Kharia, a 25-year-old woman in Varnavari, 660 km (410 miles) north of Kolkata as saying.