At least 700 tea workers have died from diseases linked with malnutrition over the past year after the closure of tea estates left them with no income, and hundreds more are still starving, a court inquiry has found.
Two years ago, poor production and low yields led to the closure of 16 tea estates in Jalpaiguri, a remote part of West Bengal bordering the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, leaving plantation workers with no means of income.
Investigations by the Supreme Court and tea workers’ associations found that this had directly led to the deaths, leaving hundreds more unable to feed themselves. But the government says the deaths, which they have recorded to be around 570, are related to diseases which are unrelated to starvation.
“The government may portray the deaths their way,” says Anuradha Talwar, a Supreme Court adviser, who compiled a report about the deaths last month. “But the fact remains that workers have starved to death and many are waiting to die,” she says, adding that many suffered from tuberculosis and night blindness.
India, the world’s largest producer and consumer of tea, has strong regulations in place to protect workers’ rights and employees have powerful unions, which often guarantee them free electricity, water and food as part of their salary packages.
But trade unions say that estate owners did not pay wages and other arrears owed to workers following the shutdown and the latter are now fighting the employers for compensation in court.
While tea estate owners are unwilling to comment on the closures, organizations representing the tea producers say they plan to reopen the estates under a cooperative plan.
“We will reopen them as soon as possible,” said Jairam Ramesh, Union minister of state for commerce.