The price of a good cuppa

The lives of tea-estate workers in West Bengal have worsened in many aspects over the years
The tea plantation sector continues to play a significant role in the economy of north Bengal. There are 276 organised tea estates spread over the three tea-growing regions of West Bengal: Darjeeling Hills, Terai and Dooars. Besides the formally registered large tea plantations, there are thousands of small growers. According to one estimate, the plantations employ about three lakh permanent daily-wage workers. However, despite their large numbers, the issues of tea plantation workers, such as labour standards and violation of human rights, hardly get any space in the media, let alone being discussed in policy circles. As the plantations are located in remote places, the narratives of deprivation remain confined to these alienated enclaves. Our independent survey in 30 tea gardens across West Bengal in 2017 revealed that the living conditions in the plantations have not seen any improvement in decades. In fact, the situation has worsened in some respects in recent years, despite the presence of laws for labour protection.
Dismal implementation of law
The Plantations Labour Act (PLA), 1951 gave certain social and economic rights to the workers. Nevertheless, the ground realities point to a dismal implementation of the Act’s major provisions in West Bengal. For instance, though the Act makes it mandatory to provide housing accommodation to every worker and his/her family, almost one-third of the 501 surveyed households were found to be living in huts made of wood, mud, straw and dry leaves. Further, half of them were living in semi- kutcha homes and only a fourth of the families were residing in pucca houses. Moreover, one in 10 homes did not have electricity. Water and sanitation remained a major issue. Half of the households lacked safe drinking water and toilets. Latrines had not been set up in labour lines by the management of many tea estates and plantations and though some toilets had been constructed through government initiatives, they were not properly maintained. Hence, labourers had to go to the fields to relieve themselves. Apart from being deprived of their PLA entitlements, at least 11% of the workers reported denial of rations from the Public Distribution System as they did not possess ration cards. Not surprisingly, these deprivations pushed them further into the vicious cycle of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Every second child under the age of five was found to be stunted and starvation deaths were very common. However, these issues did not come into public knowledge as governments refused to acknowledge them. The PLA is considered to be one of India’s most labour-friendly pieces of legislation. However, it remains largely unenforced and governments have turned a blind eye to the infractions. In the light of what our survey has found, there is a need to recognise that provision of services mandated by the PLA would call for a far-reaching enforcement. However, so far, the state has not demonstrated the political will needed to raise the standard of living of tea-plantation workers. It is high time governments, both at the Centre and in West Bengal, ensured that the workers are able to live a life of dignity.
Soumitra Ghosh is an Assistant Professor at
Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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