Pandemic and Tea Plantation: A Perspective of the Tea Workers of Darjeeling

tea garden workers

The sharp growth in Covid19 cases across the districts of North Bengal from a few month alarms the concerned citizen across the country, mostly the tea lovers. There is no uncertainty that the pandemic has reached community transmission even in the rural fringes of the country including the tea gardens of Darjeeling Hills or North Bengal as a whole. In this catastrophic situation when the whole country has locked itself, tea workers are constantly working without appropriate infrastructural and medical support despite a number of them are having symptoms of Covid (though not tested). Paradoxically, these workers are not even getting immunisation through vaccines or have remained relatively low than other sectors. Consequently, few are in self-medication even after showing acute symptoms of the disease and few already died.

Despite Covid testing camps, awareness programmes and support from the government as well as from NGOs or different concerned groups in different gardens at a local level, the testing percentage of the workers remains desperately low. Subsequently, a large number of asymptomatic person are moving freely (spreading the disease).

Here the question arises

  • Why tea workers are not testing despite the availability of testing facility even at the local level?
  • Are they not aware of the pandemic?
  • Are they not bothered about society?
  • Have they become victims of misinformation that is being circulated on social media?

It’s normal for people like me to get infuriated or to feel pity for their ignorance and to blame them for being uneducated and unconcerned about their social responsibilities (Kaman ko le bujhdaina=tea garden workers are ignorant) since we are trained and cultured enough to see tea gardens as an ignorant, unethical and unaware lot in glorious ‘metropolitan’ Darjeeling. Perhaps, this is the reason why people like me always have an urge to do something for the ‘poor’ tea workers. However, at the same time, the logical and critical assessment of the situation in tea gardens becomes essential. To understand this, one must look into the social and economic structure of tea gardens.

Let’s not get hooked on academic discourse which perhaps creates confusion for the readers. The demographic structure of tea plantations in Darjeeling and North Bengal is composed of heterogeneous ethnic groups, but tribes and backwards castes form its major composition who are socially and economically deprived right from the past. Meanwhile, modern medical science though practised formally in every tea garden, their social structure of beliefs and customs among tea workers fallouts into hostility towards it. Simultaneously, the existing degraded health arrangement and economic deprivation in tea gardens across the place becomes a key cause to hesitate for medical treatments or simply medical facilities remains unaffordable and unreachable. Consequently, self-medication or local remedies occupies prominence in treating their illness unless some life-threatening disease is diagnosed. However, proper diagnosis of the disease remains a matter of great concern for workers. Still, there are many instances of workers dying of life-threatening diseases without proper diagnosis and treatment in the past. Though tea plantations showed paternal character with absolute labour control, tea management has failed to mitigate the problem by complete renunciation of their accountability at the time of pandemic. Rather, they remained confined within occasional sanitation of labour lines (labour accommodation area) and face masks distribution.

Today, a tea worker in West Bengal receives Rs 202 a day with a 15% hike on their previous daily wage applicable from 1st January 2021 which is less even than the price of a 1-litre packet of mustard oil has to bear their entire expenses out of it. The testing positive results in 17 days isolation of a person or even the whole family or as directed by the health officials which remains frightening for them to isolate for more than two weeks without earnings may shatter their economic and social foundation. A worker who already has inadequate financial ground prefers to work and support their family despite sickness and simultaneously they are seeing disease getting cured which made them assume Covid as ordinary flu. Apart from this, the mishandling of covid cases all across the country instils anxiety among them. The social denial of covid patients in the rural spaces even in tea gardens essentially becomes a major reason for low testing figures and diagnosis.

Thus to fight this grave situation, the tea gardens not only need immediate support but structural transformation becomes a necessity. As per the Plantation Labour Act, tea garden workers obtain 12 days of sick leave in a year as a part of medical benefit with 60% of their daily wage. However, a worker in covid isolation endorses sick leave if they have not used it before or else they will remain unpaid. Thus, monetary support remains an intrinsic necessity of tea garden workers to fight disease. Only political solution of tea plantation would mitigate the ongoing economic crisis. Thus, to fight the spread of disease in tea gardens the role of government and tea management appears to be fundamental than humanitarian support from certain social groups. Rather, humanitarian support is not a solution. Thus, it is evident that the government and tea management should ensure adequate financial and medical assistance to the workers as early as possible and perhaps that’s the only way out.

In this grave situation, the tea garden points questions to the civilised and cultured world.

  • Who will feed our family if we do not work?
  • How to strengthen our immune system against covid with Rs 202/day?
  • Why researchers, academics or filmmakers are not showing their concern and leaving tea gardens and workers as mere “area of research”?
  • Why the state government is not ensuring proper financial and administrative support to tea workers?
  • Why PM Modi who claims himself to be chaiwala not showing concern for tea workers despite landslide victory in the last State Assembly elections in North Bengal on the basis of the tea workers vote bank?

Covid crisis in the tea gardens of Darjeeling not only requires infrastructural but social, economic and political assistance remains desperately essential. Overall security and assurance must be ensured to the workers which will not only end the disastrous situation brought by pandemic but will equip them to fight such circumstances in the future.   

Salim Subba is a PhD student at Department of History, North Bengal University, Darjeeling, West Bengal and a resident of a tea garden in Darjeeling.



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