Covid, sweat, tears and tea in Darjeeling

tea garden workers

Every morning as people around the globe sip their morning ‘cuppa’ tea, there must be only few who wonder how the workers who make their favorite brew possible are faring in the Covid era.

The answer, as Covid Response Watch found out during a visit to the tea gardens of Darjeeling in north Bengal, was –not very well indeed. And while much of their current miseries are linked to the impact of Covid on daily life and livelihoods, it comes on top of a long history of exploitation of tea garden workers in this region, dating back to British times.

As of mid-September, this year, according to official figures, Darjeeling had recorded over 55,501 cases of Covid-19 with 520 deaths. While these numbers may not seem very high in the overall context of India for the Darjeeling, which has a population of only 1.8 million, they represent a very significant proportion. Darjeeling is the second least populated district in West Bengal, with roughly forty percent of its inhabitants living in the picturesque hills and the rest in the plains area.

“The number of cases of COVID-19 in the hills is high and mainly due to the huge number of migrants returning to their villages during COVID lockdown” says Salim Subba, a resident of the Margaret’s Hope tea estate and a research scholar at the North Bengal University.

COVID Response Watch LogoIn the hills and specifically in the tea gardens the number of migrants is high as there are very limited avenues for earning income in these areas. The current wage of a tea garden worker is only Rs 202 per day and as one resident of the town of Kurseong put it, the daily wage of a tea estate worker is hardly worth a liter of mustard oil- the primary cooking medium in the district.

Notably, there are about 83 tea gardens in the Darjeeling hills. These tea gardens are put into different categories according to their condition; namely open, sick and closed tea gardens. One elite category of the open tea garden are the A-grade tea gardens, which includes the Margaret’s Hope tea estate. The adjacent Ringtong tea estate is considered a sick tea estate. The closed tea estates are those where the owner has abandoned the tea estate.

In general, COVID-19 has been a cause of concern in the entire district of Darjeeling. The pronounced effect of the pandemic is visible even in the isolated villages scattered inside the tea gardens. When Covid Response Watch visited the Margaret’s Hope tea garden, we tried to find out the exact number of COVID-19 cases. For that purpose, we tried to get in touch with the doctor of the hospital in the tea garden but he was unwilling to communicate with us. When we went to the compounder of the hospital, again there was no response.

According to one local source, no official from tea garden is allowed to communicate with the media, without obtaining the consent of their superiors. This made it difficult to find out the particular number of COVID-19 cases in each garden.

However, we were able to talk to a tea garden supervisor, who survived COVID-19 and was suffering from post-COVID complications at the time of our meeting.  Sukesh (name changed) is an elderly man, who along with his wife was infected with COVID. Since then almost three months have passed. But he has not been able to get back to work yet.

On being asked whether he received any assistance from the tea estate he said that, apart from the medicine bills, he hasn’t received any kind of assistance. Allegedly he has not even been paid his regular salary for the three months he was sick. Sukesh is not the only COVID patient in the Margaret’s Hope tea estate.

Failing to meet the doctor at the tea garden we went to the local hospital. It was totally empty. There we spotted two “isolation wards”, which according to local informants was not in use for a long time. According to them the authorities didn’t take any initiative to transform it into a functioning COVID isolation ward.

The condition of the neighboring Ringtong tea estate was far worse. As we visited the garden, we came across a group of workers who were getting ready to go for their shift. According to them the Ringtong tea estate doesn’t provide any sort of basic health facility or protective gear to the workers. Even at the Rohini tea estate the situation was not any different.

In 2019, India was the second largest exporter of tea globally, with exports worth US$803 million, 12.6% of the net global tea export. The country is also a major consumer of tea. While the state of Assam is the largest producer of tea, the state of West Bengal is in the second spot with 395 million kilograms of gross production in 2020.

But behind all these statistics and our smoking cup of tea of the morning, lies the untold stories of the workers of tea plantations. It is their sweat and blood, keeping our kettles filled. The life of a tea worker is not an easy one.

According to Anup Keshi, a trade union activist working in the Singtam Tea estate even the very basic facilities to support a human population are mostly absent in most of the tea gardens. The dispensary at the Singtam tea estate for example he alleged had not been maintained for several years.

As Rupam, an activist in Darjeeling says, “in the past, the workers were subjected to confinement in 100 square feet cells. Now they are not being confined any more, still they have to live in houses which are of maximum 8 feet by 12 feet in dimension, that too with severe scarcities for every necessary services required for a life with minimal human dignity.”

According to Sachin, an activist with the CPM’s youth wing working in the hills, the meager wage of Rs. 202 per day is barely enough to get workers a proper daily diet. If someone gets ill with COVID, it becomes very difficult for them to arrange money, as they don’t get sick leave of more than 13 days. Even in cases of COVID infection, where the minimum period of isolation is 17 days, they can get paid leave only up to 13 days.

A woman working in the tea estate mentioned that, even when the pandemic was at its peak, the workers were taken from villages 50-60 kilometers away to the tea gardens in over-crowded pick-up trucks and that too allegedly without any protection.

A group of youth we met at the town of Kurseong, told us about the age-old problems of the tea estates. According to them, the increase in the wage is necessary, but land rights too are one of the primary problems in the tea garden. Notably the people who are residing there actually don’t have a right to the residential plots they live on, which. belongs to the tea garden authorities. Thus, they are kind of bound to the authorities in order to save their homes. Many believe, granting land rights can solve a major chunk of the problems of the people residing in the tea gardens.

Not only the workers, even many of the non-tea worker population residing in the towns in Dooars, viz. Malbazar, Nagrakata, Birpara etc. haven’t got ownership rights of their residential plots (some families have been residing nearly a hundred years) as they are located inside the territory of tea-estates.  Owing to lack of land rights, workers are not able to turn the unused plots into agricultural lands, which could provide them an alternative mode of livelihood.

On asked about the role the local government during the pandemic, we were told that the last panchayat elections in the hills were held in 2000. Since then there has been no elected body at the local level. According to the residents, this absence of a democratically-elected body has created a fertile ground of corruption and increased the troubles for the residents.

Arka Deep is a researcher based in Bolpur, West Bengal


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