Footloose Labour

Plight of Plantation Workers

Arup Kumar Sen

The plight of workers is very much evident in the tea plantations of West Bengal and Assam, which are the major tea producing regions in India. West Bengal contributes about 25 percent of the total tea production in India. Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars are the major tea growing areas in the state. There are 309 tea estates in West Bengal in the organised sector, covering more than one lakh hectares under tea cultivation. Assam contributes more than 50 percent of India's tea production and covers more than half of the total area under tea cultivation in India. It was observed in 2014: "Tea garden workers, especially of West Bengal and Assam, are now experiencing widespread malnutrition, human trafficking and even death due to extreme working conditions and poor wages…a survey of closed tea gardens in Assam and West Bengal points to a hundred deaths since the beginning of 2014 due to acute malnutrition and starvation".

The findings of an unpublished report of exhaustive survey of 273 tea estates in West Bengal, done by the labour department of the Government of West Bengal (2012-13), were carried in Down to Earth. Before summarising the findings of the survey report, the Down to Earth reporter noted misery of tea garden workers in West Bengal. He found that more than 1.1 million people live in the tea estates of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts in north Bengal, and more than 1,000 people had lost their lives in the closed gardens due to starvation since 2002. Poor housing and medical facilities, and instances of financial mismanagement in the tea gardens were documented in the labour department survey.

In fact, death of tea garden workers and their family members is a recurrent phenomenon. 'The Report on Hunger in Tea Plantations in North Bengal' (2004) listed 21 closed tea gardens in north Bengal. It documented deaths in four such gardens, located in the Jalpaiguri district—Mujnai, Raimatong, Dheklapara and Ramjhora—during the period 1998-2003, from plantation hospital records. More than 800 people died in the four gardens during the same period. The team also made door-to- door survey of 204 families in four labour lines of Dheklapara and Ramjhora tea gardens. Of the surveyed families, 90 families reported having deaths in the last five years.

The Report on Hunger cited newspaper reports (November-December, 2003) to highlight the response of the political leaders to the crisis of the tea plantation workers. The then Agricultural Minister, Kamal Guha, belonging to Forward Bloc, one of the partners of ruling Left Front (LF) government, stated: "320 workers have died of starvation in the last one year. Besides, 50000 workers of 14 tea plantations are passing their days in distress having been denied food, electricity, medicines and other amenities for months together". Khitish Goswami, the leader of the RSP, another constituent of the LF government, confessed that according to a survey done by their union, the number of deaths touched 450. However, the labour minister of the state government, who was a central committee member of the CPI (M), was reported to have denied in the State Assembly on December 6, 2003 that any of the deaths were due to starvation, as none of the medical reports mentioned the cause of death as starvation.

The 34-old CPI (M)-dominated Left Front rule came to an end and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) came to power in 2011. But, the plight of tea garden workers persisted. Before the TMC government came to power, the present chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, promised during her visit to a closed tea garden that if her party would come to power, she would solve the problem of tea gardens. But, at the beginning of 2012, nine starvation deaths in the closed Dheklapara garden were reported in the media. The labour minister of the TMC government denied that starvation deaths had taken place in the closed garden. Almost an echo of left minister's statement.

The Duncans Industries Ltd tea gardens encompass over 7,500 hectares of land spread over the Dooars, Terai and Darjeeling regions of north Bengal. The most spectacular case of misery of workers in recent years is noticed in the Duncans tea gardens. In 2015, Duncans Industries controlled by the G P Goenka business group suspended operations in several tea gardens. The worst sufferers were the workers, facing extreme poverty, malnutrition, starvation and deaths. Many young girls in the gardens were reported to have been forced to take to prostitution to feed their families. According to the report submitted to the state government by Harsh Mander (2015), the Supreme Court's Special Commissioner on Right to Food, the 15 tea gardens of the Duncans in West Bengal "are in a state of limbo. They are neither closed nor open in the usual sense of the terms, with frightening consequences for the workers on the estates. This situation has added one more chapter to the shameful history of hunger in the tea industry". The Report noted apathy of the state and central governments in addressing the plight of workers: "The Duncans management has broken the law several times over in the past few years, as far as its obligations to the workers are concerned. Despite this being fully within the State Government and Central Government's knowledge, they seem to have taken a very lenient view so far of such illegal functioning". The report further noted: "The workers believe surpluses have been extracted from the gardens and invested elsewhere". John Barla, a prominent tribal trade union leader in the tea gardens, who is contesting the Lok Sabha Elections 2019 as a BJP candidate in the Alipurduar constituency, reported to the media in October, 2015 that "in the past seven to eight months 42 residents had died in Duncans tea gardens from malnutrition and lack of treatment".

In January, 2016, the central government authorised the Tea Board to take over the management of seven Duncans gardens. The gardens were officially open, but still ailing. This takeover led to a legal battle between the central government and the Goenka Group. In September, 2016, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court issued an interim order allowing the Duncans to manage the gardens with the obligation of paying the arrear wages to the workers of the seven gardens. The Court set the condition that the Goenkas would not be allowed to sell machinery of the gardens. It is quite unique that the Court allowed the Goenkas to run the gardens in spite of the fact that "more than 20,000 workers were left jobless and the lives of about one lakh people were at stake" in the said gardens since February, 2015 under their management.

The owner of the Dheklapara tea garden, Subrata Ghosh, is a trader. He owns a hotel in Siliguri and bought the garden from the previous owner in 2000. He had no experience in the tea business and employed the ex-manager of a hotel having no skills for managing a tea estate as the manager of the garden. According to workers' testimonies, a systematic asset stripping took place before the owner deserted the garden in 2002. Before the closure of the garden, the workers were not paid their wages for 3 months and subsidised rations were stopped for about 6 months. Later, the workers discovered that the management had deducted their provident fund dues regularly, but the deducted amounts had not been deposited from 1997 onwards. The Provident Fund Commissioner lodged an FIR against the owner after much effort. Reportedly, the owner had been arrested, but he got released after depositing a small amount of Rs 7 lakh, though the dues amounted to many crores.

The track record of the Duncans gardens owned by G P Goenka is no better. From the beginning of 2015, Duncans had been defaulting on wage payment to workers. The company was found to owe large sums of money to its workers on account of provident fund, gratuity and several months of back wages in November, 2015. The Commerce Ministry cited Duncans' failure to comply with the requirements of timely payment of workers' dues, provident fund, gratuity, ration and other fringe benefits while it announced takeover of seven Duncans gardens through the Tea Board in January, 2016. The dues of 14 Duncans gardens in West Bengal were estimated to be about 70 crore around that time. It may be mentioned in this connection that a FIR was lodged against the owner of the gardens, G P Goenka, and his son in October 2015 by a worker in a Darjeeling garden, and the CID reportedly summoned them for alleged non-payment of workers' dues.

Non-payment of wages and other dues of workers in the Dheklapara and Duncans gardens are not unique cases. There are many such instances. Samsing tea garden in Dooars, covering an area of 1,200 hectares, after passing through the hands of Duncan Company and Tea King Company, was run by S P Agarwal Company since the 1990s. Irregular payments, non-payment of Company's share of provident fund, non-payment of bonus and irregular supply of rations were regular features of the garden before being closed in 2002 with 2,300 workers jobless. Similar is the story of Bawandanga-Tondu tea garden in Dooars. The garden, after passing through two hands, was taken over by SP Agarwal Company in 1982. The garden was closed in 2003-04. The owner made irregular payment of wages to workers after two or three months before deserting the garden. He left the garden one day, saying that he had to attend a meeting in Siliguri, and sent the closure notice from there.

Of the 273 tea estates surveyed by the labour department of the government of West Bengal, 87 tea estates could not even produce Registration Certificate/Number under Plantation Labour Act,1951, and 116 gardens were found to change ownership in the last 10 years. Forty one tea estates did not deposit any amount towards Provident Fund contribution in 2012-13.

The above instances amply bear out the fly-by-night character of predatory entrepreneurs operating in the tea plantations. Marx's concept of 'primitive accumulation' and Harvey's notion of 'accumulation by dispossession' are the appropriate categories for understanding of the accumulation of capital in the tea industry. It was estimated (2007) that in 154 registered tea gardens in Jalpaiguri district there are about 1,75,000 permanent workers and an almost equal number of bigha (temporary) workers. The distinction between the permanent and temporary workers gets blurred in the light of large scale expropriation of workers in recent years. While characterising the expropriation of people from their soil at the birth of Capital, through the process of primitive accumulation, Marx wrote: "And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire". The predatory character of capital and multiple deprivations and expropriation of workers and their families in the tea plantations in North Bengal tell a story of 'accumulation by dispossession', a modern variant of 'primitive accumulation'. ooo

(The present article was first presented as a paper in UGC SAP-DRS II Sponsored National Seminar on Condition of Plantation Labour in North Bengal Tea Zone, organised by the Department of Sociology, North Bengal University, on August 29, 2017).

[Acknowledgement: The author is indebted to Swatahsiddha Sarkar for drawing attention to the recent literature on tea plantation workers in India.]

Vol. 51, No. 42, Apr 21 - 27, 2019