The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Hunger death cloud on tea estates

Calcutta, Nov. 22 : Agriculture minister Kamal Guha today said hundreds of tea garden workers in the Dooars have died of starvation in the last one year and accused the Left Front government of being indifferent to the plight of the affected families.

“We have so far received reports of about 320 deaths. Besides, over 50,000 workers of 14 closed tea gardens are passing their days in distress, having been denied food, electricity, medicines and other amenities for months together. The state administration has failed to provide any kind of relief. Nor has any minister cared to visit the affected families,” the Forward Bloc leader said at a news conference.

His party, he added, carried out extensive surveys in the north Bengal tea gardens to arrive at the death figure.

Guha, who is from the region, has been increasingly scathing about the CPM-led government, despite being a senior minister. But his claim was strengthened when RSP leader Kshiti Goswami said his party’s trade union wing had also conducted a survey and found that the “starvation death figure could even be higher” and touch the 450 mark.

“We have submitted the report to the chief minister and labour minister seeking their intervention. The chief minister has assured us that he is personally looking into it,’’ he added.

CPM central committee member and labour minister Mohammed Amin admitted that he, too, had received reports of starvation deaths and had instructed the panchayats to rush relief to the impoverished workers. “The tea gardens are in a very bad shape and the condition of the workers is of serious concern,” Amin said. But he refused to comment on Guha’s claim, saying: “We do not have any such figure with us.”

The CPM’s labour arm, Citu, which has considerable influence on garden workers, was obviously the target of Guha’s attack. The trade union did not deny Guha’s charge, but said it was “definitely unsure” about the death figure cited by him.

“It is not surprising that some tea garden people have died after the owners closed the units. They did not have food and medicines for months and had no other means of livelihood. Many of them must have died due to malnutrition and lack of medical care,” said Citu state secretary Chittabrata Majumdar.

But he questioned Guha’s motive in publicly raising the issue, describing it “as a conspiracy against Citu”. “We are in a majority in the tea gardens and some people are trying to create a wedge between us and the tea garden workers,” he said. Guha’s party has a presence in only a few pockets in the tea garden areas of Dooars.

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