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Legal heat on estates

Guwahati, Sept. 10: The Assam government is contemplating legal action against the tea companies whose alleged failure to arrange for proper healthcare caused hundreds of deaths in the past few months.

Director of health services Dhruba Hojai today said Dispur would not spare any tea company found violating the Assam Plantation Labour Act. 'We are examining legal options against those gardens that are not providing adequate healthcare to workers.'

The government's decision to crack the whip on erring companies comes close on the heels of chief minister Tarun Gogoi flaying the tea industry for allegedly not fulfilling their social responsibilities. He said the lack of contributions from the industry to the flood relief fund reflected its apathy.

The director of health services fired another salvo, saying tea garden managements had consistently ignored the healthcare needs of their workers. 'The situation is alarming. A major tragedy can occur any day if medical facilities in the gardens do not improve.'

Hojai said his department had apprised the government of the situation, especially the indifferent attitude of tea garden managements.

According to an official estimate, at least 30 garden workers died in the past three months for wants of proper treatment for diseases such as gastro-enteritis, malaria and diarrhoea. The Assam Tea Tribes Students' Association (ATTSA) claims the toll is over 500. The organisation has called a daylong bandh in all tea gardens on September 29.

Hojai said the health department was determined to improve the standard of healthcare in the tea belt. Health secretary Bhudev Basumatary, however, said the department was playing only a 'supportive' role. 'The labour department oversees health and other labour welfare programmes,' he said.

Health department officials attribute the state of healthcare partly to the communication gap between the outstation headquarters of tea companies and the garden authorities.

A senior official said the government should enforce the Assam Health Establishment Act in the tea belt if companies do not implement the Assam Plantation Labour Act.

Apart from a 24-hour bandh, the ATTSA has planned two-hour demonstrations on September 21 at the headquarters of the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association, the Bharatiya Chah Parishad, the North East Tea Association, the Assam Tea Planters' Association and the Tea Association of India.

The next phase of demonstrations will be in front of the offices of all deputy commissioners on September 24.

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