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Death throws up more murky details
- Bitter facts in brew belt

Jaigaon, Feb. 8: The death of Bishu Munda, a worker of the Bharnabari tea estate, today has taken the toll in the abandoned garden to 28 in the past 13 months.

Records at the Alipurduar subdivisional hospital, showed that the 55-year-old man died of “severe anaemia”.

The garden, 16 km from this quaint town on the India-Bhutan border, has been closed since December 2005. The saha-sabhadhipati of the Jalpaiguri zilla parishad, John Philip Khalko, claimed that there have been 10 deaths in the estate in the past 35 days.

Bishu’s wife, Usha, had died last year of malnutrition, her neighbours claimed.

The spate of deaths began a months ago after the operating and maintenance committee (OMC) comprising workers, trade union members and representatives of the district administration, ran out of funds. The committee stopped paying wages to labourers from December as the lean season — starting mid-November and extending till the first week of March—had set in and there were no more tea leaves to sell.

“Now, we are in a fix with only Rs 43,896 left with us. With that amount, you cannot carry out pruning, irrigation and maintenance of the bushes, which is necessary for the first flush in March,” said Manbahadur Chhetri, a supervising staff (garden babu) and the convenor of the OMC.

“It is not that the OMC plan misfired. The committee was supposed to be a stand-in and politicians and the administration had assured us that there would be a new owner soon, but it never happened,” Chhetri said. He added that children had been orphaned and entire families left to face an uncertain future.

“We have now been reduced to breaking boulders on the banks of the Torsha,” said Mangri Majhi, one of the Bharnabari workers. He said of the 2,200 labourers, many have left the estate for work in Bhutan and other Indian states.

The workers are now wary of broken promises, be it of those made by the trade unions or the ministers. At the receiving end is Monohar Tirkey, the Kalchini MLA and minister of state for public works, among others. “He has made a hundred pledges, but nothing came out of them,” said Lakshman Baraik, another worker.

Madan Sarki, the leader of the garden’s Citu-affiliated Cha Bagan Majdoor Union, said none of the politicians come to the garden any longer. “The local MLA (Tirkey) and MP Joachim Buxla, both belonging to the RSP, come here only at the time of elections,” alleged Sarki.

The minister, however, tried to shrug off the charges. “The garden workers are in crisis and I am trying my best to scout for a new owner, but no one seems to be interested especially during the lean season,” said Tirkey.

In response to the CPM allegation, Alad Lohar, a member of the RSP’s Cha Bagan Workers’ Union, alleged that even after the chief minister’s promise at the tea festival in Banarhat early this month that he would address the woes of the industry, nothing happened.

The chief medical officer of health, Bhusan Chakrabarty, said he had asked the block medical officer of Kalchini to visit Bharnabari tomorrow. “The deaths have been brought to my notice and I have sought a report,” Chakrabarty said.

Subdivisional officer of Alipurduar D. Pradhan claimed that there are some companies who are interested in taking over the garden abandoned by the Arvind Poddar group.

“There have been positive responses. I have had a meeting with zilla parishad sabhadhipati Banamali Roy and funds have been sanctioned under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act for closed tea gardens. The money will reach the workers soon,” said Pradhan.

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