The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Records vs workers’ claim

Ramjhora Tea Estate (Alipurduar), Feb. 12: They claim 133 people have died of starvation and malnutrition in the garden since its closure on August 11, 2002.

Health officials, however, rubbish the workers’ claim. “If the number was correct, we would have had records since we always keep track of deaths from communicable diseases and starvation. In other cases, it is the family of the deceased that gets the death registered,” said Sudeep Mandal, the block medical officer of health (BMOH) of Madarihat-Birpara in which the garden falls.

Countering the BMOH assertion, a worker of the estate, said: “What do they know about death' We don’t need a certificate to light up pyres on the riverside. Certificates are for people who go to crematoriums. We need a certificate only when the person is a worker (and not a dependant) and dues have to be claimed.”

Once upon a time there were 1,103 workers here. At least half the number has left for Bhutan, 12 km from here, to work in the dolomite factories.

When The Telegraph visited the garden, the few remaining ones crowded around the correspondent in the hope that he was a health official. Sankar Gosai, 18, was one of them. A resident of Jogi Line here, Sankar is suffering from severe anaemia and doctors of Birpara State General Hospital had advised five bottles of blood for him. Since Sankar could not afford it, he had to remain satisfied with only one bottle.

Chandu Munda, whose body has swelled up, feels she has nothing to live for. She cannot get over the deaths of her husband Ghasia Munda and son Khudiram, who died of blood dysentery.

During his recent visit to the region, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had instructed the Jalpaiguri district administration to take care of the workers of closed gardens. But labourers of this estate, 74 km from Alipurduar town, know better for none of them has received the Rs 500 FAWLOI (financial assistance for workers of locked out industries) for the last 10 months.

Assistant labour commissioner of Birpara Arthur Hore dismissed the FAWLOI issue with: “There has been a problem in the official document. We hope it will be settled soon.”

On the other hand, of the 34 chowkidars, who have been going without salary from October, 11 have left the garden to collect minerals from the riverbed for Rs 50 per day. Ganpat Oraon, a member of the operating maintenance committee, fears that “if the chowkidars leave at this rate, the factories will be broken into and the machines stolen”.

The workers, however, are defensive. “What would you have done if your three-year-old cried from hunger'” asked one of them.

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