The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bengal’s death harvest

Siliguri, June 5: At least one person dies every day in Jalpaiguri’s closed tea gardens where workers have been battling poverty and hopelessness for the past five years.

The state government has for the first time admitted the humanitarian crisis, overshadowed by the Singur-Nandigram land wars and West Midnapore starvation scandals.

But the government refuses to admit either starvation or “malnutrition” — the euphemism it uses in West Midnapore — in the gardens where, unofficial reports say, at least 3,000 have died since the 2002 closure spree.

A survey in April across the 14 closed gardens (Surendranagar has reopened since then) found that 571 people had died in the 15 months ending March 31 this year. Of them, 409 were below 60, the national average life span.

But the chief medical officer of health (Jalpaiguri), Bhusan Chakraborty, steered clear of the word “malnutrition”. He cited a host of reasons for the deaths: over 250 had died of heart diseases and stroke, and scores of others from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cirrhosis of liver, hepatitis, TB, high fever, meningitis, malaria, cancer and septicaemia.

But doctors said many of these can be brought on by starvation or aggravated to the point where they can lead to death.

“Malnutrition lowers immunity; the body loses its efficiency in fighting infections. Studies have revealed that malnutrition is a big factor in TB,” said Dr Milan Chhetri of Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, Calcutta.

Some of the findings left Sharmishtha Biswas, coordinator of Uttaron, a workers’ facilitation centre at Birpara that analysed the figures, “astounded”.

The dead include 46 under-10 children — three every month. “Some 465 people — 80 per cent of the total — died at home and only 106 in hospitals and health centres or on the way to hospitals,” one of the analysts said.

Workers said they couldn’t afford the long journey to hospitals and the ambulance service was non-functional. Only three of Kanthalguri’s 53 went to hospitals. At Bhornabari, all 79 died in their homes.

Anuradha Talwar, adviser to the food commissioner of the Supreme Court, has received a copy of the survey results. She said from Calcutta she would take it up with the Centre and the state.

During a visit to one of the closed gardens, Ramjhora, in March this year, governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi was appalled at the poverty and squalor he saw. Gandhi had told junior PWD minister Manohar Tirkey he just had to look at the sick children to find proof of malnutrition.

Some 17,000 labourers are jobless in the 13 gardens. The closures began in 1998 with a slump in tea prices. Some gardens reopened but in 2002, about 30 shut down again. In 2003, reports of starvation deaths started coming in.

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