Oct. 16: Ministers Jyotipriya Mullick and Gautam Deb had to face the ire of workers of the closed Dheklapara Tea Estate when they visited the garden to distribute free rice this morning, within hours of a labourer’s death from suspected malnutrition.
The workers and their families surrounded the ministers and wanted to know why the government had taken no step to reopen the garden. The estate had 656 workers when it was shut down in 2002.
Food minister Mullick and north Bengal development minister Deb admitted their failure to reopen the estate and promised that the state would take care of the workers and their families who had been living in a pitiable condition since 2002.
Mullick and Deb were caught off guard by the death of Joykaran Suri, 55, last night when they reached the garden along with government officials at 9.30am. They arrived to launch a scheme under which each worker of a closed or ailing tea plantation would be provided with 5kg of rice a week free of cost. Dheklapara is located in the Birpara-Madarihat block of Jalpaiguri district.
Learning about the death of Suri, the ministers went to his hut. Mullick handed over an ex-gratia of Rs 5,000 to Ganesh, the deceased’s son, for the last rites.
“My father was under treatment at the Birpara State General Hospital and doctors had referred him to the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital. As we couldn’t arrange money to take him to the medical college, he died at our home last night. My father fell ill because of malnutrition. I couldn’t save him only because of lack of money,” said Ganesh.
As the ministers stood there listening to Ganesh, hundreds of workers and their family members circled them and the government officials. They told Mullick and Deb that at least 12 people had died from malnutrition and starvation in the garden in the past month.
“We are living in pathetic conditions. Several families have left the garden and those staying here are awaiting death. The deaths are occurring because of poverty and malnutrition,” said Swapan Samjhar, a garden worker.
“What did the government do for us? The ministers come here frequently and make promises. But nothing has changed. Just promises wouldn’t do,” he told the ministers.
According to the workers, 88 people have died in the garden since its closure.
Deb took the initiative to pacify them.
“We regret that we couldn’t reopen the garden. However, the state government has no intention to leave you under these pathetic circumstances. That is why we are repeatedly visiting the garden and taking all possible steps to help you. We apologise that we have failed to keep our word. We are trying hard to reopen the garden,” Deb told the labourers.
Mullick denied the workers’ charge that 12 people had died because of starvation.
“Workers will get free rice in this garden. I have also instructed the district magistrate of Jalpaiguri to continue with the distribution of cooked meals (for the elderly people) and send me reports every month,” said Mullick. “We are trying to reopen the garden and we won’t allow anybody to die without food. The 12 deaths in the past one month are not because of starvation as claimed by the labourers.”
From Dheklapara, the ministers went to the ailing Kumlai Tea Estate, also in the Dooars. The garden unit of the Progressive Tea Workers’ Union submitted a memorandum to the ministers, saying three persons, including a two-year-old child, had died because of malnutrition in the past two-three months, and sought help for the families.
“We want the state to introduce work under the national rural job scheme in the garden. Also, more food grain should be distributed as the rations and wages are irregular,” said Amardan Buxla, a union leader.
The workers also sought the intervention of Mullick and Deb to end the bonus impasse. “The management must pay us bonus (at 20 per cent) immediately. The last date of payment was October 10. Six days have passed, but the management has made no payment,” said Buxla.