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Tea aid by club, govt spurned

Alipurduar, Nov. 14: Workers of a closed tea garden who rejected government aid twice in the last two weeks today accepted food supplies from a local club but demanded that ministers should visit their huts to see their plight.

The 278 residents of Dheklapara tea estate, which has been shut for the last 10 years, said 90 people had died since 2002, because of alleged malnutrition.

According to the workers, girls from Dheklapara have gone missing in the past few years because of a human trafficking racket, which derives advantage from the lack of jobs and extreme poverty among garden hands.

Like most gardens, the Dheklapara estate in Jalpaiguri district has two divisions — the main division has the factory, health and education facilities and officials’ bungalows, the out division has the plantation and labourers’ quarters. All the 278 residents stay in the out division, called the Nepania division in Dheklapara.

The aid from the Falakata club came on a morning a 22-year-old woman of the garden died. She had been admitted to the Birpara State General Hospital on Monday with tuberculosis.

Joydeb Barman, the superintendent of the hospital, said: “Irbina Lohar from Nepania was admitted to the hospital with tuberculosis. Yesterday, when her condition deteriorated, we sent her to Jalpaiguri Sadar Hospital.”

Brijeshwar Mishra, the superintendent of the Jalpaiguri hospital, could not confirm the reason for the death. “The patient was brought here in a critical condition. She died after two hours. I cannot say the exact reason for the death right now,” he said.

According to sources, 14 persons have died in Dheklapara in the last two months.

The estate that has been shut since 2002 had 602 workers earlier, including officials.

Today, a club from Falakata distributed 10 quintals of rice, 3 quintals of potatoes, 30kg mustard oil, 20kg soya beans, 20kg pulses and spices among the workers.

“We had decided to save an amount from the total collection (for our Kali puja) and distribute food among the people of Nepania. They refused the aid at first but agreed only after we convinced them. We were shocked to see the condition of the people. Their huts are in a bad state, they do not have food, no woollens. We will distribute blankets soon. Out of the 278 people in the division, only 15 are in the BPL category,” said Biman Saha Roy, the secretary of the club, Tarun Dal.

Most of the workers earn a living by breaking rocks in a nearby riverbed for which they get Rs 50-60 a day. Others pluck tea leaves for local buyers and get Rs 25-30 per day.

Worker Dukhni Lohar said: “It is the responsibility of the government to provide us with all the necessary things. Most of the ministers visit the main garden. They do not come to us. We have rejected government aid twice. Our huts are in deplorable condition, none of us gets old-age pension. The grant under FAWLOI (financial assistance for the workers of locked-out industry) comes after three to four months and health staff never visit Nepania. Let the ministers come to our huts and see how we live. Our children have stopped going to schools.”

He added that: “The garden has to be reopened. Gautam Deb (the north Bengal development minister) had assured us (during his visit on October 16) that he would come after Diwali. This time he has to visit Nepania division.”