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Salt and sweat in a dying teacup

Calcutta, Dec. 23: They pluck tea leaves but cannot afford to sweeten their own tea.

“We add salt to our tea as sugar is too costly for us,” said middle-aged Jharna Bagdi, a worker of the closed Dheklapara tea garden in Jalpaiguri.

She was among 28 workers from two closed gardens and one sick unit who met industries minister Partha Chatterjee, the food commissioner and the labour secretary on Friday to request the government to address their plight. Organised under the Save Tea Garden Coordination Committee, they yesterday sought the attention of Calcutta’s civil society during an interaction.

Dheklapara has been abandoned for the past 10 years while the neighbouring Dalmore garden is closed for the past five months. The Ramjhora tea garden, which had once hit the headlines because of starvation deaths, has been reopened but the scars of a seven-year closure are yet to heal.

Workers of several other tea gardens in Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling were hit by seasonal closures in the last decade of Left rule.

Jharna and her tribal friend Phulmani Rautia eke out a living by collecting stones and rocks from the neighbouring riverbed.

They said their gruelling work fetched them around Rs 20-40 a day.

“There are more hands than the stones they collect and sell to contractors. Men, women and children flock to collect stones far up and down the riverbed since three in the morning, braving the danger of attacks by wild elephants,” said Seema Oraon, a girl from the Dekhlapara garden.

Many also work in brick kilns for Rs 60 a day. They carry 1,000 bricks on their head every day.

Activists said 66 hunger deaths had taken place in Dheklapara in the past 10 years. Eight such deaths took place after the new government came to power. Fifteen elderly workers recently requested the administration for euthanasia or mercy killing.

Both the Left and Trinamul governments denied starvation deaths and linked it to “malnutrition and diseases”.

Even after a Supreme Court directive in 2004, both did not show the political sincerity and administrative delivery mechanism to provide succour to those who are still surviving, activists complained.

“The state government is yet to fulfil its commitment to the apex court that all workers of closed gardens will be declared below poverty line so that they are covered under pro-poor schemes,” food rights activist Anuradha Talwar said.

The problems of reopening Dheklapara have been compounded as no new investor has come forward to run it after the tea board took over.

Talwar said Chattarjee “assured support if the workers were ready to run the garden on their own”.