Workers in Nagaisuree garden where two persons died. Telegraph picture
Nov. 15: Three persons have died since Friday in two tea gardens of the Duncans Goenka Group where wages and rations have been irregular around eight months.
Family members of the deceased alleged that the three had died because of lack of treatment and proper food. Government officials said two of the three died of tuberculosis.
The deaths at Nagaisuree estate in Jalpaiguri district and Dhumchipara in Alipurduar district raises questions over the efficacy of relief measures announced by the state government in all 14 tea gardens of the Duncans Goenka Group in north Bengal.
Johuran Naik, 50, a worker at Nagaisuree, died at his home on Friday, while Benjamin Munda, 61, breathed his last in the same plantation, Malu Paik, 43, a worker of Dhumchipara, died yesterday.
Since April, the workers and their families of the Duncans gardens - around 75,000 people in total - have been surviving on food and medicines given by the state government as the company has stopped paying wages and providing rations in the 14 gardens because of financial constraints.
Brother Bistar Munda said Benjamin, though, suffering from tuberculosis, had to beg to eat. "My brother would even go out and beg in nearby localities so that he could help us run the family. He was being provided with medicines under a government programme for TB patients. But none of them got proper food required by such patients and they died," Bistar said about Benjamin and Johuran.
Malu's neighbours said his wife Gita had left for Delhi in search of a job three months back. "She has neither returned nor communicated with Malu since then. For the past one week, Malu was suffering from fever and had grown weak. He did not have money to go to nearby Birpara for treatment and died yesterday," said Paolina Toppo, a Dhumchipara resident.
Ritesh Lakra, another resident of Dhumchipara, said although a medical team was visiting the garden and examining patients, there was no disbursal of medicines. "If we had money to buy medicines, we would not have waited for anyone's death," he added.
With Malu's death, five persons have died at Dhumchipara in the past two weeks, the workers claimed.
State food minister Jyotipriyo Mallick had launched the distribution of food grains in the Duncans gardens last month.
Prakash Mridha, the chief medical officer of health of Jalpaiguri, said: "The two residents of Nagaisuree were suffering from TB. They were under treatment. There are noreports that they were not getting food and medical help."
The health authorities in Alipurduar district couldn't be contacted for a reaction to Malu's death.
At least 10 people had died at Bagracote, another tea garden owned by the Duncans Goenka Group, in September and October.
The state of the gardens in the Dooars and Terai is a study in contrast with gardens of Darjeeling.
On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gifted tea from the Makaibari garden of Darjeeling to Queen Elizabeth.
While some varieties of Makaibari tea fetches record high prices in the global market, tea from the Dooars and Terai, which are CTC non-flavoured teas, fetch much lesser.
The way the gardens are run in Darjeeling and the Dooars and Terai also paint opposite pictures.
Tea produced in Darjeeling is organic and flavoured.
Annually, around 10 million kg of tea is produced in the Darjeeling hills, known worldwide for its flavour.
Most of this tea is exported to different countries where people drink flavoured tea and thus, Darjeeling tea fetches higher prices. There are 70-odd tea estates in the Darjeeling hills which produce this tea. Given the high demand, there is rarely any funds crisis in these tea estates.
In the Dooars and the Terai, around 300 million kg of tea is produced each year. The CTC variety has no flavour and is not seen as a premium product.
The prices of CTC tea, both in India and outside, is much lower compared to Darjeeling tea.
Altogether, price realisation is low and those manufacturing CTC tea always depend on the volume sold to ensure they get a good earning.
In the past two decades, there were phases when tea estates in the Dooars and Terai suffered because of poor prices at tea auctions. Also, countries like Kenya, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are coming up as new tea growing nations and it is a challenge for CTC tea to compete in the international market.
In her last visit to north Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had said if the Duncans group was unable to run its tea estates, the state would take over the gardens. She also said electricity and drinking water supply would be restored in all the 14 gardens.
However, the workers of both Nagaisuree and Dhumchipara said the power and drinking water supply was yet to resume on the two estates.
"The drinking water supply has not been restored in Dhumchipara. We pluck tealeaves and sell them in other gardens. Whatever money we get from the sale is distributed among the workers and a portion of the amount is used to buy diesel to run the water pump. Everyday, we run the pump for two hours and hundreds of residents gather near it to collect drinking water. The labour quarters are yet to get electricity supply," said Bishnu Ghatani, the convener of the Bagan Bachao Committee formed by the Dhumchipara workers.
In Bagrakote, although electricity has been restored at the workers' quarters, the water supply is yet to be normal. "Only a portion of the population in Bagrakote is getting drinking water now. We heard the chief minister saying the state would take over the gardens. When will the state take such a step? Workers are dying everyday," said Laurantus Kerketta, a resident of Bagrakote.
Sources in the tea industry said the state government couldn't take over tea gardens and only the Centre could do it by invoking the Tea Act.
Rajib Dasgupta, the block development officer of Birpara-Madarihat block, said they were trying to restore drinking water supply at Dhumchipara. "Steps have been taken for the distribution of medicines free of cost. Our officers are consistently monitoring the situation in the garden," Dasgupta said.