India: 100s of tea workers starve but Minister for Commerce sees only "small number of problems" Print E-mail
London ~~ Monday June 11 2007

Hundreds of workers die as India's tea industry suffers crisis

  • Plantations close after collapse in prices
  • Court inquiry finds sharp rise in malnutrition

Scroll down to also read: Report of the Independent Public Tribunal and subsequent publication "Endangered Humanity -- Hungry faces, Angry River" following the September 2005 Inquiry into Starvation Deaths at Jalangi in the District of Murshidabad in the State of West Bengal, India where the victims included plantation workers in tea gardens in North Bengal, Shavar tribes in the Amlashole area of West Medinipur district, marginal peasants in North and South 24 Parganas and those uprooted and impoverished by land erosion in Malda and Murshidabad districts.

Randeep Ramesh in New Delhi

Workers laid off by remote tea estates find there is no effective safety net and die for lack of food and medicines. Photograph: AFP

They were once the epitome of colonial gentility and imperial wealth, sending bags of delicately flavoured tea around the world. Today, thanks to changing drinking habits, a collapse in prices and rising labour costs, penury and death stalk the plantations of the lower Himalayas.

An inquiry into the fading fortunes of tea estates in Jalpaiguri, a remote part of West Bengal state bordering the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, found last week that at least 700 Indian tea workers have died from diseases linked to malnutrition in the last year after 16 estates were closed. Investigations by the supreme court and tea workers' associations found that the workers laid off could find no other work and legal provisions for health and support payments never materialised.

Activists say they end up foraging for food in forests to keep and their families alive. "We have seen a huge rise in starvation-related deaths after these tea estates were closed down. There is no effective safety net for those who lose their job and the result is that they die for lack of food or medicines," said Anuradha Talwar, a supreme court adviser, who compiled a report about the deaths.

Ms Talwar's research showed that even those who were employed endured hardship. One survey showed 22 tea estates owed workers more than 360m rupees (£4.5m) in back pay. "Many health centres did not have adequate supplies of anti-snake venom serum. It is not indifference but a matter of life and death."

The country's tea industry has recently been hailed as an example of how to cope with globalisation - cutting costs while expanding overseas. One such company is Tata Tea, which bought Britain's Tetley while slashing its employees by 30,000.

Monojit Dasgupta, secretary general of the Indian tea association, said that tea estates had to "become competitive and that the tragic deaths should be put in context of a sector with 250 tea estates".

"We have seen [tea] prices crash from 78 rupees in 1998 to 55 rupees in 2004. We had to deal with the competition from new growers. The distressful situation in certain parts of Bengal is a chronic problem which perhaps needs timely government intervention. But I think it does not reflect the industry's position."

India, the world's largest producer and consumer of tea, has laws that theoretically protect the industry's remaining 200,000 workers. However, many are not enforced, said Ms Talwar. Many pickers have left to work in Bhutan's rock-crushing industry, where employment is erratic and often dangerous.

The Indian minister for commerce, Jairam Ramesh, told the Guardian that the government was "engaged in finding a solution. I think we have a small number of problems and we are looking at ways to deal with the plight of the people."

Asian Human Rights Commission
Report of the Independent Public Tribunal Inquiring into Starvation Deaths at Jalangi in the District of Murshidabad in the State of West Bengal, India
I. Introduction
On the 23rd and 24th September, 2005 a Public Tribunal consisting of retired judges of different High Courts, physicians and social activists including practising advocates conducted an inquiry into starvation deaths at Jalangi in the district of Murshidabad, West Bengal.
This tribunal was constituted on the joint initiative of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a regional human rights organisation based in Hong Kong and Banglar Manabadikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), a human rights organisation based in West Bengal, India to look into the situation of starvation deaths and poverty in Murshidabad district, West Bengal, India.

II. Terms of reference
The Tribunal was constituted in the context of the recent stir created by an extreme human tragedy - ‘starvation deaths’ in various parts of West Bengal. As borne out by the media reports, the victims included plantation workers in tea gardens in North Bengal, Shavar tribes in the Amlashole area of West Medinipur district, marginal peasants in North and South 24 Parganas and those uprooted and impoverished by land erosion in Malda and Murshidabad districts.

The Tribunal concentrates on the erosion – affected people in Murshiabad, particularly in the Jalangi block. The problem of land erosion by the river Padma in Malda and Murshidabad has a long history, which has been outlined in the introductory note. Suffice it to say that it is not only a case of geographical calamity or natural disaster. It entails a sordid saga of official apathy towards a matter of grave concern: continuing human plight; to put it more precisely: poverty, displacement, joblessness leading people to live on the borderline of starvation.

The idea of the Tribunal stems from our belief that the civil society has a duty to hear the victims’ experiences and assess the situation that has scripted this tragedy.

The Tribunal conducting public hearing consists of the following 8 members:
Justice Hosbet Suresh –  Former Judge, Mumbai High Court
Justice Samaresh Banerjea –  Former Judge, Calcutta High Court
Justice Malay Sengupta –  Former Acting Chief Justice, Sikkim High Court
Ms. Chandreyi Alam –  Advocate, Calcutta High Court
Ms. Anuradha Talwar –  West Bengal Advisor to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court in Writ Petition 196/2001 pending before the Supreme Court of India
Dr. Prajjwal Sengupta –  Sramajbi Hospital, Belur, Howrah
Dr. Lenin Raghubanshi –  Benaras, Uttar Pradesh
Dr. Bikash Bhattacharjya –  Sramajbi Hospital, Belur, Howrah
The Tribunal’s task is to make an endeavour to get a clear idea on the following issues:

i.Whether the Government is conscious of the issue of deaths due to starvation occurring in some remote part of the State of West Bengal general and at Jalangi in the district of Murshidabad in particular?

ii. Whether the Government is taking steps and eager to take remedial measures to stop recurrence of deaths due to starvation?

III. The Hearing
1. On 23rd September, 2005 the tribunal heard the victims at Bankim Bhavan at Jalangi. The tribunal heard cases in three separate benches. The first bench was constituted by Justice H. Suresh and Dr. Lenin. The second bench was constituted by Justice Samaresh Banerjea, Mrs. Anuradha Talwar and Dr. Prajjwal Sengupta and the third bench was constituted by Justice Malay Sengupta, Ms. Chandreyee Alam and Dr. Bikash Bhattacharjee.

2. The organizers submitted 28 cases before the tribunal. The evidences contained both written complaints and oral testimony of the complainants. Apart from considering the written complaints and the oral testimony of the complainants, the members of the tribunal also visited on 24 September, 2005 some of the affected villages where most of the victims are now staying.

3. Besides the cases placed before the tribunal, a good number of complaints were submitted by the victims through the organizers. Coming to know about the tribunal, about 1500 local people gathered near the venue. The complaints collected from these people were subsequently presented before the tribunal for consideration. The tribunal decided to meticulously scrutinize all these complaints with the assistance of the organizers. 

4. On 24 September, the tribunal heard a considerable number of persons in their villages where they narrated their experiences.  On the basis of the submissions made before the tribunal and the members’ own experience when they visited the victims at their homes, the tribunal would like to make the following primary observations:

IV. Observations
1. Jalangi is not only a case of utter indifference by the administration to people’s plight but also one of large-scale violation of human rights. The erosion of the embankment of the river Padma which has been going on for the last one decade has resulted in the displacement of people on a large scale. As the tribunal surveyed the place, it became clear that the government has done little to improve the situation. What the tribunal witnessed was human misery expressed in tears and a sense of absolute despair on the face of every one.

2. The tribunal would like to observe that when a person loses his home or land he loses not only his right to shelter or right to property only but also everything. He loses his right to livelihood, right to food, right to health, right to environment, and above all the right to human dignity. This is what has happened in Jalangi. The internal displacement of a large number of people has plunged them into abject poverty. And poverty is the worst form of violation of human rights.

3. Starvation, the tribunal found, is rampant among men, women and children everywhere. No one is sure of his or her next meal. There is no regular source of income, no proper jobs for many. Those who owned land have become landless overnight. The way, the erosion is going on, calls for immediate intervention. The tribunal witnessed the pathetic sight of an owner of a house situated very close to the river, dismantling his own house to save as much as he can. Starvation is a fact.  And a visit to the site and talking to the people cannot but confirm it and move those who are concerned with people’s right to live with dignity. (A few photographs taken while the tribunal was at the site are annexed to this report.)

4. The tribunal also found that quite a number of people are illiterate. They just do not know how to meet the situation. Some of them had complained to government offices but there is nothing to show that the government has given them proper attention. In fact many women requested the tribunal whether the tribunal could give them BPL cards. The tribunal has reason to doubt the transparency in the matter of distribution of BPL cards. It is an irony that this district happens to be under the national programme for food for work.

5. On the question of death from starvation the tribunal found some evidence of such death of five persons. There was one case where a hungry child in the absence of her mother ate lime thinking it was curd and the child could not be saved. He was taken to the local doctor who suggested that the child be taken to the government hospital. The staff at the government hospital stated that they had no equipment to treat the child. The tribunal also heard another case where an elderly man died of starvation because he refused to eat, on learning that there was no food for the other members of the family. He just didn’t eat and died after about three days. One could argue that these are not starvation deaths; the cause of death could be old age problems, severe stomach pain, tuberculosis, cardiac problems or other ailments. But where hunger and starvation is almost self – evident, all these deaths can be attributed to hunger, malnutrition and lack of adequate food. 

6. Does it make any difference if one loses one’s life due to poverty, hunger, starvation or malnutrition? Are they not all interlinked? When a person dies out of poverty or from hunger or starvation or of any ailment due to malnutrition all should mean the same.

7. The tribunal also saw a large number of children who were apparently suffering from night blindness and also from malnutrition. It appeared that there were no considered efforts from the state to address this grave issue. Any ordinary person visiting this place, without having any professional training would find that the majority of the children are suffering from extreme malnutrition. An observation made by Dr. Prajjwal Sengupta on this issue is annexed to this report.

8. With respect to issues of rehabilitation for the people of Jalangi, the tribunal is of the view that the government has not made any concerted effort to eliminate the problems of the internally displaced persons. The inquiry shows that some of the persons have been given by way of dole a BPL card or an Antyodaya card or Annapurna card and some ration cards. All these seem to be halfhearted temporary schemes, not for the purpose of guaranteeing a full meal to everyone every day.

9. What is required is a right-based approach in the matter of rehabilitating all persons affected by the disaster. Human right is not charity. It is a right, which the government has an obligation to protect, preserve and fulfill. A right-based approach can ensure it. For the people to get it is a matter of right to demand whatever is required to live with human dignity. It is in this sense that the government must reconsider their approach, if they have any and come with strategies, which guarantee fulfillment of rights of all affected people.

10. On this basic understanding of the background of the situation and on an analysis of the testimonies, oral and documentary, and other related documents produced before the tribunal, we record the following findings:

V. Findings and recommendations
i) Due to erosion caused by the river Padma the persons who were staying on the bank of the river have lost their lands, houses and everything they had.

ii) Those who lost their houses and land have erected makeshift huts over private holdings and are under continuous pressure for vacating those lands.

iii) The victims who had their own land and who used to hire workers are now themselves working as agricultural labourers in the absence of any other means of living.

iv) The process of erosion is a continuous one and has been going on for the last 10 to 12 years.

v) The fact is that many mouzas / villages have been devoured by the river Padma whereas “chars” have come up in the midst of the river but the victims / complainants cannot claim them to be their own land due to restrictions imposed by the Border Security Force and the civil administration. On the contrary Bangladeshi people are occupying those char lands which formerly belonged to the lands of the victims / complainants of Jalangi, Murshidabad.

vi) Loss of land has rendered the affected villagers totally jobless.

vii) The families which lost their lands are suffering from acute malnutrition and poverty and various ailments are taking their toll on the victims.

viii) The victims / complaints have lost their dignity as human beings and the government and its functionaries are maintaining silence as to the plight of such victims / complainants; and they have not been brought under the purview of different government schemes like food for work programme, below the poverty line programme, Antyodoya and Annapurna Yojana, various ICDS projects and the other government projects meant for the target groups to which the victims / complainants belong to.

ix) A number of victims complained of alleged discrimination being made by the administration in rendering assistance to the victims / complainants on grounds - political and others and that the government is maintaining silence on this issue which must be a matter of serious concern for any government, state or central.

x) The victims / complainants have made representations to the government several times but anything positive is yet to be done. Although there were programmes for construction of embankments to prevent erosion by the river, the boulders that were brought lay stacked at distant places for a long time. There was thus no attempt to start construction of such embankments.

xi) The members of the tribunal visited different spots at Jalangi Block to get a first - hand evidence of the nature of the disaster. It appears that lands of different mouzas located on paper in land records do not exist anymore in reality.

xii) The villagers having their lands and homes close to the river are themselves demolishing their huts and houses in the apprehension that within a few hours their land and houses will disappear into the river. The villagers were seen to be engaged in demolishing their own houses and salvaging bricks and other building materials.

xiii) The victims / complainants have narrated their respective cases in details to the tribunal. Dr. Prajjwal Sengupta, a member of the panel examined some children, youths and aged persons and the tentative finding of the doctor according to the guidelines of the World Health Organization is that the children of the victims / complainants are suffering from second, third and even fourth grade malnutrition.

xiv) Court no. 1 of the tribunal has come across a few cases where on the basis of the evidence available on record it can be ascertained that starvation deaths have occurred; and of those who are alive, a large number of victims may succumb to death due to starvation and malnutrition unless remedial steps are taken forthwith.

xv) The government, particularly the state government, is yet to properly implement the welfare programmes such as food for work, identification of below poverty level, Antyodaya Yojana, Annapurna Yojana, ICDS and various other schemes in Jalangi.

xvi) The interim order of the Supreme Court of India in writ petition 196/2001 has not been followed in Jalangi. The manner in which the order of the court has been violated is as follows:

a. The people living in these areas have lost their land and other sources of income and are utterly destitute. Yet they have not been identified as being below the poverty line and poverty – alleviation programmes have not been extended to them.

b. Many of the victims would fall under the categories defined for Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) by the court’s order dated 2nd May 2003, but the process of identification and extension of the AAY has not been done.

c. The district has been declared as one of the 150 backward districts under the National Food for Work Programme. In spite of this and the order of the Supreme Court to provide the deprived people with work, many people in the area remain deprived and get work for only one or two days in a year.

d. Under the existing programmes, food has not been received properly by the people. The ration shops remain open only 2 days a week, and the shops are providing food grains less than the declared scale to TPDS and AAY beneficiaries; the dealers are overcharging and not providing memos; adulteration of food grains also cannot be ruled out.

e. ICDS centers are providing less than the stipulated amount of 400 calories.

f. Transparency in the matter of giving information about the schemes have not been maintained according to the Supreme Court orders, i.e. beneficiary lists and court orders are not displayed; accounts for Mid - day Meal Scheme are not given to the people and the families are therefore suffering from acute shortage of food.

xvii) The issue of starvation in Jalangi requires to be urgently addressed at different levels of the governments, both the state and the central. Attention of all the NGOs and the International Community needs to be drawn for immediate assistance to the people in Jalangi.

xviii) The state government must immediately provide medical assistance to the villagers in Jalangi in particular so that cases of debility like night blindness, malnutrition and above all starvation can be attended to immediately.

xix) The tribunal would like to suggest to the government that immediate steps should be taken to prevent further engulfment of land by the river and construction of river embankment of permanent nature. It would prevent on one hand further land from being taken away by the river and would also provide job for the jobless and ensure a decent way of earning livelihood for the victims.

xx) The tribunal noticed with grave concern that beside the village roads of Ghoshpara, Roypara, Dayarampur, Paraspur, Taltali, and other villages there are huge boulders stacked for months together; this points to the carelessness of the administration.

xxi) The tribunal would also suggest that the government should undertake rehabilitation programme for those who have already lost their land and other belongings so that the victims can get rid of the uncertainty of their very existence.

xxii) The tribunal also came across some cases where the male members of some families left their houses in search of a job elsewhere. The government should take care of the children of these particularly vulnerable families.

VI. Conclusion
Having analyzed the entire situation mentioned above, the tribunal comes to the conclusion with a grave concern that a complete absence of any government representative at the hearing itself shows the apathy of government machinery. The government was given prior notice along with the copies of written complaints of the victims submitted before the tribunal regarding the hearing clearly mentioning the date, time and venue of the hearing. But none of the official representatives turned up.

Before concluding this report the members of the tribunal call upon the civil society, the government, both state and central, the UNICEF, UNDP, and all other humanitarian organisations as well as the international community to immediately provide assistance to the victims of river erosion in Jalangi so that a workable programme can immediately be undertaken for rehabilitation, compensation and assistance to the victims / complainants.

Members of the Tribunals have received all co-operation from the organizers and the victims / complainants during the public hearing.

Tribunal members

Hosbet Suresh J Former Judge, High Court, Bombay
Samaresh Banerjea J Former Judge, High Court, Calcutta
Malay Sengupta J Former Acting Chief Justice, High Court, Sikkim
Chandreyi Alam Advocate, High Court, Calcutta
Anuradha Talwar Social Activist
Prajjwal Sengupta Dr. Lenin Raghubanshi Dr.
Bikash Bhattacharjya Dr.

Asian Human Rights Commission Publications
Endangered Humanity -- Hungry faces, Angry River

Since the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of people living on the Gnga-Padma embankment in Malda and Murshidabad have fallen prey to the wrath of angry rivers.  Due to continuous erosion of river Padma, people in the area have been losing their agricultural lands, fleeing their homes, reeling under poverty and even starving to death...

In Jalangi, in Murshidabad district about 600 families in different villages re now living on starvation diet.  As the river Padma is fast approaching, hundreds of people are facing the threat of being uprooted any day.

Devoid of any relief, apathetic attitude of the Government, deep-rooted corruption at the local level and deprivation in all respect have forced a large section of people on the brink of extinction.

Since January 2005, MASUM and AHRC have been in touch with the local administration and trying to draw the attention of the officials to the miserable condition prevailing in Jalangi.  And being not happy with the official response took the initiative to constitute a public tribunal on 23-24 September, 2005.

The Report of the tribunal, statements and documents together, constitute a tragic story of human misery on the one hand and the apathy of a heartless administration of the state on the other hand.

The report addressed to the civil society and also to the international community to draw their attention about the real problems that need to be addressed for restoration of the rule of law and standard of human rights, which are at stake in West Bengal.

(Published in January 2006 by the Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

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