The once-thriving tea gardens in the fertile Dooars region which encompasses the plains of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts of West Bengal have now fallen on hard times.
These tea plantations, first set up by the British colonialists in the 19th century, are today unable to keep up with global competition primarily coming in from Sri Lanka and China.
Falling yields, excessive dependence on human capital over mechanisation which results in high cost of production, and the proliferation of small growers in the area have eaten into the profits of particularly the major tea plantations.
It was during the mid-1990s when small growers began to flood the tea market emerging out of the Dooars region.
As per data published by Tea Board India, the number of tea plantations in North India (which includes West Bengal, Assam and all the North-Eastern states) jumped from 3,141 in 1994 to 36,836 in 1999. In the Dooars alone, this number jumped from 168 to 532 during this period, rendering the cost structures of these major plantations unviable.
However, more than tea garden owners it is their workers who have suffered immensely. Reports of starvation deaths of workers emanating from the plantation’s inability to pay their wages and supply food grains on time are nothing short of devastating. Add petty corruption and an insensitive bureaucracy to the mix and what you have is a recipe for disaster.
This issue also has political ramifications in the state.
In recent years, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has made regular visits to the region, directing local officials to reportedly ensure that tea plantation workers have access to the welfare schemes and benefits introduced by the government.
With 63 tea gardens falling under the jurisdiction of Nikhil Nirmal IAS, the District Magistrate of Alipurduar, the task before his administration is enormous. Of the 63 tea gardens, 5 have closed down while another 20 are struggling to maintain their finances.
For the civil servant who grew up among tea plantations in his home district of Ernakulam, this was an issue he understood well. “During my formative years, I witnessed first-hand the suffering of tea garden workers and the circumstances surrounding them,” he said, speaking to The Better India.
As a result, his administration on July 22 started “Apnar Bagane Proshason” (administration in your garden), an effective public awareness and grievance redressal initiative for poor workers in stressed/closed tea garden areas in the Dooars region. The first such camp was held at Madhu Tea Garden (closed since September 2014) on July 22, 2018.
Since these workers have little to no alternative sources of livelihood, Nirmal says that the district administration is trying to find a way through which state development initiatives reach these vulnerable people without the usual bureaucratic red tape that comes along with it.
Where do these workers come from?
Speaking to TBI, Suman Mohanty, an IAS officer working on probation under Nirmal, said that most of these workers are tribal migrants from Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam who arrived generations ago and have settled in these parts.
“These workers are economically backward with poor human development indicators, particularly when it comes education, nutrition and healthcare. Many of them aren’t even covered under the ambit social security schemes and depend on exploitative touts to acquire benefits from government-related programs,” he said.
In order to break the stranglehold of touts/ intermediaries, the Alipurduar district administration under Nikhil Nirmal, who took over the reins in June 2018, took the following steps:
1) Identify closed and stressed tea gardens and set up camps in and around them at least once a week.
2) Bring officials from 16 line-departments under whom the benefits of government-related schemes and tasks including MGNREGA, Nirmal Bangla (sanitation), Kanyashree (girl child empowerment through education), Rupashree (prevention of child marriage through provision of state money when they reach 18 years of age), Sabuj Saathi (provision of saplings to ensure afforestation and income security), Anandadhara (bank-credit linkage), payment of unpaid wages, food ration card enrolment and provision of SC/ST certificates on the spot, among others, are disbursed.
3) Officials from District Administration/Block/Gram panchayat converge on the spot.
4) To attract workers, a free health camp is organised at the particular tea garden. Immunization of mother and child, standard health check-ups, blood group checking, treatment for sickle cell anaemia, vector-borne diseases—malaria, dengue, tuberculosis—and alcohol and tobacco de-addiction are just some of the services on offer.
Moreover, disability check-up camps are conducted on the spot to identify disability parameters for registration to Manabik pension schemes (for disability). Announcements for these camps are also made in the Sadri (spoken across different tribal communities), Hindi and Bengali.
5) The District Magistrate personally attends these camps and listens to their grievances. He informed TBI that he also took the trouble of learning Sadri to interact with these workers.
6) These meetings are held on tea garden holidays or over the weekend. Ever week the district administration holds these redressal sessions at one particular tea garden or a nearby spot.
It’s been a little over a month, but the administration’s efforts are seemingly bearing some fruit.
“We are very thankful that the DM held this camp. we received important information about old-age and widow pension related issues and their documentation, while the disbursal of unpaid MGNREGA wages and demands for a community hall were fulfilled,” said Vasant Thapi, who attended a camp at a government school in Bandapani village, Madarihat Block.
Another former tea garden worker (who did not wish to be named), meanwhile, spoke of how she was finally able to apply for a ration card and government schemes like Sabuj Saathi, Rupashree and Kanyashree with all the necessary documents at another camp last month.
Since the start of this initiative, the district administration has conducted 12 such camps. These are early days, and the road ahead is very long, but drastic measures are already taking place.
In certain instances, at these camps, officials were fired for indulging in corruption.
“The official concerned was a casual and temporary staff member employed in a ration shop and was consistently engaged in corrupt and dishonest practices about which the district magistrate had received many complaints. After holding camp in Madarihat Nirmal Sir went to the shop, confronted the man, and upon finding that he had nothing to offer in his defence asked him to report for a hearing at Block Development Office, where after due process he was sacked,” says Suman.
Nonetheless, the administration has barely skimmed the surface. Nirmal tells The Better India that his administration could take six months to cover all tea gardens under his jurisdiction.
“Challenges also include following up with the block and gram panchayat officials to ensure people’s grievances that we could not resolve at the camps are addressed at the earliest. We would also like to extend these services at the gram panchayat level,” says Nirmal.
One could even argue that the necessity to conduct health camps points to failures in the primary health system, an issue the district administration will need to rectify.
These grievance redressal camps have brought the administration closer to the people.
“This platform gives them real power to vent their grievances, point out our inadequacies and receive benefits. Earlier touts would fleece them through enrolment for government programs like Aadhaar due to information asymmetry. After the District Magistrate fired a ration card employee on the spot, there is some fear in the ranks. Also, workers do not have to forego one day’s work to go to district headquarter to alleviate their problems,” says Suman.
It even keeps local block and gram panchayat officials on their toes with complaints of administrative malpractices often flowing into the district magistrate’s office.
“One block development officer, meanwhile, remarked they did not previously understand the pain it took to travel on the bad roads leading up to these tea garden. After attending these camps, he is taking it seriously to ensure all roads are completed on a war footing,” says Nirmal.
Considering the initial breakthroughs achieved through the Apnar Baganer Proshashon initiative, other nearby districts have emulated the same, although they are called by different names.
At the end of the day, these camps have only brought the administration closer to the tea garden workers. Larger concerns of a dwindling tea industry and ensuring they find alternative sources of livelihood require a much bigger intervention. However, at least for now, the administration knows and understand their daily trials and tribulations.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)