Poverty and fear derail the Covid fight in Bengal’s Dooars tea gardens

The workers have no faith in public health. They also can’t afford to miss work if they fall sick.

WrittenBy:Joy Prafful Lakra
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Dooars, located in the foothills of the Himalayas, is a region of West Bengal covered with dense forests and tea gardens. It’s also mesmerisingly beautiful, stretching from the Teesta river in the west to the Sankosh river in east, 150 km in length and 40 km in breadth. The contiguous region fully or partially covers the districts of Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar.

Dooars is predominantly inhabited by Oraons, Mundas, Santals, Kharias, Mech, Rabhas, Rajbonsis and Nepalis, all of whom primarily depend on tea gardens, forests and agriculture for their livelihood. The beautiful landscape camouflages years of neglect and exploitation, resulting in poor education and health facilities, migration, trafficking, and poverty.

There are 283 tea gardens in North Bengal, employing 3.5 lakh people. Dooars region alone has 154 tea gardens. According to the 2011 census, the population of the Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts together was 3,872,846.

Other workers constitute the main workforce of the district at 60.7 percent of the total workers. It should be noted here that under the 2011 census, the work in plantation crops like tea was recorded under the “other workers” category.

On June 15, 2021, West Bengal reported 4,371 new Covid cases and 84 deaths, while the respective numbers for India were 77,722 and 3,721. Cases have declined since mid May, though deaths remain high and a cause of concern. While many states have started the process of rolling back their lockdowns, the Bengal government has extended its lockdown, with a few relaxations, until July 1.

In the villages and tea gardens of Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar, Covid cases are still very high. In Madarihat block in Alipurduar, seven people tested positive on June 9, 29 on June 10, 33 on June 12, and 28 on June 13. Out of the 33 who tested positive on June 12, 17 were from Lankapara tea garden. Between April 7 and May 30, 740 people tested positive in Jalpaiguri’s Mateilli block.

And these are just the cases that have been recorded. There is a high probability of unreported cases considering the vulnerability of the population due to lack of testing, loss of jobs, and insufficient nutrition. The fight against Covid is, therefore, extremely difficult in the tea gardens and villages of Dooars.

Daily Covid cases in West Bengal. Source: covid19india.org
Daily Covid cases in Alipurduar district. Source: covid19india.org
Daily Covid cases in Jalpaiguri. Source: Source: covid19india.org

‘There is tremendous fear’

Even during normal times, the Birpara state general hospital is full to its capacity. Due to the lack of space, patients are often accommodated in its corridors.

The hospitals in the tea gardens are in poor condition, many of them without doctors or nurses. Even medicines – for fever, headache, stomachache – are hard to come by, let alone treatment for serious illnesses.

Workers at the tea gardens receive a daily wage of Rs 202. Battling both poverty and malnutrition, they are susceptible to tuberculosis, malaria and diarrhoea, to name a few, and hundreds die every year, though the specific numbers are unknown due to poor reporting. Despite welfare measures mandated by the Plantation Labour Act of 1951, tea garden workers continue to live impoverished lives. Yet the tea industry has been doing brisk business for decades by exploiting the labourers and violating their rights.

Sashi Sunuwar, a daily wager at the Dalmore tea garden located in Alipurduar’s Madarihat block, is also a member of the Uttar Bangal Chai Shramik Sangathan, or UBCSS, an organisation that works for the implementation of the Minimum Wage Act in the tea plantations and land rights for the tea garden workers. Since the second wave of Covid began in March, he’s been involved in relief work in the tea gardens in Madarihat block.

Sashi finds it extremely difficult to convince people to take Covid seriously. For instance, he said, there’s a rumour in these parts that if a patient is taken to the hospital, they never return. This adds to the hesitancy to get tested or visit health centres when unwell.

“People in the tea gardens are very casual about Covid,” said Christian Kharia, who lives at Nagasuree tea garden and is the president of the UBCSS. “They treat it like any other sickness. People are not following Covid protocols.”

Christian, who also volunteers with the Pachim Bangal Khet Mazdoor Samity, a trade union working for the rights of tea garden labourers in Bengal, said this makes it difficult to contain Covid’s spread in the tea gardens. However, he also said the administration must be more proactive.

“They should be at the forefront in creating awareness and building confidence,” he said. “It is not only the people who need to be blamed.” Pointing at the economic conditions of tea garden workers, he said people need to earn money which is why they can’t stay home.

Conditions for these workers make them particularly susceptible to Covid: 40 or 50 of them are crammed into vans to go to the tea gardens. “There is a high probability that the disease will be transmitted from one garden to another,” Christian added. But stopping work implies a loss of food and income, so he suggested that the government ensures a basic minimum income for workers during the lockdown.

Suraj Oraon from Chalouni tea garden is currently pursuing a master’s degree from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. A member of Prayatn, he returned home for the lockdown and is trying to drum up awareness about Covid and the importance of getting vaccinated. Prayatn is an Adivasi youth collective that has worked in the tea gardens for more than 10 years towards education, social awareness and community strengthening. They train, mentor and prepare students for higher studies. Over the past few years many members of Prayatn have graduated or are studying in institutions like TISS, Azim Premji University, Delhi University, Ambedkar University, Visva Bharati University, and Mangalore University.

“There is tremendous fear about Covid in the tea gardens,” Suraj said. “Even if people are sick, they do not go to the hospital. They prefer taking home remedies and only go to get tested when they fall seriously ill. People fear that they will be taken away if they test positive. They are not ready to get vaccinated because they have heard about deaths after the vaccination.”

It isn’t easy to get a test either. The nearest testing centre from Chalouni tea garden is Chalsa, about 12 km away. “Owing to the restrictions on movement of vehicles during the lockdown, people cannot go for testing,” pointed out Kiran Oraon, a postgraduate student at TISS who is also a member of Prayatn from Chalouni tea garden. “Reserving a private vehicle is also expensive, which people in the tea garden cannot afford.”

So, between May 31 and June 8, Kiran organised a Covid testing drive in Chalouni tea garden with the support of the Mateilli block health department. Rapid antigen tests were done on 200 people; six tests returned positive.

But despite their best efforts, many workers who fall sick choose to stay home. Sushma Oraon* from Indong tea garden started showing symptoms of Covid on May 2. Instead of getting a test, she isolated herself, spoke to her doctor, and stayed home.

Sushma is lucky because she recovered, but why didn’t she get a test?

“If I had tested positive, my mother, who is a daily wage labourer, would have been asked by the [tea garden] management not to come for work,” she pointed out. “There was also a possibility that my neighbours would have also lost their work for sometime.”

Tea garden workers also do not receive paid leave. Missing work during a pandemic, even if it’s to get tested, is therefore not an option, given that they’re already struggling to make ends week.

Harihar Nagbansi, who freelances with Video Volunteers, a community media initiative, pointed out that central and state governments have pandemic guidelines for leave. The guidelines, issued on June 7 by the department of personnel and training, have provisions for commuted leave, special casual leave, earned leave, and half-pay leave for government employees who test positive for Covid.

“Why is this provision not implemented in the tea gardens?” he asked.

No leave, no income

It’s not just the tea garden workers who have been hit hard. Dooars is home to a number of daily wagers, who also work in factories, construction sites, and brick kilns, among others. Since the lockdown, they’ve all been out of work.

Asim Kujur, 45, is a resident of Shishujhumra in Dooars. He works as a daily wager at a plywood factory, earning Rs 300 a day. Since the lockdown began in May, Asim has had no work. Neither has Irfan, a daily wager at a Food Corporation of India godown. The godown has been operational through the lockdown but there is a shortfall of work.

“We used to earn around Rs 700-800 daily but it’s now reduced to about Rs 200,” Irfan said. The loss of this income has, in turn, impacted their paying off loans and spending on education and other expenses.

There are multiple solutions that could be considered.

First, to contain the spread of Covid, random testing must be initiated at a massive scale. A basic minimum income would pull workers out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Those who test positive should also be provided with paid leave for the duration of their quarantine. Only then can the battle against Covid in these parts be won.

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