India: Tea estate lockouts lead to starvation deaths

Assam and Darjeeling tea estate lockouts have led to malnutrition and starvation deaths in India this month.

Roopacherra tea estate in South Assam has been under lockout for nearly month after the executives abandoned it. Leading to the death of a three-year-old girl, Shivani Kalindi and two workers, Yogendra Kalindi, 22, and Manorama Dev, 60, according the workers' panchayat (council). Shivani had been taken to the garden hospital on Tuesday evening, but no doctor was available. “Even electricity to the healthcare centre had been cut off,” a union member said.

After the death of the girl, workers defied the lockout and began picking and selling leaf to other factories for their survival. The Katlicherra police have registered a case against the "absconding" tea executives and a fact-finding team has been set up to look into the deaths by the Hailakandi administration. Some food was given by the local administration after a hunger strike by a large group of women workers.

Dilip Singh, president of the garden panchayat, claimed that the out-of-work labour force was scavenging for roots and tubers of plants in the absence of food as most women and children in the labour colony were suffering from malnutrition related ailments. “We are afraid workers may consume something poisonous without knowing it”. Singh said the workers’ patience was wearing thin and warned of a bigger crisis if the estate management did not change its attitude.

Roopacherra tea estate has a 1,400-strong workforce, who have been paid no wages since a lockout was declared on January 19.The reason cited by the management for the lockout was “flagrant violation of instructions relating to attendance”.

Also this week, a bandh (24-hour general strike) was called by workers in Calcutta over more closed tea gardens in the Dooars and Darjeeling.

A spokesman from the Intuc union told a press conference: “Enough is enough. We as trade union leaders cannot be silent spectators when the ruling Marxists are giving false promises of reopening the closed tea gardens in north Bengal. So, a bandh is the last resort,"

He said families of over 30,000 permanent workers of 17 closed tea gardens are “almost starving”.

In addition to the starvation deaths in Assam, Joyma Teli, 23, a mother of two young children, and employee of the Dalsinghpara tea garden attempted suicide this week. She set herself on fire and had to be admitted to hospital with severe burn injuries. Joyma has a son, Ajoy, aged six and a daughter, Rinku, aged 18 months, and was unable to feed them properly having not received her wages. The 2,295 workers of Dalsinghpara tea estate were left in the lurch when the management fled the garden on February 9th, the third garden to be abandoned that day.

Entrepreneur Gopi Nath Das ordered his managerial staff to leave the Dalsignhpara estate. It was pay-day and Rs 8.56 lakh was required to clear the wages. Workers alleged that eight managerial staff members, who told them that they were short by Rs 90,000, left the garden one by one on the pretext of getting the deficit amount from the bank.

Manohar Tirkey, the secretary of the Dooars Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union, said the garden was taken over by the Calcutta-based LMJ International Ltd in June 2004. “They had promised to clear the dues, but did not. As a result, more dues have accrued since then. The workers have not been paid four months’ wages, provident fund and gratuity worth more than a crore,” Tirkey said.

Compiled and edited from reports in the Calcutta Telegraph by libcom.org