Once a migrant, always a migrant: The multiple passages of tea plantation workers of north-Bengal

Santi Sarkar and Khoka Mali write about the tea gardens in North Bengal, and the migrations that enable them. This articles takes into consideration the disparity in wages, in the payment of provident funds of the tea garden employees and the need for subsistence that send people out of the tea gardens, those who are the children of already migrant workers.

[Cover image: Pandit Oraon in front of his small betel shop.]

Pandit Oraon (28) runs his small pan shop at the tribal labour line at Raipur tea estate which hardly meets with the daily needs of his family. Previously he used to work in a hotel in Thimphu (Bhutan). Not only Pandit but many adult men and women from the (tea) garden(s) have been working as masonry labour, hotel boy, cleaning staff, housemaid in different parts of India to provide economic assistance to their family. One person from each family works as a plantation worker in the garden until fifty-eight (58). But the age of issuance of pension is sixty (60). Hence, they have to wait for 2 years without any assistance from the garden. This has created another puzzle among many existing puzzles for the workers. At present, the daily wage (hajira) varies from Rs.165 to 180 which are low compared to the wages of MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) which is the world’s largest public work programme aimed to provide 100 days of work in a year for all the rural household in India (Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. OUP: London).[i] The per day wage of unskilled labour in the financial year of 2018-2019 under MGNREGS in West Bengal is 191.[ii] The present state government decided to implement the scheme in the gardens. One positive thing about this initiative is that the main workers get employment for the whole year but the bad thing is that wages in the 100 days of work is not subjected to a wage cut therefore; they will not get any bonus for that work and no deposition of money in the provident fund.

However, whether the wage cuts in the garden-provided work properly deposited in the provident fund is a different thing and demands a separate discussion which is not in the scope of this article. Over the above, the families we have visited hardly know about the exact amount of their dues. More or less, the same situation has been prevailing almost in all the tea gardens of Dooars region namely, Kathalguri, Redbank, Surendra Nagar, Ramjhora, Bhernobari, Beech, Chamurchi and so on. Owing to a variety of wages across the gardens, the non-worker family members are going to the other gardens to work as bigha worker (marginal worker). It was during the early 19th century when the British were laying down the foundation stones of the tea estates, the labours were brought to the Dooars region from the places like Purulia, Dumka, Ranchi, Nepal by the middlemen popularly known as Aarkathi (Pimp) who enticed those people of an El Dorado. From the mid-’90s, the migrant community of tea gardens in Dooars became migrants once again.

Image 2: Dilapidated condition of the canteen in Kathaguri tea garden.

The tea gardens of north-Bengal became infamous for the alleged news of “starvation deaths” of tea plantation labours at the very beginning of the last decade. One can get a glimpse of their vulnerability after going through the reports prepared by the commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court of India on the case (petition no.196/2001) of the Right to food.[i] Tea estate owners arbitrarily abandoned/closed the gardens, fled with the dues of the workers, had left them with the mercy of a dark future. Trade unions became only some familiar names for the workers. Over the above, given the socio-political fabric of West Bengal under the Left Front regime, where the party machinery did a great job for materialising decisions those flew from the above was indeed, at least in our case, a one-way road. Therefore, solicitations of the workers and local Left Front leaders from the grassroots level did not reach the proper ears. Hence, the deaths continued. In addition, some workers told us that they were suspicious of an evil nexus between the erstwhile trade union leaders and tea estate owners.

Image 3: The medical facilities in the Redbank and Surendranagar tea garden provided by M.A.N.T

Owing to the lack of income opportunities in local areas as the direct result of the same crisis faced by almost all the tea gardens, people forced to leave their home in search of employment. As we mentioned before that the retirement age of the workers of the garden is fifty-eight (58) for both male and female workers and in single time only one member from the family is eligible to get employed in any job in the garden. Thus, it becomes too difficult for them to make their household run by relying on a single source of income and have to supplement it. Therefore, multiple members from the families have migrated to the different parts of the country. Their forced migration not only restricted within the country but also to the distant foreign lands, like one of the daughters-in-law of Kumar Pradhan (60), a retired worker of Chamoorchi tea estate whose forefathers hailed from Nepal, migrated to Dubai to work as a babysitter while her husband is staying back in Pune engaged as a waiter in a hotel. Kumar’s case is unique among all the families we have visited in this way that half of his family (five members out of ten) presently is not at the home. None of the families we have talked with know the exact part of the city/town where their family members are staying. The remitting interval varies from per month to one year so the remitting amount varies. A general trend emerged from our field study is that all the migrants stayed in their working places for an average period of maximum 2years. Then they return home only to find their next destination.

Image 4: Poor drinking water facilities at Rmajhora tea garden

In this way, multiple passages of multiple family members have become the driving force of the household is a normal thing in their family life which we can hardly conceive. Often the migrants face life threats. One of the workers of Beech tea garden narrated a story to us of how a young man went to Delhi in search of a job and fell sick then admitted to hospital. After a few months when the patient became able to bear the brunt of the return journey, came back home. After a few weeks again he became so ill that he was admitted to the hospital and died. Later it was found that his kidney had been dissected from his body. The maladies faced by the workers and their families not yet end here. Dainik Statesman, a Bengali daily, dated 27th February 2007 reported that driven by poverty, hunger, and unemployment the women from the closed gardens had to choose the occupation of the sex worker. On many occasions, the aarkathis have enticed the women by offering them a job at a distant location. Once the women reached the destination, they deceived and pushed to dark lanes of prostitution. These problems are going hand in hand with the ongoing debate on the reservation of seats of women in the parliamentary election.

Image 5: Children playing at Kathaguri tea estate

Though in the present days after the implementation NFSA (National Food Security Act, 2013) the situation is comparatively better but ensuring two square meal a day is not adequate to increase the quality of life of these people. It would be a misconception to judge them as developed on the basis of their recently achieved food security. They are not free to buy the minimum they need to say, food, clothing, education, medical facilities. In all the eight gardens we have visited the water facility is in abysmal. On an average estimate of the data from all the visited gardens, there is only 1 tube well and two or three taps after 92 families. There is no source of water except these and they are fully dependent on it from breakfast to supper. In this context, as Amartya Sen formulated 20 years ago[i], it can be argued that development should be perceived as freedom: freedom to achieve their entitlement. And their freedom is dependent on their future which still not seems to be a bright one.

All photos are copyrighted to the authors.

Khoka Mali is an independent researcher based in Midnapore, West Bengal, India. he can be reached at khokamali3@gmail.com. Santi Sarkar is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Science at Vidyasagar University, Midnapore, West Bengal, India. He can be reached at santisarkar35@gmail.com.

[i] Report available at http://cry.org/resources/pdf/tea_garden_hunger_report.pdf  Last accessed on 09.04.2014

[ii] https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/gk-current-affairs/story/mgnrega-281596-2015-07-09  Last accessed on 17.04.2019

[iii]https://nregawb.in/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2018-19.pdf   Last accessed on 09.04.2014

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