New Delhi: All is not brewing well in the tea gardens of north Bengal, the northern region of the eastern state of West Bengal.
At least five tea gardens have been shut down, leaving nearly 5,000 workers jobless. The reason: Disagreement between workers' union and plantation owners over minimum wages. While the workers want Rs206 as daily wage, the owners are defiant.
As a result, some 100 workers have reportedly died of starvation and malnutrition, while many others have even resorted to selling their children just to get two square meals a day.
"We will not settle anything less than Rs 206 a day. Workers are currently paid Rs90 a day, after putting in eight hours of hard labour to produce the expensive Darjeeling tea. How can a person survive on such a meagre amount?" asked Nemai Gurung. But, plantation owners are in no mood to listen to the workers' problems.
"We have been in discussion with the state government and the federal government that costs like housing and power be waived off the industry to keep it alive for another 100 years," Monojit Dasgupta of plantation owners' association told an Indian news channel.
The land for the plantations is state government land and is given in lease to the owners on a lease of 30 years, renewable subject to the condition that the land will be used for tea production alone.
Though the government has formed an expert panel to look into the problems of the tea gardens, it has neither confirmed the reports of starvation deaths nor the plight of the workers.
When contacted, West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra told Times of Oman over the telephone from state capital Kolkata that the government would act once the panel submitted its report. "We will do the needful," he added.
North Bengal has about 450 tea gardens spread out in the Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars region. With about 350,000 permanent workers and 52 per cent of the workforce in these gardens is female. It is estimated that more than 2.5 million people are dependent on the tea industry in the region.