Photo feature: Duncans’ closed tea gardens in Bengal: Poverty, malnutrition, prostitution plague workers

Around 25000 workers became unemployed.
Photo feature: Duncans’ closed tea gardens in Bengal: Poverty, malnutrition, prostitution plague workers
Photo feature: Duncans’ closed tea gardens in Bengal: Poverty, malnutrition, prostitution plague workers
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It has been over a year now since Duncans Industries shut several of its plantations in West Bengal. The company, which produced around 15 million kg of tea a year, had crop loss estimated at 80% of its production capacity in 2015. 

And the worst hit by the crisis have been the workers in the tea gardens. Around 25,000 workers became unemployed when Duncans closed seven of its tea gardens in the northern region of the state.

From extreme poverty to malnutrition, workers migrating to other states in search for jobs to young girls taking to prostitution to feed  their families, the issues that plague the people are multiple and dire.

The union Commerce and Industry Ministry had, on January 28, issued the notification under section 16E of the Tea Act, 1953, for taking over the management/control of seven tea estates, contending that they were "managed in a manner highly detrimental to the tea industry and public interest".

While six of the estates, namely Birpara, Garganda, Lankapara, Tulsipara, Huntapara, and Dhumchipara, are run by Duncans Industries, the seventh - Demdima tea estate - belongs to Duncans but is operated by the Santipara Tea Co Ltd.

Challenging the notification, both Duncans and Santipara Tea moved the Kolkata High Court, which in March upheld the notification.

"The state government has been doing all it can for the welfare of the workers of these estates. We have been providing them food, health services and electricity," Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal Chief Minister, who had also announced forming a directorate for the tea gardens, had earlier said.

Freelance news and documentary photographer Tanmoy Bhaduri recently did a photo feature on Duncans’ closed tea gardens in north Bengal.

“We have formed a self-help group. We pick tea leaves in season and sell them on a daily per-kg basis, like it’s done in other Duncans estates, to protect our garden and factory. The earning is divided among workers,” Janak Singh, Secretary of Bagan Banchao Committee, Dimdima Tea Garden told Tanmoy.

Dhumchipara Tea Garden: The distance from Siliguri to Dumchipara tea garden is around 130 km.

Birpara tea garden.

Main Gate, Birpara tea factory.

Administrative office, Birpara tea factory.

Inside the now closed factory.

Rahul Mitra, a guard at the Birpara tea factory, says, “We have not received any payments since 2014, but we try to protect our gardens and factory. We have no option but to move.”

The health centre at Birpara tea estate is an abandoned building with no electricity and a small stock of a few basic medicines.

Motish Chandra, hospital staff says, “I am the only person here, I have nothing to do. No medicine, no facility to provide. Doctor and nurses stopped coming after closure of garden.”

A broken window: Workers, angry over non-payment of their wages, broke windows of the administrative office during a protest.

Now closed workshops at the Birpara tea estates.

Leaves being taken to the local market for sale.

Budhmunia Devi (73), a worker at Birpara tea garden says, “We get Rs 8 per kilo in the local market. We can pluck 25 kilos in a day to feed our families. From December to February there will be no work. We have no idea how we will live during those three months.”

Petti Dorji (65), a worker at Dimdima tea garden says, “My son went to Kerala for work. I have three granddaughters. How can I feed them?”

Rina Minch (35) is a worker at Dimdima tea garden. She lost her husband two months ago. She has four children. She has now started to work at the garden.

Nilima Minch (13), daughter of Rina Minch, stopped going to school because she has to take care of her younger siblings as her mother works in the garden.

Tiji Minch (70), a worker at Dimdima tea garden says, “We are six family members including three children. We do not get rations regularly. The state government is giving us rice at Rs 2 per kg which is not sufficient. There is no medical facility in this tea garden.”

After the gardens were closed, the bus service run by Duncans for school going children was also stopped. Children have to travel 5kms to reach their school.

Inside the now closed Dumchipara tea garden.

Asha Chengbabal, a former mechanic at Dumchipara tea factory, says, “In the part of the gardens where Nepali-origin workers reside, the most visible sign of crisis is the number of children and adults cycling through the gardens to fetch water in jerry cans. Sometimes they travel as far as 3km. Ration supply here is very poor. There is no medical facility. We have to arrange a car during an emergency to reach the Birpara hospital. But hiring a car costs around Rs 800 to Rs 1000, and we cannot afford it.”

Many of the public health engineering pipes have broken. People usually wait in long queues to fill water from taps that are still in working condition.  

Dumchipara Primary School: There is just one teacher in the school.

Anjali Beck (65) used to work at the Dumchipara tea garden till 2014. She is paralysed and is not receiving any medical treatment. In the picture, she can be seen lying in her sister Ruma Orao’s quarter.

Sukro Orao (58) is another worker at the tea garden. She cannot stand without support. She met with an accident in the Dumchipara tea garden four months ago.

The other employment option available to workers in the region is stone crushing, which is illegal. A worker gets Rs 20 for each bag.

"We earn Rs800- Rs1200 in one night. Who would have given us this money otherwise?" says Pinky (name changed) when asked why she took to prostitution.

A young sex worker. 

In every tea garden, Tanmoy says, the story is the same - of school dropouts, of malnutrition, of migration for jobs. “They yell to me, ‘Only if you see this and write, will the government hear’,” he says.

All photographs and captions by Tanmoy Bhaduri

(Additional text inputs: Agencies)

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