Tezpur (Assam): Colonial-style bungalows of Assam's expansive tea gardens and the British-era lifestyles of their executives paint a picture postcard of yore. Sadly, this hangover also extends to the poor living conditions of labourers - an issue now in the limelight after the World Bank said that it was probing the violation of workers' rights inthese plantations it jointly finances with Tata Global Beverages.
Mostly Adivasis, or tribals from Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh, the tea estate workers are migrants whose forefathers were brought to Assam by the British more than a century back. But despite toiling and tilling the land, and making it their home, their living conditions have remained dismal - even as Assam's tea industry continues to flourish and fetch good prices at home and abroad.
A complaint by a group of NGOs on the poor living conditions of workers led to the International Finance Corporation (IFC) - a member of the World Bank Group - announcing last month that its accountability office was probing the project, run by the Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL), which has 24 tea plantations. The complaint, although it mentions three particular tea gardens, was put together after an independent study by Columbia University in 23 plantations and concluded that workers face dire living and working conditions in violation of the law.
One of the vital issues that the complainants alleged was that the working and living conditions of the community did not comply with IFC's social safeguard policies or the Plantation Labour Act.
"One of the biggest workplace health problems is insufficient and poor quality protective equipment and medical care for sprayers," the complaint said. "Sprayers informed that only an arbitrary proportion received gear which includes either only a cloth mask, plastic or cloth shoes and flimsy goggles. Only workers who mix chemicals received gloves, and they receive no training."
The condition of women workers, in particular, was dismal. "Women workers reported that they were forced to continue regular, heavy work through eight months of pregnancy, and were told no light work was available," the complaint said. Tea estate labourers are daily wagers, earning about Rs.89 per day.
Health is a major concern among workers. The complainant alleged that unhygienic conditions in the labour colonies, or labour lines as they are called, like overflowing sewers, poor drainage system, broken and unused toilets, and water stagnation all contribute to the prevalence of ailments such as gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhoea, typhoid and tuberculosis, affecting the most vulnerable lot first - children and women.
APPL said that no violations of workers' rights take place and that they comply with the Plantation Labour Act.
"One cannot say that things have not improved at all over the years for the workers community; but it's also true that they have not improved as much as they should have. Drains in the colonies, for instance, are still not made of concrete, nor are the roads. The two-room houses they live in offer minuscule space for large families and with the exception of some, tea garden hospitals are ill-equipped," a tea garden medical officer in Sonitpur district said.
Agreed Sushanta Talukdar, a retired tea estate doctor. "Tea garden managers are always under pressure to produce fine tea and cut production costs, and when it comes to cost cutting health always gets the axe first," Talukdar said.
Questions are also raised as to why, despite health concerns being made public, things have remained the same, year after year. Anaemia is high in women, and according to Sandip Ghosh of the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association (ABITA), a sample study by the Assam Medical College and Unicef found 95 percent women in the Dibrugarh district tea gardens anaemic. Malnutrition is again very high in children, and the study also found that of 14 meals a week, only two consist of nutritional food.
Manju Lohar, a tea garden worker, lamented that although they get a "labour ration" of 2 kg rice and 1 kg wheat per week, it's not enough to feed the family. "I have four children, and our weekly income after the deductions comes to around Rs.850. But foodgrain is so expensive outside, plus there are other expenditures; so a healthy meal is not possible".
A tea estate manager, on the condition of anonymity, tried explaining: "It's an age-old, colonial mindset on the part of the big bosses of not letting too much development take place among the workers' community...otherwise they would not work in the gardens and the factories."
Tata Global Beverages said it was committed to the fair and ethical treatment of people across the supply chain. "The management of APPL has confirmed to us that they are in compliance with all legal requirements on wages, they treat their employees fairly, and their employees receive many benefits over and above many other tea plantation companies in India."
TGB added that it had appointed legal advisors to verify compliances by an independent review.
But doctors of other tea estates admit to gross discrimination meted out to workers by the management.
This story is part of a National Media Fellowship awarded by the National Foundation of India