‘Closed Bengal tea estates a major humanitarian crisis in the making’

Kolkata, Sep 14 (IANS) The “semi-closure” and “abandonment” of tea estates in northern West Bengal is fast becoming a major humanitarian crisis with a population of over 75,000 dependent on them forced to live in near-starvation, warns a report.

Releasing the “Ignoring Hunger- Report on the Situation in Duncans’ Tea Estate in North Bengal”, Right to Food and Work Campaign’s West Bengal chapter demanded immediate intervention of the Mamata Banerjee government.

The Right to Food and Work Campaign (RFWC)- a network of organisations and activists, slammed the Banerjee government for turning a blind eye to the “grim” issue and said they will be compelled to seek legal recourse if the state government failed to take measures under the Right to Food Act as mandated by the Supreme Court.

“The situation is peculiar for the fact that the 15 tea estates owned by the Duncans are neither closed nor open. With the estates being in limbo since February, the population of over 75,000 directly dependant them, is living in near starvation,” said Anuradha Talwar of RFWC.

“Since the gardens have not been officially closed, the state government is not extending the benefits of social schemes including financial assistance to workers of locked-out industries.

“The people are not only compelled to live in near-starvation, there is no facility for drinking water, medical facilities have totally collapsed. Its near a disaster situation unless immediate steps are taken, it will soon turn into a major humanitarian crisis,” she added.

The activists demanded the state government to take immediate steps like regular distribution of rations, employing the people under the rural job guarantee programme, and providing pensions under the National Social Assistance.

“So far our attempts to get the state government to intervene in the matter have failed to evoke any response. If they don’t act immediately, we will be moving the Calcutta High Court with public interest litigation,” said Father S.J. Jothi of the network.

According to the report, the lease of most of the estates has expired, so the company “illegally” possessed the land which belongs to the state government. It also states that total cash dues to the workers of these estates were over Rs.22.5 crore.

“The state government needs to ensure that either the management runs the estates properly or search new owners and cancel the leases if necessary. The government must also ensurethat all the dues to the workers are paid,” it said.

The report also includes a letter to state Chief Secretary Sanjay Mitra by Harsh Mander, special commissioner of the Supreme Court on Right to Food, who stated that “illegal and undeclared stoppage of wage payments and ration payments in the Duncan gardens has resulted in enormous food distress and livelihood distress”.

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