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''A tea garden worker may die every week in Red Bank tea garden due to starvation''
''Please take me to an orphanage home. I want some food. I want to live,'' were the words of a paralysed lady, accompanied by her mentally disturbed son. The lady resides in the Red Bank tea garden area in Nagarkhata, Dooars, which has been witnessing severe starvation related death cases. 32 deaths have been reported so far, most of them aged between 25-50 years. The appalling condition has taken shape after the tea garden remained closed permanently from October 2013. It is utter shame for India, which boasts about Darjeeling tea to the world outside.

The tea garden gradually began to close from 1983, after which it occasionally opened for one to two months in a year. Tea garden workers worked day in and out during the period to provide meals for their family. When the tea garden was partially closed, workers received some relief funds. But, the problem aggravated when the inflow of relief funds stopped.

Red Bank tea garden, which has a population of 8000 people, are left in a miserable state now. Out of the 8000, 25 percent are Nepali's, while the rest are Adavasis. There are 900 houses in the region, all fighting for survival, thinking about the next meal. Thoughts of another dinnerless night dominate their mind. Even after 32 people fell victim to extreme starvation and malnutrition, giving birth to various problems, five to six people are still critically ill, and if not taken care of, they might just add to the death count. They need to be taken to the hospital immediately, as their condition is deteriorating every single day.

''I could not control my emotions. I broke into tears, after seeing the shocking condition of the tea garden workers in the area. Their utensils were empty, nothing in the name of food,'' said Bhaskar Tamang, Dooars Coordinator for Team Who Cares, who surveyed the area. ''If things are not taken care of, we might lose one person or the other every week.''

The condition of the workers are reflected with their empty rice and dal bowls. They have nothing to eat, hence leading to a catastrophic situation. Bhaskar understood the magnitude of the situation when he met the Panchayat Pradhan, as his rice bowl also lay empty. ''If the Pradhan does not have any food to feed, how can one expect others in the area to feed themselves,'' added Bhaskar.

Though, the workers receive ration, but remains insufficient. They receive 5kg of rice, 5 kg of flour and 5 kg of pulses, which they are expected to use for a month, which is not possible. Rather, the rice bowls empty within two weeks. Medicines are also provided to the sick, but what help would that be when they do have not have any food to feed on? Some of these deaths have resulted from Tuberculosis as well. ''Workers, who are ill, lack nutrition, so the medicines also do not work on their body,'' said the founder of Who Cares, Aron Yonzone.

What surprises us even more is the lack of support from local politicians, who prior to the Lok Sabha elections made several visits, delivering fake promises. The workers in the area complain that none of the politicians even made a single visit after the elections are over. GJM, the ruling party in Darjeeling few days back made some demands to uplift the people from tea gardens, but ironically, when it comes to visiting these workers, they are nowhere in the frame. But, it has been claimed that Prof. Mahendra Lama's team made a visit in the area.

As per Prof. Lama these unprecedented death took place due to various factors. He said, '' Some main factors are hunger, malnutrition and physical distress. They were under severe pressure, as they did not have any income, no economic activities, children were also not able to go to schools. Basic amenities were a problem as well.'' He also puts his finger across to the West Bengal government, who he feels is also responsible for failing to provide the basic amenities.

If one pins their hopes on the Bengal government, the death count will cross the three figure mark, before the concerned people in the writers building act. It was in 2004 when the Supreme Court had asked the Bengal government to take action on the then starvation deaths reported from Darjeeling and Dooars tea gardens.

The condition was so dire that the workers had to then feed on rats and snakes as well, along with tea flowers, wild leaves etc. Had the condition been looked into by the Bengal govt. then, the prevailing situation would not have come to the fore. The closure of around more than 20 tea gardens then had affected more than 21,000 permanent workers. The situation could be same this time around as well, as Red Bank alone does not exemplify such starvation cases in tea gardens. Other tea gardens like Surendranagar is in no good situation either.

To avoid similar cases, residents of Darjeeling from different corners of the globe have took upon themselves through social networking site, Facebook, where they are drawing plans to save people from such cases. Though, the group, which includes people from different walks of life have met for a just cause, they have already set up a bank account, where donations can be made to save brothers ans sisters (tea workers) of Darjeeling and Dooars, who have glorified the name of Darjeeling in the past, by their simple act of plucking leaves and help India gain revenue. In turn, India turns a blind eye to the hapless workers.

The blame for such pathetic condition goes to the tea garden owners also, who might have abandoned the tea gardens, but it has only been done physically, not legally. There are chances that the owners can be moved to the courts for their act as well. Had the gardens been legally abandoned, some other owners could have come into the picture and maintained the garden, which unfortunately, is not the case.

In 2005, a labourer in Chungthung took his own life as he was not able to feed his family members. In a suicide note, he had blamed the owner, Anil Agarwal for his death, but nothing resulted out of the suicide note, inspite of the promised action against Anil. Even the so called, Plantation Labours Act has been misused by the owners as well. In spite of PLA being outdated, there are a number of positive things in the act as well, which are, in fact, used by the owners as per their whims and fancies.

''PLA act is not as bad as one thinks. But, it is the tea companies, which notoriously looks into the loopholes and takes advantage of the situation. For instance, PLA states that the tea company needs to provide a school if there are around 13 or more children in the area, after which the government would supply teachers to the school, but this is not followed,'' said Bejoy Limbu, who has prepared a dissertation on Tea labourers and farmers in Darjeeling. Even a Crèche is considered compulsory, but when was the last time you heard about a Crèche in a tea garden?

If the starvation related death cases are not looked into with greater importance by the higher authorities, such deaths could be a regular phenomenon in tea gardens. Millions of rupees have been used to conquer mars, space, built nuclear weapons etc. but when it comes to feeding a hungry person, why does the nation sleep?

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Vibhav Kant Upadhyay
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