Pinak Priya Bhattacharya,TNN | Jun 28, 2014, 02.00 AM IST
RAIPUR TEA ESTATE (Jalpaiguri): Starvation deaths are back to haunt the state. At least six deaths have been reported from the closed Raipur tea estate on the outskirts of Jalpaiguri town over the past five days but the Mamata Banerjee government — like the Left Front regime earlier — refuses to acknowledge them.
The garden was locked out in September last year, leaving 645 workers and their families in misery. Many of them are starving, say local sources. The latest victim is Jeet Bahan Munda, 42, who died on Friday. When journalists went to the garden a few hours before his death, Munda looked like a bag of bones. He couldn't even whisper. His ramshackle hut had nothing, save a few empty utensils.
Three of the dead are women — Sarpina Tirkey, 65, Basu Oraon, 50, and Tetri Bara, 35 — and two are newborn babies. One of the infants died at North Bengal Medical College on Thursday. "Her mother was suffering from anaemia," a senior administrative official said — an indicator of malnutrition that plagues the tea garden residents.
Jalpaiguri Sadar SDO Sima Haldar visited Raipur with several officials and denied there were any hunger deaths. "There is no question of malnutrition in the garden," she said.
Jalpaiguri chief health officer Jagannath Sarkar was more guarded, saying that unless they received the "death audit report", they could not make any statement. The Left regime as well had never acknowledged reports of workers dying in closed and abandoned tea estates of the Dooars.
These workers have received heaps of promises from the administration and labour unions but virtually no help.
"Our garden started having problems in 2002 and closed down several times. But this time the problem is more acute as we haven't got our wages in three months. We want the government to find a new owner or take over the garden," said Pratima Baraik, a garden labourer.
She alleged that the foodgrains distributed to them are so rotten that even cattle refuse to eat them. "We are crying for help but received very little. The garden is running out of food and workers are going outside only in an effort to earn money for their families. Pimps are on the prowl and our women are at risk," said another worker.
Earlier the planters used to provide rice and wheat at a subsidized rate of 40 paisa per kg. After the introduction of targeted public distribution system(TPDS), workers had to buy the same at Rs 9 per kg. "But even this is not working now as we are solely dependent on the government supply of food grains," said a worker.
"There is very little drinking water, no electricity, almost no medical assistance, and no food, at all" is how a woman described their living conditions. The management committee that run closed gardens is not able to give workers more than Rs 15-20 a day. Several youths and girls have already left in search of work. The administration does provide them with welfare schemes but it isn't enough, they say. Besides, they cannot avail of the Financial Assistance to Workers of Locked-Out Industries Scheme as the garden reopened twice in 2004 and 2010.
The plantation is in a very bad shape and if water is not sprayed immediately, there will be no new leaves.