Tea labourers die of starvation in Assam

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First preliminary report:

Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC) has learnt about 10 recent deaths due to starvation, malnutrition and lack of medical care in Bhuvan Valley Tea Estate, a privately owned tea garden, in the district of Cachar in North-East Indian state ofAssam. The conditions of at least 5 others are so bad that it would be hard for them to survive a month without urgent medical and nutritional intervention. Arbitrary and exploitative actions of both the estate management and government drove about three thousand labourers and their families on the verge of starvation. The management abruptly closed the garden on 8 October, 2011 without paying wages due for 9 weeks, dues from provident fund and other benefits and alternative livelihood. The government public distribution system (PDS) and health care facilities are conspicuous by their absence. It is feared that without urgent and substantial intervention reports of deaths will keep coming.

BHRPC learnt about the deaths from the reports published on 16 January, 2012 in the local newspaper about a gathering of the tea labourers in front of the district administrative headquarters at Silchar. The labourers gathered to know the outcome of the tripartite meeting among district administration, Barak Cha Shromik Union (a tea plantation labourers union known to be affiliated with ruling political party) and estate management about the situation of tea garden and labourers. Speaking to the news reporters the labourers informed that 9 persons had already been died due to starvation and malnutrition till 15 January.

BHRPC members with local leaders at Chengjur on 27 January 2012

BHRPC members with local leaders at Chengjur on 27 January 2012

To verify the claims of the labourers and gather more information about the situation BHRPC formed a fact-finding team comprising of Dr. Prasenjit Biswas, Mr. Neharul Ahmed Mazumder, Mr. Sadique Mohammed Laskar, Mr. Waliullah Ahmed Laskar, Mr. Raju Barbhuiya and Mr. Nirmal Kumar Das. The team visited the tea garden area on 27 January and talked with the victims, their family members, neighbours and leaders of the labourers. This report is the outcome of that exercise.

It is learnt that Rameshwar Kurmi (45), Subhasini Paul (80), Shyamacharan Bauri (55), Nagendra Bauri (55), Sonamani Pandey (40), Bharati Kal (45), Susham Tanti (35) Ratna Goala (50), Atul Bauri and Ramashis Dushad (80) lost their lives due to starvation, malnutrition and lack of medical care. All were labourers or ex-labourers of the tea garden or their dependents.

Ramashish Dushad lying on a bedstead, his legs are swollen and infected.

Ramashish Dushad lying on a bedstead, his legs are swollen and infected.

Mr. Ramashish Dushad of Didarkhush Grant was alive when BHRPC team visited him on 27 January, 2011. He died on 28 January. He was suffering from swelling and infections on his legs so badly that he was completely impaired, his body did not even permit him to get up from the bed. He was an ex-labourer. According to him, he did not receive his dues from provident fund, gratuity and arrears. He had none to take care of him, and he had no such ability to engage someone as caretaker, moreover the management and the government were indifferent to his condition, he complained.

Mr. Prakash Ghatowar (80) and his daughter-in-law Moni Ghatowar (32) of Didarkhush Grant are also suffering from swelling on their legs. They also narrated the same story of government apathy and injustices of the management. They are deprived of livelihood, remunerations and proper medical treatment. Prakash is half fed with his family of one daughter-in-law, three daughters and grandchildren. He lost his physical strength and in no position to exert himself in any kind of manual works. His grand children Pinki Ghatowar (17), Kamalabati Ghatowar (15) and Rinki Ghatowar (12) are compelled to collect firewood from the far off jungles and sell them in the far off markets ignoring their studies. Prakash and Moni are suffering from acute mal-nutrition and may die if no early intervention is made.

Prakash Ghatowar and Moni Ghatowar

Prakash Ghatowar and Moni Ghatowar

Belbati Bauri sitting at veranda of her house made of mud (second from left)

Belbati Bauri sitting at veranda of her house made of mud (second from left)

Belbati Bauri (75), wife of late Debendra Bauri, is also waiting for her last moment. She is week, pale and in need of medical care. Although her son Sricharan Bauri was a permanent labourer in the estate, he was not getting any ration, medicine or remuneration for last six months. Ironically they were regarded as being above poverty line (APL) family, and therefore, are not eligible for government schemes meant for the poor. According to them, other facilities provided by the PDS did not reach to them properly. Other members of the family including a college girl Moni Bauri engaged themselves in hazardous works like collecting firewood and selling them for food and medicine for themselves and the sick members. The family has six members.

Putul Bauri showing his swollen legs (left).

Putul Bauri showing his swollen legs (left).

Putul Bauri (50) is also suffering from swelling of his legs. His health does not allow him to work, so he resorted to beggary. Wiping his tears again and again he tried to express his sufferings and his anger against the estate management and the labour unions. According to him, the situation of the labourers of the tea garden did not become so bad in a day. It took decades. The labour unions did not raise their voice against the unjust and exploitative policies of the management; for example, wages lower than the all Assam average, non-payment of wages, non-payment of other benefits, gratuity and making the labourers to work overtime without remuneration. Condition of his health is very bad.

Bablu Bauri lying in his courtyard. His father Atul Bauri died of hunger recently.

Bablu Bauri lying in his courtyard. His father died of hunger recently.

Bablu Bauri (25) and his mother Surabala Bauri (55) had been living under-fed for months. Bablu’ father Atul Bauri (60), died recently due to malnutrition and lack of medicine. Bablu was a casual worker in the estate though he worked regularly. They are now confined within the house as it is not permitted by ritualistic rules of their community to go outside the house after death of a family member. They can not go outside in search of livelihood.

Plantation labourers Bashistha Dushad (42), Anjana Dushad (42), Gulab Dushad (50), and some other grassroots leaders like Shyamlal Tanti (45), Budhan Goala (45), Mahendra Majhi (36), Jaharlal Goala, Kamal Ghosh, Nirmal Goala, Luchan Kumar Ghosh and Bachun Satnami narrated the story of their sufferings and expressed their grievances against the indifference of the administration in spite of several representations from them.  They stated that for years the estate management was exploiting them in various ways. Some of the labourers were employed as permanent labourers and are paid wages as low as rupees 50/- per day at the time of the closure and the rest were engaged as casual workers and paid even lower wages at rupees 41/- even though they worked for years. It is also alleged that the estate management did not provide any residential quarters for housing the labourers and their families. The management has engaged hired hooligans to suppress the voice of the exploited whenever they tried to protest, the labourers said.

Villagers taking bath in the cannel, the only source of water.

Villagers taking bath in the cannel, the only source of water.

They also claimed that while the neighbouring estates were providing facilities in spite of all drawbacks, this estate was exploiting them. The wages of the labourers remained pending for long under various pretext, they were told that the estate was suffering loss and would recover very soon but that soon did never come. The management tried to push them to such a situation that the workers would be compelled to search for alternative livelihood and would forget their dues. The workers demanded their dues and stopped working. The estate closed down on 8 October, 2012. Since then the management escaped and engaged their agent named Fulan Ahmed, a local resident as assistant manager to suppress the protest. Finding no other way the workers approached the administration several times. The Deputy Commissioner of Cachar district assured them that he would find a way out. However, the labourers are not in a position to trust any assurance from the government or the management.

The labourers and their families living in the garden area further stated that they were also deprived from the benefits of various welfare schemes launched by the central government and state government. For example, there are only about 7 Anganwadi centres in the whole estate where more than three thousand people are living. The centres are run under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to provide nutrition and health care for the children, adolescents and gestating and lactating mothers. The Supreme Court of India in People’sUnionfor Civil Liberties and others vs. Union of India and others (Writ Petition (C ) No. 196 Of 2001) directed the governments to establish such a centre in every settlement that has at least 40 children under six but no Anganwadi.

Even these few centres are not properly functioning, according to the local inhabitants. They said that workers and helpers of Anganwadi centres come only once or twice in a month. But they also cautioned not to go by the records maintained in the office of the Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) since they maintain false records to show proper utilisation of the money which they siphon off to other channels.

There are also a few houses granted under the Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) in the garden area. However, the people claimed that most of such houses are grated to the labourers who are connected with management and the labour union affiliated with ruling party of the state. The poorer are completely deprived from the IAY.

There is, of course, a house proclaiming through its signboard to be a health centre run under National Rural Health Mission of the government ofIndia. But the local people informed that it is not functioning properly. According to them, it is run by an unqualified practitioner. Moreover, the medicines are not made available.

Villager washing cloth in the same canal

Villager washing cloth in the same canal

There was also a canal reportedly dug under a scheme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA), an Act of parliament that provides for 100 days of work for one person from every household and in case of non-availability of work it guarantees unemployment allowance for the same number of days. Due to corruption the provisions of the Act are not implemented properly, particularly in remote areas. The people of the area stated that it is the only work done under MGNREGA in the garden area and it provided only few workdays for only some labourers.

They also stated that the canal is the only source of water. It gives them water for all types of use. People bath in it as well as wash their utensils, cloths and use the same water for drinking and cooking foods.

A woman taking drinking water from the same canal

A woman taking drinking water from the same canal

It is also learnt that the district authority sanctioned Rs 15 lakh per year for primary health care, but there is no sign of its utilization. There is an ambulance, but the driver demands rupees 400 as fare from each patient, which is not affordable to them.

The meeting in the office of the Deputy Commissioner, Cachar resolved that the estate would be opened on January 23, 2012; but nothing happened like that. Again on January 25, 2012 another meeting held in the conference hall of the Deputy Commissioner. ADC Mr. Debashish Chakrabarti, ADC Mr. S. K. Das, Assistant Labour Commissioner Mr. K. Singson, the MLA and the Scretary of Barak Cha Shramik Union Mr. Dinesh Prasad Goala, Assistant Manager of the Tea Estate Mr. Fulan Ahmed and others took part in the meeting. This meeting decided that a committee will be formed under the chairmanship of the SDO (civil) of Lakhipur Sub Division to manage the estate. The workers are still anxious about their future.

BHRPC finds that the anti labour policy of the management and the political interference has led to this situation; every estate is more or less affected by this. The management exploits the illiterate workers with the acquiescence of the authorities, the government facilities does not reach to the beneficiaries, there is no facility provided for the senior citizens and the healthcare facilities are only for namesake. Malnutrition, illiteracy and uncertainty are the common ingredients of the lives of the tea labourers.

Children in front of Belbati Bauri’s house.

Children in front of Belbati Bauri’s house.

BHRPC found that the situation prevailing in the tea garden is prima facie a situation of gross violations of fundamental human rights guaranteed in the Constitution of India and international human rights norms. The right to food is an integral part of the right to life. In India, under the Indian Constitution, apparently there is no fundamental right to food but the fulcrum of justiciability of the right to food comes from a much broader “right to life and liberty” as enshrined in Article 21. Also Article 51A which forms a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution is unambiguous: “The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties…” These incidents of deaths due to hunger, malnutrition and lack of treatment show that the state failed miserably in performance of its duties.

 Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food …”. Article 11(1) of the ICESCR states: “the States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food …”.

Family of a tea labourer in the Bhuvan valley tea garden live here. This is their home.

Family of a tea labourer in the Bhuvan valley tea garden live here. This is their home.

Article 11(2) of the ICESCR recognizes “the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”, i.e. the right to at least a nutritional intake ensuring survival. This provision is to be read in conjunction with those concerning the right to life (the UDHR; art. 3, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), art. 6; the  Convention on Rights of the Child (CRC), art. 6).

Although there is a widespread narrow interpretation of the right to life merely as a safeguard against arbitrary killing, the Human Rights Committee rejected such restrictive interpretation and invited States to adopt “positive measures” to protect the right to life in a broader sense, including “measures to eliminate malnutrition and epidemics”.

Article 27(1) of the CRC recognizes “the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development”. The States Parties to the Convention have the duty to “take appropriate measures” to assist parents in fulfilling their primary responsibility to implement such right, “particularly with regard to nutrition” (art. 27(3)). Moreover, article 24(2)(c) of the CRC commits States to combat child malnutrition.

Under article 12(2) of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), States have to ensure to women “adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation”.

Article 1(2) of the ICCPR and of the ICESCR states that “in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence”.

In its General Comment 12, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) clarified that “the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement” (para. 6). According to the General Comment, the realization of the right to adequate food requires:

A woman labourer in the hunger struck Bhuvan valley tea estate in Cachar, Assam

A woman labourer in the hunger struck Bhuvan valley tea estate in Cachar, Assam

the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture” (para. 8); and

the “accessibility” of adequate food, including both economic accessibility (“personal or household financial costs associated with the acquisition of food for an adequate diet should be at a level such that the attainment and satisfaction of other basic needs are not threatened or compromised”) and physical accessibility (i.e. physical access to food, including for vulnerable groups, such as children, elderly people, physically disabled, etc.) (paras. 8 and 13).

In the circumstances, BHRPC recommends authorities and other national and international bodies to provide urgent relief to the tea workers in terms of food supply and medical treatment to prevent further deaths and deterioration of health conditions of sick workers and their dependents.

BHRPC also recommends to authorities to conduct a prompt, impartial and objective inquiry into the situation of the garden to fix responsibility for the deaths and the conditions that led to this situation including corruption in implementation of government welfare schemes and non-adherence to the provisions of the Plantation Labour Act and other laws applicable in the estate management by an independent commission of inquiry headed by a sitting or retired judge of a high court or the supreme court and comprising of, among others, medical experts, nutrition experts, labour rights and human rights experts.

BHRPC further recommends to the authorities that the garden must immediately be re-opened and run according to the laws providing all rights and benefits to the labourers under the laws.

Neharul Ahmed Mazumder, (Secretary General)

Sadique Mohammed Laskar (Joint Secretary)

Dr. Prasenjit Biswas (Director, Research and Study)

Waliullah Ahmed Laskar (Director, Law and Legal Affairs)

Raju Barbhuiya ( Executive Member)

Nirmal Kumar Das (Associate Member)

Silchar, 1 February 2012


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