Calcutta, Aug. 26: A death-a-day human tragedy, economic perils and administrative apathy that are striking at the root of Bengal’s tea industry were given a statistical face today in the Assembly as figure after grim figure tumbled out.

Starting with the grimmest, industries minister Partha Chatterjee said 3,500 people died in the last one decade in north Bengal tea gardens because of malnutrition, putting on government record the nearly one-death-a-day figure known by all but admitted by none.

Neither the administration nor the visiting health staff in the previous Left Front government had admitted that the workers in the closed gardens of the Dooars and Terai were suffering from malnutrition, a symptom not associated with square meals but with starvation.

In response to a question, Chatterjee said: “This is on record, 3,500 garden labourers have died of malnutrition in the last decade. It has been quoted in the Supreme Court.”

An industries department official said the apex court got the figure after social activist Anuradha Talwar carried out an on-the-spot survey in the closed tea gardens in north Bengal after instructions from the court in 2003.

“We are trying to improve and intervene in areas where it is practically possible…, starting from assuring payment of wages to the improvement of tea quality. We have to shift from mass production to producing tea of distinction, of which we have a history that we are proud of,” he said.

Chatterjee said tea production in the state has increased by 19 per cent in the last decade but export has come down as quality has been hit, a charge that planters denied.

In 2001, Bengal’s tea production was 192 million kg while in 2011, it had grown to 228 million kg, the minister said. “There had been a 19 per cent increase in the state’s production in the last decade, while the country's production over the same period had increased by 14 per cent,” he added. “Exports, however, had come down over this period because of a fall in the quality of tea,” the minister told the House.

Chatterjee’s observation on quality comes at a time when the industry has been trying to grapple with workers’ shutdowns and strikes for revision of wages.

The minister also said an eight-year-old recommendation that the government and the planters share the social cost of the workers would be looked into.

Planters in north Bengal said Chatterjee’s remark on quality influencing export must have been on CTC tea, which is grown in the foothills or the Dooars and the Terai. “For, the demand for Darjeeling tea has been consistent in the international market,” said K.K. Mintri, a planter from Siliguri.

Mintri, however, said the export of CTC tea has come down because of higher prices that Indian manufacturers are forced to demand from international buyers as a result of the higher cost of production.

“CTC tea has good competition from countries like Vietnam and Kenya which produce similar tea and can afford to sell at lesser prices,” Mintri said. The planter said buyers for CTC are mostly from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Russia, unlike Darjeeling tea, which is exported to European countries and the US.

U.B. Das, the principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association, claimed that other countries could produce tea at lower cost because the fringe benefits and wages provided to workers there were less than what was given here.

“The only way to slash prices in international market is to bring down the cost of production. This will not be possible unless the state and the Centre shoulder some of the responsibilities,” he said. The workers here get a daily wage of Rs 67 and benefits like PF, gratuity housing, ration, free medical aid and education facilities for children.

The trade wing of Chatterjee’s party, Trinamul, which has been trying to curb bandhs in gardens, has demanded Rs 130, the same amount paid under the 100-days central job scheme. The rural job scheme has been often blamed by planters for absenteeism among workers.

Asked by Congress’s Alipurduar MLA D.P. Roy if an inter-ministerial committee recommendation in 2003 to the government to share the social cost of workers with the planters had been considered, the minister replied it was still pending. “But steps are being taken — a separate secretariat is being set up in north Bengal, and experts are being consulted. The situation will change soon,” he said.

Source: The Telegraph