Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
BUNDAPANI, India (AP) — Death arrived soon after the Bundapani tea estate closed last year.
Deprived of health care and food rations, workers who had been scraping by on $1.50 per day were left with nothing. Bundapani's owner didn't raise the alarm for two months as the workers, abandoned at the feet of the Himalayas, slid silently into catastrophe.
"I have become like a beggar," said Ramesh Mahali, 59, struggling to stand. He has been unable to properly feed himself or his family since the closure.
His wife, Puliya, seeming 20 years older than her 50, sat emaciated on the floor, her tiny arms mummified by malnutrition. She cannot move anymore, so Ramesh cannot leave her to look for work. Nearby, his daughter-in-law stared upward, suffering from tuberculosis. Beneath her, the dirt floor of the house was slowly being eaten away by the rains.
Seven workers died in the two months it took the government to become aware of the crisis, and the toll has continued to climb since. In the past year, at least 69 tea workers have died across Bundapani and four other shuttered tea plantations in West Bengal, according to the Right to Food campaign, an advisory committee to the Supreme Court that is monitoring the deaths. More than 16,000 people have been left in extreme poverty at the estates, spread across the Dooars plains below Darjeeling, source of the famous brand known as the Champagne of teas.
The government has launched emergency food and medical relief, but conditions remain grim. Despite the aid, 14 people at Bundapani alone have died in the past eight months, either from malnutrition or inadequate medical care.
Dozens of men have left to find work, but women and those too weak to travel — like the Mahalis — remain in houses on the estate, where 7,000 people still live.
In estates visited by The Associated Press, many workers were clearly underfed and a number were suffering from diseases commonly related to malnutrition, such as tuberculosis. Several people said relatives had recently died. Many were skipping meals, living on rice broth.
The government relief — 2 kilograms of rice a week per worker— falls below standard rations at refugee camps.
Their situation highlights how eastern India's tea industry has changed little since colonial times. The decisions of individual estate-owners still determine the fates of whole communities.
The government has done little to penalize owners who abandon their workers, and in practice, they have few obligations beyond their own conscience to ensure workers' well-being. Powerless, workers are dying in a system closer to the 19th than the 21st.
"This is kind of the last hangover of a straightforwardly colonial relationship," said Harsh Mander, special adviser on food to India's Supreme Court.
Tea covers most of the plains under Darjeeling. Mile after mile of shiny green bushes, shaved flat into cubes, like a giant hedge maze.
Established by the British in the 1830s, the plantations are among the only examples of large-scale organized agriculture in India, where most farming is done by small-holders. The plantations became an essential image of empire and Darjeeling itself is still popularly known for its Raj-era holdouts, living the gin-touched days of gentlemen recluses.
Colonial plantations relied on indentured laborers. Workers now have the right to leave and access to free primary education, but their dependency on the estates for housing and food means that in practice, little has changed.
There are tea plantations in other Indian states, including Assam and Kerala, but West Bengal's are widely seen as having the worst labor conditions. Most of its 200,000 tea workers are paid 95 rupees ($1.50) per day, three-quarters the state minimum wage and below the U.N.'s $2 a-day threshold for extreme poverty.
Even in functioning plantations, malnutrition is common. At the Khopalasi Primary School, which is attached to a working estate on the outskirts of Siliguri, teachers said half their pupils were malnourished.
To survive, workers rely on additional benefits from the plantations, including food, housing and medical care, valued at about 65 rupees ($1) per day. When a plantation closes, the health care and food rations disappear immediately; workers find themselves in a disaster situation overnight.
The five closures are being largely blamed on their owners' mismanagement. Most of West Bengal's 279 plantations are functioning normally, although margins have tightened as rainfall has declined dramatically recently. In 2006, a wave of closures caused hundreds of deaths. But owners of working plantations say the industry is now healthy, and that only those who failed to modernize are seriously struggling.
The closures are being prolonged as owners engage in lawsuits that prevent them from reopening under new ownership, trapping workers in limbo. India's clogged court system means these challenges can take a decade, even as workers live on emergency rations. One of the estates, Dheklapara, has been in dispute for 13 years.
Some owners have sold plantations only to renege on the deals, inviting more lawsuits. Often, ownership is so disputed even workers are unsure who their employer is. Most are only distantly aware of the progress of the lawsuits, since no one updates them.
Three of the currently closed plantations are owned by one man, Robin Paul, a Kolkata-based businessman who owns the Surendragnagar, Dharanipur and Red Bank estates, where at least 40 people have died. Paul is known as a wealthy real estate agent in Kolkata, and a patron of a Bengali music festival in the city.
Sunil Bakhshi, 71, who recently gave up his position as chief clerk at Surendranagar, said he hadn't been paid since 2003. Bakshi said eight people had died at Surendranagar in the last 18 months. He hadn't heard from Paul in several years, though the owner's representatives have been in contact with the estate.
"The condition here is so bad, so pathetic. Now we don't even have enough to eat," said Bakshi. "We are told to do our work and our dues will be cleared soon."
When reached by the AP by telephone, Paul declined to comment. Court documents show that bankruptcy proceedings at his estates have dragged out for years.
Bundapani's owner, Rakesh Srivastava, runs a hotel in the area. Attempts to contact him and the other owners of other closed tea plantations were unsuccessful. Lawyers for Srivastava refused to comment, and calls to several of Srivastava's phones went unanswered.
The abandoned workers, meanwhile, are caught in a struggle between the West Bengal government and tea-worker unions, which are known for their militant tactics.
The unions have published inflated reports of starvation deaths to gain leverage in wage negotiations. West Bengal's government has insisted that no tea workers have died from starvation, though it has started emergency food aid to the closed estates.
Aside from their 2 kilograms of rice per week, workers get an additional kilogram per relative, as well as a monthly unemployment payment of 1,500 rupees, around 80 cents per day.
Anuradha Talwar, an activist from the Right to Food campaign, said that workers were not necessarily dying of hunger, but from extreme deprivation. She said the closure of plantation health facilities was the main cause of deaths, in particular because families could not afford the trip to local hospitals.
If the plantation had not closed, "these people would not have died," Talwar said. "These people are in a situation where they cannot afford basic things essential to survive."
M.D. Rizwan, the joint labor commissioner for West Bengal, said the regional government is urgently seeking to reopen the plantations through negotiations, but that its powers to seize the estates are limited.
The national government has extensive powers for seizing plantations being run inadequately, but has so far declined to use them.
Last month, the state's chief minister asked the national government to take over closed estates using India's Tea Act, which allows the seizure of plantations making consistent losses, where the tea goes largely unpicked or wages unpaid.
But Mander, the Supreme Court adviser, said the government wasn't doing enough to discourage owners from abandoning their plantations, or to extricate the properties from legal tangles.
Wage negotiations are also underway; tea workers are expected to get another 30 rupees (50 cents) per day. But that won't help people who are essentially trapped on closed plantations.
Bakshi, the retired clerk from Surendranagar, believes they can only wait.
"We are helpless," he said.