Wednesday, May 22, 2024

North Bengal’s tea gardens, missing childhoods and unending exploitation

A child looking out of the day care centre in Killcott Tea Garden

Nikhil Singh and Mriganka Goswami

Fulmoni Munda’s son Taran (name changed to protect identity as per law), who would be 27 this year, had gone missing in 2011. Fulmoni, a retired tea garden worker who lives with her elder sister in the Matiali block of Malbazar sub-division in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, believes a local goon trafficked him to work in Delhi. The elderly lady waits for her long-lost son in her small cottage with only an old passport-size photo, which hasn’t been of much help in finding him.

Around these parts of North Bengal, trafficking of impoverished tribal workers and children is disturbingly common. The story of Fulmoni and her son is just one of many similar tales here that were written by a social system marked by exploitation, rampant poverty, poor educational facilities, alcoholism, and governmental apathy. The social and economic system of these hill villages is a vicious circle that either binds workers to the poor working conditions of the tea gardens or pushes them into exploitative labour work in the cities that is akin to slavery, according to social workers and activists working in the area.

National Crime Records Bureau’s data on human and child trafficking is available only till the year 2018. According to the NCRB data, West Bengal topped the list of states in terms of reported cases of human and child trafficking in the year 2016. That year a total of 3,579 trafficking cases – or 44.01 per cent of India’s total – were reported in the state. In 2018, the number had dropped significantly to 172 reported cases but the state’s share in the total reported cases in India was still the fourth highest. Comparison between states is difficult for the year 2018 because Assam and Jharkhand, the other two states with high trafficking rates could not furnish data for that year.

Records of hundreds of missing persons can be found on the website of the Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar police departments. A majority of these are cases of missing women. It is to be noted that not all cases of missing persons are related to trafficking.

However, talking to several people from different villages of the district reveals that there often are multiple victims of trafficking from nearly every village. Saraswati (name changed) from the Nagaisuree Tea Garden was abducted by some miscreants from a relative’s place in 2008 when she was around 12 or 13 years old. She remains missing still. 

Her uncle Janlu Lohar – a frail and retired tea garden worker – recalls how her niece was abducted. According to him, an “agent” Jayanti Oraon allegedly first lured Saraswati’s family by promising that she would take her to work at a good place where the remuneration would be high. However, her family didn’t fall for the ruse and refused to let their daughter go.

When the kid was at a relative’s place some people took her away and she was never found again. The family registered a complaint at the Gorubathan Police Station from where the child was abducted and Jayanti subsequently was detained. However, she was soon released by the police because of the intervention of some local strongmen, Janlu alleges. He further said, that his family spent around Rs. 4,500 that year to find the kid but in vain.

Fulmoni narrates a similar story. According to her, a local goon – Deepak Chetri – allegedly took her son away to make him work in Delhi when she was out working in the tea gardens. She also filed a police complaint and Deepak was also detained but only to be released later under some “deal”, she claims. It is nearly impossible to find the whereabouts of these “agents” now.

Fulmoni Muna (left), mother of a missing boy, sorting out dirt from rice provided by Government with her elder sister

In the nearby Killcott Tea Garden, there was no professional agent involved. A member of the village, Raju, who was known to the family of Savitri (name changed), tried to sell her as a domestic worker when she was only around 12 years old. Savitri’s mother, who is unwilling to reveal her identity, said that her husband is addicted to alcohol and Raju told him that their daughter could earn enough money in the city for them to be able to build a new home. Raju had given the child’s father Rs. 200 in a deal.

Savitri was rescued before she could be trafficked by a Non-Governmental Organisation working in the area – ‘Society for People’s Awareness’ or ‘SPAN’. Now, Savitri also plucks tea leaves in the tea gardens for a livelihood. She started working there at the age of 15 and dropped out of school.

Tea garden workers stay in small quarters provided by the company that owns or manages the estate. These quarters are not theirs for life. They and their families can stay in these quarters for as long as at least one family member is working for the company. The lack of land rights and housing makes tribal communities vulnerable to human trafficking rackets.

To help tea garden workers the All-India Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal government launched the ‘Cha Sundari’ scheme, in 2020, which provides government housing to the workers. However, the plan is not without problems of its own.

Sabit Oraon, 32, and Vishal Karhar, 27, are social workers who educate young tribal children and also provide coaching to those who seek to crack entrance exams of India’s premier higher education institutes. They told Maktoob that these government residences are being built in areas where there are either no or not many tea gardens.

“To us, it seems like a ploy to push away tribals from their villages into remote areas and bring in big businesses here in the name of promoting tourism,” said Sabit. Consequently, the occupancy of these government houses is very low. They either remain vacant or villagers give them to their relatives from other villages who find some work close to these houses. In the end, for most, the dream of quality housing remains aloof.

Umesh Lakra, a resident of Chalauni Tea Garden, in his late fifties and half-paralyzed, used to work as a driver earlier and has lived in several cities in India. He recalls how he helped a girl, who was abused by her employers, escape from Delhi. 

She was sent to work in Delhi as a domestic help and her family was told she would be taken care of. In a chance encounter she met Mr. Lakra in Delhi, who recognised her to be from a village close to his own. She had informed him how she was abused by the three sons of her employer. Lakra convinced her to return home and bought her a train ticket. After this incident, he tried to find out more about the racket by talking to some people who knew about this.

“It was after this that I got to know that women are sold in Delhi and sent to different places for work. Agents get around Rs. 35,000 for each girl,” Mr. Lakra said. The girl rescued by Mr. Lakra is now married and lives in another village, he added.

The vicious circle of poverty and alcoholism

It is not just about a few agents who created or sustained the whole racket. Rather, the centuries-old systemic problems enable such rackets, and the children, who are rescued and brought back to their villages, face the same problems again.

Sanju ‘Di’, as she is popularly called in the area, is a former panchayat member and is currently associated with the NGO SPAN. She has rescued several children in the villages here.

“On the one hand, the rights of children are violated and their safety compromised when they are made to work away from their families where anything could happen at any time, but then on the other hand, there are things that these children would get only there, like enough food, shelter, and clothes. Things that their families here cannot provide. Most parents of these children are alcoholics. Most Adivasi families have this problem,” she said.

“Almost always there is someone from the village who is involved in the trafficking of these kids. Otherwise, how would agents in the city know which children to target,” she said, further adding that SPAN tries to curb the return of these rescued children into the hands of traffickers by providing them food for a month, education, and repairing their houses but they cannot support them indefinitely due to the limitation of funds.

“Usually, the local agents are those who were earlier trafficked themselves and now have joined these groups to get commission for each child they supply,” said Sabit. 

Rupan Munda, 48, is a single mother of three daughters. Her story is emblematic of the problem of alcoholism in the tribal communities. Her father was an alcoholic, what people here call ‘Matowara’.

The little piece of land her family held were sold off by her father before she was married to a man who also turned out to be an alcoholic. 

Her husband left her after the birth of their third daughter and the meagre income from plucking tea leaves wasn’t enough for her. Even until recently, all tea workers were getting Rs. 175 daily wage which has now increased to around Rs 200 to 250. In southern states, wages for tea plantation workers range from Rs. 300 to Rs. 400 daily.

So, she left her daughters and went to Delhi to work as a nanny. She lived in Delhi for 17 years while supporting the education of her children. Two of her elder daughters have completed their Master’s degree from top institutes in India and the youngest is a graduate.

“I have given 25 interviews till now and haven’t landed a job,” said Jamuna, Rupan’s second daughter, who has completed her Master’s degree from Azim Premji University in Development Studies.

Most other young people do not get the opportunity to pursue higher education. Maktoob learned about several survivors of human trafficking who were married off after returning to their villages and now even had children of their own.

The problem of alcoholism is not restricted to adults only. Maktoob Media observed many young children, not even in their teens, drinking ‘Hadiya’ or alcohol made from fermented rice. Many tribal villagers make and sell this drink for some extra income over their wages.

Sabit Oraon and Vishal Karhar have been trying to break this cycle by promoting education. In 2010, they started educating young children and making them engage in other recreational activities, to ensure that they stay away from ‘Hadiya’.

In 2013, they associated with SPAN and started rescuing children from getting trafficked. In 2015, they started working with Prayatna Foundation, another NGO active in the area to provide education to young children and those seeking admissions in premier institutes.

“It is because of the poor working and living conditions in the tea gardens that people are lured into getting trafficked. Even when some escape their bondage, they end up in the same tea gardens where there isn’t anything [as in career options] much to do. They again end up plucking tea leaves like their parents or working in tea factories. Or they leave again to work in cities,” said Vishal.

The Union alternative

The situation is not completely hopeless. Christian Khadia, the former President of Uttar Banga Cha Mazdur Samiti and its sister organisation Uttar Banga Cha Mazdur Sanghathan, has been working on the ground to secure for tea plantation workers certain land rights and to prevent any cheating in the provision of Provident Fund, Gratuity, and other benefits that the workers are entitled to. After the COVID-19 pandemic, several tea plantations had been shut down, making the villagers here even more vulnerable to human trafficking. However, Khadia explains that COVID is not the only reason for the plantations to cease working and to have remained closed even after the pandemic ended.

“There are several reasons for the tea gardens to close. When workers demand higher wages, proper implementation of provident fund scheme, and bonuses, the management of the tea plantations shut operation. However, after the pandemic, when most tea gardens were closed several unions – including those of the BJP and TMC – came together with us to run Jatteshwar tea garden,” Khadia said.

He further claimed that the joint committee of all the unions was running the gardens very well. Where workers earlier used to get just the minimum daily wage, now they were getting around Rs 250 to 300 daily because they started paying workers on the basis of the total weight of plucked leaves they collected over their daily wage, he said. He added that the joint committee even paid 25 to 30 per cent bonuses on time when even the best of privately owned or managed tea estates used to pay only 20 percent.

However, recently, the state administration settled deals with unions affiliated with TMC and brought in private companies like Merico and Sammelan to manage the tea gardens, Khadia alleged. These companies are helmed by Surajit Bakshi, who is known to be a close confidant of Member of Parliament from Diamond Harbour and National General Secretary of TMC, Abhishek Banerjee. The Uttar Banga Cha Mazdur Samiti took the matter to the court where the case is currently at the hearing stage.

Maktoob Media visited a factory bought by Sammelan, and opened after COVID lockdowns were lifted. There was at least one worker who was clearly underage. He was not willing to talk due to fear of repercussions. 

“The BJP is strong in this area. Our MLA is from the BJP. There are Panchayat members from the BJP and yet they do not protest this aggressive take-over of tea gardens by these companies,” Khadia said.

It would have been a rather easier problem to solve, had there been a few criminal heads running a sinister racket. Their arrest could have ensured the end of this problem. However, unfortunately, it seems the very social structure of these villages traps tribals in exploitative work conditions. The hold of the tea industry’s exploitative environment is so absolute over people here that Vishal lamented, “it feels like workers don’t work in the tea gardens to survive, but instead survive to work in the tea gardens”.

Nikhil Singh
Nikhil Singh
Nikhil Singh is an independent journalist.

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