PLANTATION LABOUR ACT, 1951 STILL A LAW ON PAPER
By Mahesh Deka
Suraj was feeling down in the dumps to see his group of ‘famous five’ playing cricket on the grassy meadow surrounded by lush green tea leaves. Even the invigorating freshness of the fresh leaves basking in the morning sunshine failed to lure him.
Clad in a faded yellow T-shirt and half pant, the nine-year-old was patiently watching his four best pals’ play from the facade of his thatched house.
Though his anorexic body dissuaded him from joining the group, yet he seemed to masquerade all his pains with a smile. Suraj’s twinkle eyes exude a sparkle of hope as he has promised to join the ‘famous five’ as soon as he recovers.
“I feel tired and a little short of breath all the time. I cannot play. I am so weak that I even can’t walk properly. I often feel cold, dizzy and irritation, besides headache,” says Suraj.
Suraj, a third standard student of Dikom Tea Estate LP School, is an anemic. The youngest of five siblings, Suraj has been suffering from anemia for the last six months. His father Raju Pator works at Dikom Tea Estate (Sesha Division), located at Dikom in Dibrugarh district.
Like Suraj, majority children of tea garden workers in Assam, go through myriad health problems. Children as well as their parents in tea gardens suffer from various maladies— fever, cough, anemia, hypertension, high blood pressure , gastric problems, skin problems and tuberculosis, to me a few.
According to tiol Family Health Survey 3, 2005-2206, about 60% of the tea garden children are underweight and over 90% of children are reported anemic.
Even though Assam is the highest producer of tea and can be called the hub of the tea industry, the condition of tea garden workers has not improved much over the years and most of them were made to live in abject economic condition. The workers continue to lead dismal lives, plagued by ignorance, illiteracy, poverty and poor health.
They are still in the dark about persol hygiene and sanitation practices due to illiteracy and poverty; a situation arises as a result of garden magements’ lack of concern for the welfare of workers and government’s effective policies.
The workers of tea garden use water from tube well for drinking purposes, but they hardly filter it.
“The magement has provided one tube well for every four-five households. We collect water from this tube well for drinking and other purposes,” says Nirmala Pator, a worker of Dikom Tea Estate.
It is a known fact that drinking water is one of the several routes for transmission of diseases, but the tea garden magement does not have access to appropriate water supply to be provided to workers.
“There is an OIL Collection Centre (OCS) close to our garden. Normally the ground water extracted from such areas is contamited, but neither the magement nor the Public Health Engineering department has conducted any test to assess the water quality. This clearly depicts the effect of unpurified water on their health,” Umesh Patar, a local tea garden community leader, points out.
Unlike drinking water, sanitation facilities provided to the workers too are abysmal even though it is very important for a person to maintain good health.
The garden magement provides latrine and bathroom facilities to workers, but they are not adherences to the standards set by the government programmes.
The magement provides pukka latrines to each household, but due to lack of maintence for several years, they got damaged and many of them are not in useable condition. Most of the workers fulfill this idequacy by making their own kaccha latrine or use neighbours’ latrine. Many workers still opt for open defecation.
The government has constructed some toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in gardens, but they are insufficient.
“Only a few household toilets have been constructed in our garden. Our latrine got damaged, but no toilet under SBM was allotted to us. We are left with no option but to go out to defecate,” tea worker Ajoy Munda mentions.
Similarly, the housing condition of workers is somewhat unhygienic. Most of the houses provided by the garden authority are pukka, having brick wall, tinned roof and unpaved floor. There are only two rooms with a kitchen and a verandah, but most the houses are not in good shape due to lack of repair for a long time.
Many workers, along with their children, also live in mud houses with tinned roof. Though most of the workers live in brick wall with tinned roof houses, this is not sufficient and with increasing family size, the problem accentuates. The provision of ventilation system in the houses is insufficient, which adversely affects their health.
Moreover, draige systems of the houses are also in awful shapes, resulting in breaking out of various vector-borne diseases.
Proper diet is cardil element for a healthy person, but tea workers and their children hardly get a balanced diet. A study by the UNICEF and the Assam Medical College found that two of 14 meals in a week are nutritiol in a tea tribe family.
“We cannot afford to have non-vegetarian food. Our platter is filled with rice, dal and potato,” says 20-year-old Sibani Munda.
Milk and milk products and fruits are also almost missing in the diet of all age groups. This leads to deficiency of several nutrients such as calcium, iron, protein, vitamins, fats, etc., in them. They are used to taking black tea with salt, popularly known as chah pani which adversely affects their health.
Similarly, pregnt women as well as newborn babies do not get any extra nutritious diet which leads to poor health of infants.
By and large, almost all workers consume alcohol regularly. The habit of taking excessive alcohol not only affects their health, but also takes toll on their children’s health.
“Smoking and consumption of alcohol which debilitate the immune system put the workers at a greater risk of developing tuberculosis,” says a physician of Gauhati Medical College Hospital (GMCH).
Tuberculosis was most prevalent in the age group of 16-30 years (41.6%), followed by 31-45 years (36.4%) among tea garden workers. Tuberculosis prevalence was 16.8% above 45 years age and 5.2% below 16 years age. (Source: Dr Dharmakanta Kumbhakar, The Sentinel)
Another reason for various ailments among children is early marriage of the mother. Child marriages are common among tea garden workers. The prevalence of child marriage is much higher in tea gardens of Assam. A study by Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association (ABITA) in Dibrugarh found that one-fourth of the respondents (4,100 parents) felt it was appropriate for girls to marry between 14 and 18 years of age.
Early pregncy puts at risk lives of both the mother and the baby. The ABITA report says the mean age for motherhood in tea gardens is 19.3 years. (Source: The Telegraph)
“Many adolescent girls and women in gardens are anemic because of poor diets, so early pregncies result in higher materl deaths,” says a physician of a tea estate hospital in Dibrugarh.
Lack of family planning is another factor. Many plantation workers give birth to four to five children, that too, with shorter birth spacing.
Physicians say short spacing between pregncies may increase the risk of premature birth and having a baby with a low birth weight.
The Plantation Labour Act, 1951 makes it compulsory for tea estate magements to provide health care facilities to workers. Even though hospitals are there in tea estates, infrastructure facilities of most of the hospitals are very poor. Many hospitals lack adequate number of staff and physicians.
At the hospital of Sesha division of Dikom TE, which is home to over 600 children, the doctor comes only once in a week— that is on Wednesday.
“There are over 500 permanent workers and around 300 casual workers, but there is no regular doctor in our dispensary. Doctor comes here only once in a week. And the infrastructure of the hospital is extremely poor. The infrastructure of the hospital requires renovation and modern equipment,” Bhagyasri Munda, a member of Adolescent Girls’ Club run by Unicef, says.
Apart from this, the unusual working hours of the tea workers affect their children’s health. Because of their engagement in gardens, parents do not get enough time to take care of their kids. As the female workers get only three months maternity leave (Assam government has recently decided to make six months), mothers have to resume their work two months from their delivery.
More often than not, tea workers are bitten by bugs of superstitious belief, which drive them to approach sadhus when their children fall ill, instead of consulting with physicians.
The economy of our country is intricately interwoven with the tea industry and workers of tea plantations are an integral component of it. Without them the tea industry of Assam cannot progress. Development of this segment of population is the need of the hour. This calls for immediate policy initiatives to improve their socio-economic condition.
(This article has been written under the
Unicef-KKHSOU Media Fellowship, 2017)