Tea Garden Workers Discover a Glimmer of Hope in This IAS Officer After Years of Distress!

North India (which includes West Bengal, Assam, and all the North-Eastern states) had 36,836 tea plantations in 1999, up from 3,141 in 1994, according to statistics released by Tea Board India. The cost structures of these huge plantations became unsustainable as this number increased from 168 to 532 in the Dooars alone over this era.

But the people who have taken a beating are the labourers in the tea gardens, not the owners. It is tragic that the plantation was unable to pay its employees on time and failed to provide them with food grains, leading to reports of workers dying of starvation. Everything goes wrong when insensitive bureaucracy and small-scale corruption are involved.

The state’s political climate is likewise affected by this matter.

During her recent travels to the area, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee allegedly instructed local authorities to guarantee that tea plantation employees can participate in the government’s welfare programmes and receive their benefits.

District Magistrate Nikhil Nirmal, IAS of Alipurduar, has a massive undertaking ahead of him, as he is responsible for 63 tea gardens. There are 63 tea estates, and 5 of them have shut down. Another 20 are having financial difficulties.

This was a familiar problem for the government official, who spent his childhood in the Ernakulam area among tea plantations. Speaking to The Better India, he told the story of how he saw the hardships endured by tea garden labourers during his formative years.

His government responded by launching “Apnar Bagane Proshason” (administration in your garden) on July 22. This programme helps raise awareness and resolve grievances for low-income workers in tea gardens in the Dooars region, which are often understaffed and overworked. The Madhu Tea Garden, which had been shuttered since September 2014, hosted the first camp on July 22, 2018.

Based on Nirmal’s information, the district administration is currently exploring ways to ensure that state development efforts can reach these workers without the normal bureaucratic red tape, as they have limited or no other means of support.

What is the origin of these workers?

The majority of these employees are descendants of tribal migrants who came from Bihar, Jharkhand, and Assam centuries ago, according to Suman Mohanty, a probationary ias officer serving under Nirmal, who spoke with TBI.

Workers in this area are economically disadvantaged and have low human development indicators, especially in healthcare, nutrition, and education. He went on to say that many of these people rely on greedy touts to get benefits from government programmes and that many of them aren’t even covered by social security.

After Nikhil Nirmal assumed leadership of the Alipurduar district in June 2018, he immediately set out to free the area from the shackles of touts and intermediaries.

1) Every week, or more often if necessary, locate tea gardens that are closed or otherwise strained and pitch up camp there.

2) Gather representatives from 16 line departments that distribute benefits from various government programmes and initiatives. These include MGNREGA, Nirmal Bangla (sanitation), Kanyashree (girl child empowerment through education), Rupashree (prevention of child marriage through provision of state money when they reach 18 years of age), Sabuj Saathi (provision of saplings to ensure afforestation and income security), Anandadhara (bank-credit linkage), payment of unpaid wages, food ration card enrollment, and provision of SC/ST certificates directly to the individual.

3) All Gramme Panchayat, Block, and District Administration officials gather there.

4) The tea garden hosts a free health camp as a recruiting tool. Services provided include immunisations for both mothers and their children, regular check-ups, testing for blood groups, treatment for sickle cell anaemia, prevention of vector-borne infections (such as malaria, dengue, and tuberculosis), and rehabilitation from substance abuse.

In addition, there are on-site disability check-up camps that help determine disability parameters for people who want to enrol in the Manabik pension plans. Camp announcements are also made in Hindi, Bengali, and the widely spoken Sadri language.

5) These camps are visited by the District Magistrate, who listens to their complaints. He told TBI he had also learned Sadri to communicate with the employees.

6) Weekends and holidays in the tea garden are prime times for these gatherings. The district government hosts these weekly grievance sessions at a designated tea garden or nearby location.

The administration’s initiatives are having an effect, even if only slightly over a month.

The fact that the DM hosted this camp is greatly appreciated. Vasant Thapi, a camp attendee in Bandapani village, Madarihat Block, said, “We received important information about old-age and widow pension related issues and their documentation. The disbursal of unpaid MGNREGA wages and demands for a community hall were fulfilled.” In addition, the camp discussed other matters.

An unnamed former tea garden worker also recently testified about her success in applying for ration cards and government initiatives such as Sabuj Saathi, Rupashree, and Kanyashree at a different camp after finally gathering all the required paperwork.

The district government has organised twelve camps since the programme began. Although we are still in the early stages and have a long way to go, we are already taking drastic action.

Officials were multiple occasions removed from their positions at these camps due to corruption.

The official was a temporary worker at a ration store who routinely engaged in unethical and unscrupulous behaviour, prompting numerous complaints to the district magistrate. According to Suman, after the Madarihat camp, Nirmal Sir questioned the man at the shop. When he realised he couldn’t defend himself, Nirmal Sir requested that he appear at the Block Development Office for a hearing, where he was fired after following the proper procedures.

The government has, however, yet to scratch the surface. According to Nirmal, who spoke with The Better India, his government may need six months to inspect all the tea gardens under his purview.

Another challenge is following up with officials from the block and gramme panchayat to handle people’s issues as soon as possible. According to Nirmal, the gramme panchayat level is another potential extension of these services.

Some may even argue that the district administration has a problem with the primary health system that needs fixing since health camps are necessary.

With the help of these complaint settlement centres, the government is now more accessible to the public.

This platform allows them to express their frustrations, criticise our shortcomings, and reap the rewards of their actions. Because of the information gap, touts trick customers into enrolling in government programs like Aadhaar to steal their personal data. A ration card staffer was sacked on the spot by the District Magistrate, which has caused some anxiety within the ranks. Furthermore, according to Suman, employees can visit the district headquarters every workday to resolve their issues.

With allegations of administrative malpractices routinely flooding the district magistrate’s office, it even keeps local block and gramme panchayat officials on their toes.

The development officer for one block commented that they had yet to learn how difficult it was to get to the tea gardens due to the poor roads. The fact that he is now attending these camps has motivated him to finish all the roads quickly, according to Nirmal.

In light of the early successes of the Apnar Baganer Proshashon programme, other neighbouring districts have followed suit, albeit with different names.

The administration’s relationship with the tea garden workers has strengthened due to these camps. The larger issues of a declining tea business and the need to ensure they find other means of subsistence necessitate a significantly larger involvement. But for now, the government is aware of and sympathises with their everyday struggles.

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