THE PANDEMIC IN NORTH BENGAL: COVID-19 AND PLANTATION WORKERS


  • June 22, 2021
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From 1st Jan, 2021 onwards, the daily wage of the tea garden worker has increased to INR 202 from INR 176. Imagine living a life with your family for Rs 202 a day, when the prices of essential items such as rice, potato, pulses, cooking oil, gas have skyrocketed, and the inflation has exponentially increased. When the daily wage of workers doesn’t suffice for daily life and sustenance, how can we expect workers to avail education, health facilities for themselves and their families, writes Sumendra Tamang

 

 

COVID-19 has orchestrated an unimaginable ripple of chaos, stress and heaps of dead bodies, right into the heart of this system and our everyday lives. Just a few weeks ago, on an average, 3000 – 4000 people were dying during the course of a day. This has become the new normal. It is an irony, indeed, that the availability of hospital beds is seen as an indicator of things improving. Innumerable and uncountable lives have been lost due to the lack of hospital beds, oxygen, medicines and basic health infrastructure. The virus has penetrated every section and strata of our society. It has magnified our deepest fears, and accelerated the inherent systematic crisis.

 

Our planet Earth is habitable and abundant for human civilization because of its oxygen constitution and natural resources. But unfortunately, people are dying outside of hospitals due to unavailability and black market hoardings of oxygen concentrators/cylinders. According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of India, there are more than 10, 26 000 active registered cases in India at present and a total of 370000+ people have died till date (13th June 2021, when this article was penned). While this is the government data, field surveys and experiential accounts would reflect much higher numbers of deaths and active cases, as many are afraid to undergo testing and often consider COVID to be just a myth. The death toll does not include those who died outside hospitals, at home or were not tested. After all, when people holding ministerial positions attempt to legitimize misinformed facts, people will tend to believe them. At least, to a certain extent.

 

PLANTATION AREAS AND THE PANDEMIC: 

The public health system of India has proven to be a complete failure during the pandemic. When I use the word “failure,” I do not mean any disrespect to the frontline workers. Instead, the word is directed towards those controlling the business of the commodification of healthcare. The pandemic has thoroughly exposed the inability of the private health system to cater to the needs of the marginalised sections of our society. There is nothing new about the profit-motive driven operations of the private hospitals, but the pandemic has exposed the intensity of the issue, and has brought into the forefront the falsities of the much-advertised “incentives” of the private hospitals, and has highlighted the issue of the crisis of the public healthcare system.

 

The second wave of COVID-19 has hit the urban areas hard, and rural areas even harder. The general awareness and information revolving around COVID-19 have been disappointing, especially, in the rural areas. Lack of proper sanitization, hygiene, and healthcare facilities have been the primary reasons for increased contagion and rising death rates. Absence of solid and reliable scientific knowledge and general information about how to deal with the pandemic, the way false and consecrated information are being circulated in the online world about COVID-19, magnification of social evil such as casteism, sexism, racism in face of the overall crisis, and a general absence of the social impulse of helping the ones in need (in action and not just words) have made things worse, and contributed to this unprecedented state of affairs right now.

 

While the virus has been circulating amongst the most private of spaces, and affecting almost everyone— be it the rich or the poor, the elite or the marginalized — it is extremely disheartening that the plantation industry of tea and cinchona was running in full swing through the months of the lockdown. For the tea industry, first flush has always been more valuable to the owners and the government (both central and state), than the workers themselves, who pluck, produce and process tea. The demand for Hydroxychloroquine has increased in the drug industry, ever since the news of it helping in COVID treatment had surfaced. The drug is a product of Quinine produced from Cinchona barks, and consequently, the plantation saw rampant and increasing numbers of workers getting infected in the Cinchona plantation of Darjeeling hills, Kalimpong, Terai and Dooars.

 

Munsong Cinchona garden is located in Kalimpong district, and it has seen five COVID deaths till date, out of which one is that of a woman worker. The garden has more than 20 active cases. On 5th June, 2021, even amidst such a critical situation, the management continued the planting of the Cinchona saplings, on the pretext of World Environment Day, and the traditions revolving around it. When the local youths spoke out against it, the management simply put a narrative which circled around the notion that the ‘youths should understand, ‘while the workers were put under extreme forms of unwanted and  systematic risks.

 

On the other hand, the value of the first flush of Darjeeling tea has been one of the central tropes of Western romanticism since the early 1800s. To be clear, during the period of lockdown when all of us were inside our homes, the workers of tea and Cinchona Plantations were outside, working under the diktat of capital, aiding in the generation of profit.  As a result of which, hundreds of workers have been affected till date, and many have lost their lives. The blame also is upon the Bidhan Sabha elections of 2021. One, however, needs to ask:

 

  • Even amidst the fear of a pandemic, was it necessary for the government to keep on allowing the plantation industry to continue with the production, at the risk of the worker’s lives?

 

  • Haven’t the workers done enough for the society, and have aided enough in the accumulation of capitalist profit for the owners of the plantation industry?

 

  • Are the tea leaves more valuable than the lives of the workers?

 

Can we, as a society, imagine a pandemic where we are not drinking tea, and thus, not contributing our bit towards the decimation of the workers’ lives?

 

If we start asking such uncomfortable questions, the list will keep on increasing. From 1st Jan, 2021 onwards, the daily wage of the tea garden worker has increased to INR 202 from INR 176. Imagine living a life with your family for Rs 202 a day, when the prices of essential items such as rice, potato, pulses, oil, gas have skyrocketed, and the inflation has exponentially increased. When the daily wage of workers doesn’t suffice for daily life and sustenance, how can we expect workers to avail education, health facilities for themselves and their families?

 

Additionally, with the pandemic and economic crisis looming large above our heads, it is utterly inhumane to expect that the workers would work for the interest of the owners, and risk their lives for this first flush of tea or hydroxychloroquine, while continuing to receive such meagre amount as daily wages. There is also a marked absence of basic health infrastructure in these gardens. Under the law, it is the responsibility of the plantation owners to provide the basic level of primary healthcare to the workers. But as of today, only a few gardens have working dispensaries, and most dispensaries have no doctors or proper medicines.

 

It must also be mentioned here that it is not possible to maintain ‘physical distancing’ while at work in these gardens, and even after risking their lives in this way, many workers don’t even get ambulances from the management to ferry patients to the nearest government hospitals. As one can imagine, none of these daily workers can even afford to think about private hospitals. All that the management does in most gardens is, provide some chemicals for the sake of sanitization. In other words, the management is extremely reluctant to assume the responsibility for the safety of the workers. When a worker is infected with COVID 19, he/ she has to stay in home quarantine (if suggested by a doctor) for 17 days, and during that period of isolation, the worker is not even paid his/her daily wages. The question therefore is, if the workers aren’t paid any wages, how will they sustain themselves, while being quarantined? If the workers aren’t provided with an ambulance (which they should be, according to the law) how will the workers without any money go to the hospital when needed? In other words, many lives are lost due to a lack of proper health care. As taxpayers (direct or indirect) of this country, shouldn’t everyone get equal provisions for public healthcare?

 

Also, in most of these plantations, the ambulance services and owners have created a monopoly-like situation right now. To cite the example of an incident, ferrying a patient from Kurseong to Siliguri (North Bengal Medical College and Hospital), a workers’ family from Margaret’s Hope tea garden had to pay INR 26000  for a total distance of approximately 30 km. The said patient has now expired, and the patient’s family has chosen to remain anonymous. One patient while being transferred from Triveni COVID hospital, Kalimpong to a private hospital at Siliguri, was charged INR 20000. This patient, too, is no more amongst us as we speak. With such massive charges for an ambulance, how can someone earning daily wages as a worker in a plantation, even manage to get to the hospital?

 

The question, then, is, why doesn’t the government and the local administration put an end to such open loot and monopoly of the private ambulance services? The question is, why is the government (both state and central) not interfering with the indifferent and dictatorial behaviour of the plantation owners?

 

Where did we go wrong as a society? All in all, the burden of the pandemic has been put on the heads and shoulders of the working classes. The absence of proper public health infrastructure is putting the final nail to the coffin of the plantation workers.

 

CIVIL SOCIETY AND THE PANDEMIC: 

The development of an active, political and helpful voice of the people from the existing society is very much needed in any type/form of social interaction, especially during difficult and dark times. Consequently, a lot of support has been provided to the workers in the plantation areas. But even such help is unevenly distributed. Not all rural and distant gardens are getting enough help.

 

 

However, this pandemic has brought many different people from the Darjeeling Terai and Dooars together to stand in solidarity with the workers of the Plantation areas.

 

 

However, relief and financial aid remain temporary solutions. The final solution, however, always needs to be political and include the collective struggle of the people. However, keeping aside the motives behind different NGOs, social organisations, clubs, political parties that are coming forward to aid the distressed workers, one has to concede, even if temporary, relief can provide a sense of trust towards the existing society. Helping hands are surely better than forever sceptic lips during such times of unimaginable stress and chaos.

 

 

However, the understanding behind such civil initiatives is also equally important. It is imperative to  understand that the government and the ruling classes have proved to be futile, and often, in many cases, self-centered, and due to these state of affairs, the centrality that relief and social welfare have gained, play an active role in understanding the nature of our contemporary society. It is, in particular, the lack of required initiatives by the government to avail basic rights such as healthcare to the workers, and the inability to pressurize the owners of these plantations to undertake adequate all-round measures that often makes the workers dependent upon such civil relief initiatives. The civil initiatives, thus, become, in one way,  a helping hand to the ones who build up our society from scratch and roots and in the other, a way of questioning the system constructively and collectively and make people understand the limitations of the system, and its appropriation and  authority. Thus, along with providing a helping hand, we also provide them with a kind of solidarity, and expose the nature of this existing order of private ownership and power.

 

People are discontented and are raising questions against the system. This is a global phenomenon. Human civilization led by capitalism speaks of civilization beyond our planet on the one hand, and on the other, fails to provide basic human rights to the majority of the population on earth. The pandemic has been many things. It has been a killer, a murderer, an offender and so on. But it has also been an eye-opener and has thoroughly exposed the system as incapable of sustaining human civilization and the overall progress of all. This system is so much engrossed in profit extraction that it has put a quantified ranking of value on each one of us, where more capital equals more value in its hierarchical existing society.  It has reduced us to robotic consumers and doesn’t care for the downtrodden and oppressed sections of our society. It has made many realise that the system is a pandemic, Corona is just a virus. Now the question is, do we return to the same older order of things or do we see this pandemic as a portal to a new and just world on far more equalitarian grounds?

 

The choice is yours.

 

(The author is a social and cultural activist from Darjeeling)

 

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