Another Assam Tea Garden Worker Dies Of Malnutrition

Anothertea garden worker in India died untimely at the age of 38. Mr. Lakhi Prasad Dushad, a resident of the North Bank division of the Bhuvan valley tea estate in Assam died, 3 May 2012. He was a permanent worker at the tea estate.

The Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC), an Assam based rights group, earlier reported 14 deaths that were found to be caused by starvation, malnutrition and lack of proper medical care in this south Assam tea garden. With this latest death, the toll stands at 15, according to the information available with the BHRPC.

According to BHRPC reports, the tea estate is owned by a private company based in Kolkata, which employs about 500 permanent and approximately another 1000 casual workers, was abandoned by the owners in October 8, 2011 without paying the workers their outstanding wages and other dues. It resulted in loss of means of livelihood for the workers, pushing them into starvation that led to the deaths of 10 people, up until 27 January 2012.

According to the BHRPC fact-finding report released on 1 February, the workers were deprived of their rights as they were forced to do overtime work and were paid very low wages (Rs. 41.00 for casual workers and 50.00 to 55.00 for permanent workers) without being provided any medical treatment while working and, after closure, had the payment of their wages, provident fund and bonus suspended.

The rights of plantation workers to a fair wage, bonus, provident fund, housing and basic medical facilities in accordance with the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 have not been enforced. In the course of closure, the government failed to make any intervention to guarantee their fundamental rights to live with dignity. It is further found that basic medical care and food distribution for the poor under the government schemes including the ICDS did not properly reach even those workers who lost their livelihoods and that was one of the causes that led to the deaths.

The secretary general of BHRPC, Mr Neharul Ahmed Mazumder said in a statement released on 8 May, that on receiving information about the death of Mr Dushad, a team from the BHRPC visited the garden and talked with his family and other labourers on 3 May. “The team was informed that the immediate cause of the death apparently was tuberculosis. But the labourers contended that because of long time malnutrition the deceased had been very weak and vulnerable to attacks of such diseases. This is the reason for a large number of the labourers having tuberculosis, while people residing in nearby villages seldom have this disease, they claim.”

The BHRPC stated that on the basis of the information provided by the workers, this also appears prima facie as a clear case of death, due to malnutrition and lack of proper medical care, since the underlying cause of the death is obviously malnutrition and the immediate cause of tuberculosis is a treatable disease.

Moreover, going by the definition of starvation death provided in the National Food Security Bill, 2010 drafted by the National Advisory Council and the Starvation Investigation Protocol prepared by the Supreme Court Commissioners on the right to food the unfortunate death can be termed as the one caused by starvation. This is also a case of failure of both the union government of India and the state government of Assam to ensure the right to live with dignity, to which every citizen of India is entitled, under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, as well as international human rights law.

The BHRPC continuously reported to the authorities in India about the hunger deaths in the Bhuvan valley tea garden since 1 February 2012. The authorities have not yet taken any effective action to ameliorate the situation and improve the working condition of the labourers, in accordance with the international human rights obligations and laws passed by the Indian parliament. The Assam government only made the owners re-open the garden and ordered an inquiry as a whitewash.

Without enforcement of legal obligations of the owners, and human rights obligations of the governments, the re-opening of the garden appears nothing short of the return of the beast. The action merely worsened the conditions, instead of ending the woes of the labourers. There are complaints that labourers are not getting loans from the provident fund (PF) to get over their cash crunch, as the management had only paid 50% of the arrears of PF through the district administration, which is not even being released by the authorities.

Even the PF claims of the dead labourers were not being cleared. The garden hospital is still totally non-functional and the hospital run by the government under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) has no full time qualified doctor. Though rationing of some staple food has been started, it excludes most of the dependents of the workers. According to the labourers, both the quality and quantity of the food items supplied are not consumable by human beings.

The BHRPC expressed its deep concerns over the present survival and future well-being of the family of Mr Dushad. He left behind his wife Imti Dushad (aged about 30), his sons Kishan Dushad (15), Eleven Dushad (13), Sujit Dushad (11), Hitesh Dushad (8) and 5 year old daughter Sweetie Dushad. Their survival is uncertain in the situation as it now stands.

The BHRPC made a supplementary submission about the death of Lakhi Prasad Dushad, and the situation now prevailing in the estate, to the office of the Supreme Court Commissioners on the right to food, as well as the National Human Rights Commission. The National Human Rights Commission took cognizance of the hunger deaths in Bhuvan valley on the petitions of the BHRPC. The authorities, including the prime minister of India and the chief minister of Assam, have also been informed.