Jalpaiguri: Twenty-six-year-old Santhali girl, Rita, can barely make ends meet. She and her family were casual labours in the Ramjhora Tea Estate, which was abandoned by its owners in August 2002.
Last year Rita lost her husband and in-laws in the space of a month, and though the government doesn't recognise them as starvation deaths, it admits poverty is responsible for more than 100 deaths in the coolie lines.
“We didn't have money to take them to a doctor. We don't have food to eat then how could we pay for a doctor?” Rita asked.
Hundreds have fled the Ramjhora coolie lines since the garden closed because what the government provided as succour wasn't sufficient for them to sustain.
“We don't want these benefits. Instead, we want the government to reopen the garden,” a worker in the estate, Hiralal said.
Sadly, Ramjhora isn't the only tea estate in the Dooars region of Jalpaiguri where closure has resulted in severe poverty amongst erstwhile workers and their families. Many more, like the Kathalguri Tea Estate, have a similar story to tell.
Nearly 1,500 workers lost their jobs when this 2,200-acre garden was closed some five years ago. Poverty has claimed some 600 lives in this estate alone.
But now at long last, the Union Government has agreed to provide a financial incentive package so that owners returned to the 14 closed gardens.
“It involves restructuring of loans that are owed to banks, waiver of loans that are owed to Tea Board, penalties on provident fund and soft loans at lower rates of interest to get the closed tea gardens going,” Union Minister of State, Commerce, Jairam Ramesh said.
Lakhs of workers in Dooars live on the brink of starvation while relief packages are being offered to reopen gardens. However, the challenge is to keep them open beyond the plucking season and without job cuts, which is nearly impossible.