By Pranab Doley
‘Maago mur kenekua lagise’(mother I am feeling bad) were the last words uttered by Belamati Tasha to her husband sleeping next to her, just before her sudden death around 3: 00 A.M. on 12th of February, earlier last month. Nandalal Tasha, the husband of late Belamati, mutters with tears in his eyes, as he laments the fact that he could do nothing for his wife. It was early dawn when Belamati left Nandalal and their youngest son Lalit (who is visibly impaired by birth) in their sleeping bed. Nandalal not only lost his wife, but on the 13th, of February just after laying his wife to rest forever, another misery struck this family. Durupati Tasha, mother of Nandalal, suddenly complained of fever in the afternoon and was rushed to the tea garden hospital. After minor treatment in the garden hospital, she was referred to the Civil Hospital, Golaghat, but she too passed away in the hospital. Death did not stop there in Nandalals’ household on the 2nd of March; it visited again, taking away Nandalal’s only brother Gorab Tanti with similar precision. “There were no prior symptoms of illness, they just vomited or felt sick and before I could do anything they passed away” weeps Nandalal. Nandalal has been left ravaged, paralysed with grief. The whole household smeared in the worst of terror and grief, as neighbours’ try to console and soothe the family, but to no avail. Only little Lalit (visually impaired at birth) wore an unending smile on his face, as he could not see the face of doom. Perhaps his heart still too young to feel the tyranny of emotions, he kept smiling and scampering towards the camera for a photo. This is one among twenty-one cases of death from 03rd Feb to 06th of March in the Doyang Tea Estate, Golaghat, Assam.
Alcohol Death! Verdict of the Manager of Doyang Tea Estate
Run by the Grobe tea Co. Ltd., glorified to be a subsidiary of the heritage steel producers Octavius, Doyang tea estate labour colonies are the symbols of penury. There are 13 lines (wards, as per garden lexicon) with a few thousand populations. The Tongi line with 10 deaths have seen the highest number of deaths in the last 30 days period, followed by 6 in Choimasiya Line, 2 in Oating Line, 1 each in Bor line, Babu Line and Murha Line.On the other hand, the tea garden authorities have stated that all these have happened due to heavy drinking of alcohol. Recently the government has deposited two thousand five hundred rupees to the bank account of each labourer. But they did not use the amount properly and spent the amount on buying alcohol. The Manager of the Tea Garden, Mr Ranjit Das has declared with much conviction and authority that ‘the deaths have occurred due to heavy drinking of alcohol’.
When spoken to the labour union and student union representatives of the tea estates, they summarily denied this statement and said that this cannot the reason for such a large number of death. The reason must be different which they are trying to hide from us by putting the blame of the death on us poor labourers.
The health department reiterating the Tea Managements verdict
There is a thick shroud hanging over the tea estate, as the effort to find the reasons of the deaths is not seen from the tea estate authorities or the Golaghat Medical Department. Half of the of victims were directly sent to the Golaghat government hospital, about 25 k.m. away where they lost their lives. Even after such a high number of mortality from the same tea garden within a short span of time, the department has not treated it as an endemic situation.
According to the papers and declaration of the medical department, not a single post-mortem/autopsy is available, and they have not come up with any clarification or shown any anticipation in trying to find out the reasons behind the death.
A team of doctors and the district surveillance officer submits a report to the Joint Director of medical health service stating that ‘the reason of death is due to alcohol consumption’, completely based on the words of the tea garden manager, without any pathological or autopsy report stating it.
Thus the question arises why the Medical department is so silent about this epidemic?
Could Alcohol be the reason?
“Bemari Manush, Kahain Mod Pabe”, (sick women, where will she get alcohol?), huddled in a tight group, a women with grief-stricken voice expresses in front of Late Sukurmani Paharia’s house. A young girl peeped through the cracked bamboo walls, scared to come out to speak, she stood there hesitantly. The young girl of only 15 years Anjali Paharia is the oldest of the surviving members of this family. Anjali’s tears roll down, her only reply to the death of her mother. The group of woman, all huddled, started to weep in palpable grief.
A baby dies too. Sunyana Pattnaik, a baby who had just started to walk and say a few words, died too on 21/02/2018. Was it really alcohol then, the cause of her death? The father wails away in grief, curses himself of not being able to save his youngest child.
‘If the reason would be alcohol why did the other people from surrounding villages who drink the same alcohol not die?”, asked a curious All Assam Tea Tribe Student Association (AATTSA) member from the region.
Not only women, but also children are the victims of this tragedy that silently is taking away many a lives inhabiting the Doyang Tea Estate. If the causes of death would have been the abuse of alcohol, how would the death of women and children be justified? –argue the people of the garden colony in deep sorrow.
Historical injustice of indentured labour continues to take lives
There are around 1500 workers in the Tea estate and out of which only 600 (approx.) of them are permanent employees, earning a meagre wage of 137Rs/day. . The labour quarters dilapidated to the brink, no drainage or sewage system and sanitation facilities non-existent. Such are the everyday condition of tea estate quarters, while the Manager Bungalows rests in an oasis of beauty and comfort with end number of people taking care of every need of the Managerial families.
“The tea garden hospital should be turned into a club, if it cannot provide us with basic treatment and save our lives” Arbinda Saonra, AATTSA.
Clad in white, widowed Purnima Ghasi all off 20 years, sat alone in the middle of her
small tea garden quarter. Her husband Babul Ghasi succumbed to the same mysterious illness on the 3/02/2018. A few days later, she says, “morning when I tried to wake my mother-in-law she could not wake up. So, I took her to the garden hospital, but they referred her to Golaghat. But she died on the way. Left all alone, I had no one to help me. The tea garden hospital did not provide any help too”. Asha Ghasi her mother-in-law died just 9 days after the death of her only son. Without any support, Purnima wails and curses the unknown at her fate.
“The hospital should provide us with manpower to take
our sick to the hospital and they have not sent even a single person with our dead”, complains Anu Majhi with her toddler tugged to her waist. Anu Majhis husband, Kalia Majhi succumbed to the same mysterious illness on the 9th of February. Now, Anu Majhi lives as a destitute with an infant to cater to and no work for herself. Her husband, she says, was working till the last day of his life; and still the Tea Garden Management has not provided her any help.
“The doctor comes only twice a week, that too for very short hours”. There is no proper medical facility and that is one of the reasons why so many of us have died. “Let the hospital be turned into a club house if it cannot cater to our need” are the words of one of the sons of Late Rupson Saonra, who died on the 25th of February.
A heated debate ensued in the premises where they were preparing for the 10 days
rituals of the dead Rupson Saonra. They spoke about the Doyang Lake, the major source of fish and daily water use, which has not been cleaned in the century of its existence. All the toxic chemicals of the tea estate drain there and the same water is used by the people as well as animals. There is no upkeep of the living conditions. The workers outrage kept flowing against everything that is wrong and unjust, even after serving the tea estate for more than 150 years now. How does one garner hope to live and work with such a history and working condition?
The list of the victims:
|Sl. No||Name of the victim||Age||M/F||Date of death|
Silence rules as justice hangs in limbo
“The health department of the district has been silent in the whole issue. They have maintained a criminal distance from the issue by even having the impertinence to write off the reasons of death as unknown or natural. How could death of 21 people, in a time span of 1 month, be natural? We demand immediate post mortem and pathological reports to prove to us” Soneswar Narah, Jeepal Krisak Sramik Sangha.
Representatives of Jeepal Krisak Sramik Sangha and AATTSA spoke to the joint director of medical, Golaghat, DR Ratul Bordoloi. He stated that without proper autopsy/post mortem done he would not be able to ascertain the reasons behind the death. He has given his words to ask for a post mortem from the district administration.
Deputy Commissioner of Golaghat, Gaurav Bothra, was completely unaware of this incident. Accepting the memorandum drafted by ‘Jeepal’, he promptly ordered a magisterial enquiry. However, the organization has demanded for a Judicial enquiry and immediate arrest of the tea garden manager by filing a FIR against him, as he is responsible for the deaths of the workers. They also have stated that they will continue the struggle if justice is not granted to the victims and their families.
The BJP government is silent. The health minister is silent too. The labour minister is silent as well. Nothing has been done till now. 21 lives of labourers do not matter to anyone as they treat them as disposable bodies. The modest, abandoned and isolated inhabitants of this tea estate cringe at the enforced brutality. They only manage to turn their outrage to their ghosts, demons and deities, as they dole out ceremonies and sacrifices to be soothe Mangala Devi, Hingora Devi, Dangoriya Dev, Gram Dev, Kali Devi, among others. As the living demons, which are the authorities, are too powerful for their meagre devices.
*All the photos are by the author.
Pranab Doley is an indigenous activist working on labour and peasant issues.