By Lalit P. Tirkey SJ
For generations, the tea plantation labourers of North Bengal, India, have been deprived of their rights and benefits and subjected to exploitation by tea plantation managers as well as government agencies. The latter have denied them many benefits such as ration cards and land ownership rights and have said that the social welfare of tea workers is the responsibility of plantation management. Tea plantation managers for their part have deprived workers of most of the benefits enumerated in the Plantation Labour Act (1951), such as the right to primary education, proper medical services and just wages, and they have also made statutory benefits into fringe benefits. The blatant violation of labour laws and lack of corporate social responsibility on the part of employers and the apathy of government agencies have resulted in loss of human dignity and deplorable living conditions for labourers.
For the past two years, in an effort to address these issues, the Jesuit-run Human Life Development & Research Centre (HLDRC) has conducted leadership training sessions, social awareness workshops and socio-economic analyses in five tea gardens of the Terai region in Darjeeling District and in four closed gardens (i.e., gardens that are shut down or abandoned due to financial or other problems, leaving workers and their families to fend for themselves) of Jalpaiguri District. These initiatives have led to the formation of grassroots-level leaders who are trained to demand rights guaranteed under government schemes. About 30 community leaders have also been trained in para-legal matters to take up issues involving land and property disputes.
This work is not without challenges and frustrations, however. Government agencies are often not cooperative; other social organizations do not like to collaborate on tea garden problems; and some beneficiaries also appear indifferent. Sadly, even some church leaders in some areas resent our presence and become quite critical of our rights-based approach to development instead of engaging in pastoral work.
Nonetheless the work continues, and in addition, HLDRC has introduced goat and pig rearing, cash crop cultivation, and other alternative livelihood and community-enhancing activities. For example, a women’s self-help group (SHG) at Sayadabad tea garden has bought chairs and tables that it hires out for community celebrations like weddings; a men’s SHG at Nandovita is now growing ginger as a cash crop to help generate additional household income; communities at the Dharanipur and Salbani closed gardens have started subsistence cultivation as well as cash crops with the help of a new water pump; and a women’s SHG from the Dagapur tea garden have initiated a toilet-making project by tapping local government funds. Such activities encourage self-reliance and promote workers’ dignity and well-being.
This article by Lalit P. Tirkey SJ originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the title “India: Workers’ rights, employment and dignity.” Fr Tirkey is director of the Human Life Development & Research Centre in Darjeeling, India. Canadian Jesuits International supports the work of HLDRC in the Jesuit Province of Darjeeling.