For workers thrown out of Bengal's tea gardens, an umbrella is the only respite
Delineated by the fertile green of tea gardens, the seasonal River Titi, in north Bengal, is in its waterless period in October. Fine, grey dust rises from the dry riverbed and settles on the tea bushes along its shoreline as packed jeeps jangle across on water-eroded pebbles.
The grey of the riverbed is peppered with black, open umbrellas. Each umbrella hides a person quietly splintering large river stones into smaller chips. The days are hot and the tiny shade of an umbrella is the only respite. Some sit under a bunch of broken tree branches.
These are all out-of-work tea estate workers. Thrown out without warning from the scores of tea gardens that smother this semi-mountainous landscape, thousands are struggling to make a living. According to report released in September, abandonment and closure of more than 15 Duncan Tea Estates in N Bengal has affected 75,000 workers and their families. All along the three rivers close to the Indo-Bhutan border, hundreds of umbrellas and heads sat breaking stones all day for the construction industry.
Kalashiya Munda has only known a tea garden life. She used to work on a Duncan estate. Taught on the garden and with no other skill, she works for nine to ten hours a day to earn about Rs 100 a day. It is temporary work. She worked at the gardens for more than 20 years till three months ago when she was let go without any compensation. It is late afternoon and she is waiting for the contractors’ trucks to come by. I can see them in the distance, raising balloons of dust behind them. It is lean season for this work because it is only in the monsoon, when the river is in spate, that it brings along large stones from upstream. Now, they have to walk longer to find breakable boulders.
Munda talks about other workers, some of whom went to Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to find work and returned because they were not paid. She has a flat pile of stones next to her – her day’s work. “It has been quite tough. At the garden, at least we got Rs 5,000 a month, some medical facilities, school buses and drinking water. Here it is a pittance,” she said in a tired voice. From the spot where she sits breaking stones by hand, she can see the tea garden where she once worked. Two occupations paces away from each other but lives miles apart.