Indian tea workers struggle for survival

Up to 750 unemployed tea workers in India's West Bengal have died of malnutrition and other causes following mass closures since 2003 of tea estates employing mostly Catholic tribal people.

UCA News reports that Jalpaiguri diocese in eastern India has launched schemes to help jobless tea estate workers, but a priest says more is needed.

About 165 tea estates are in the district located in the Jalpaiguri diocese, whose population of 5.3 million includes about 141,000 Catholics.

Trouble arose in the estates once the country opened up its market in 1990s in a globalisation initiative. Political pressures and big tea firms reportedly led many small and unprofitable estates to close. Some halted their operations when workers demanded full wages and festival bonuses.

Most of the workers are Catholics, descendants of tribal people whom British planters in the early 20th century brought from Chotanagpur in eastern India to work on the tea estates.

The closures have also spawned other problems. The estates provided workers with bamboo-wall houses covered by asbestos roofs, but the houses need repair every three years. Kaushila Nayak, who lives in such a house, says he has no money to repair his leaky roof. The estate has also cut electricity supply to his and the other workers' houses, so they now must use kerosene lamps.

Some estates that ceased operations compel workers to collect fallen tea leaves to keep the estate clean. Each worker doing this gets less than 10 rupees (about 30 cents) a day, hardly enough to buy a kilogram of rice. "We do it to survive," Soma Munda, a tribal, told UCA News.

Gyan Kindo has refused to do such work and instead walks three hours a day to Jalpaiguri town, and the same back, to do whatever job he can find for 30 rupees a day. On several days, however, he found no work.

Poverty has also forced many women to work as domestics in urban areas, but some landed in brothels, says Bibila Lakra, an animator of the diocesan women empowerment program.

The diocese has tried to check the trend, Lakra said, but despite warnings, "parents send their girls to Delhi and Mumbai."

Bishop Clement Tirkey, who took over Jalpaiguri diocese in April, told UCA News the Church is concerned about the workers' plight and "we are trying to help."

The diocese also has launched self-employment schemes, but the bishop says it will take years for such initiatives to make an impact.

Children's education is another concern. Bishop Tirkey said the diocese has several school dropouts and it is trying to subsidise their education.

The diocese also wants to raise funds for higher education, he added, but "that will be a long-term program - education is a big challenge." Several parishes have schools and hostels, but most get no government aid.

Some congregations of women Religious now manage centres to train women in tailoring and other skills. The diocese is also managing two open schools to help school dropouts complete their education.

Fr Ishi Prasad Kujur, manager of diocesan funds, blames the workers for their poor literacy rate. He told UCA News they never considered educating their children, presuming the children would find jobs in the estates.

Fr Jonas Xalxo, the cathedral's new pastor, says the Church has much to do. "Preaching alone is not enough," he said. "We need to get involved with people, politicians, government officials and estate owners."

Diocese In Eastern India Helps Jobless Tea Estate Workers (UCA News, 26/6/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Tea (Wikipedia)
Jalpaiguri (Wikipedia)

Priest says coffee growers big losers in Timor unrest (CathNews, 21/7/06)

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