“That’s where I fell,” 58-year-old Santalachi Subba points to the flight of stone steps that lead to the muddy floor of her hut situated in a corner of Badamtam Tea Estate, nearly 13 km from Darjeeling.
Santalachi Subba is one of the 1,200 workers in the Lama Division of the estate who help produce Moonlight Spring White Tea. Last May, this particularly rare tea fetched INR 2 lakhs per kg. In June, Santalachi slipped down the stairs of her hut and broke her ribs. “I couldn’t go back to work after that,” she said. “It hurts to pull the basket up and down the hill.” As a result, she can no longer work, and has lost the little income that she earned. Without work, she will also have to give up her little house.
Although the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 (PLA) attempts to limit the control employers have on their employees, it has failed to ensure the security of a worker’s tenure. Workers can reside in the gardens as long as they are able to contribute to the business. With no tenure rights, they are vulnerable to eviction by the management.
The PLA also states that, “It shall be the duty of every employer to provide and maintain for every worker and his family residing in the plantation, necessary housing accommodation.” While there is the bare minimum provision of housing, maintenance of this housing is a far cry.
Santalachi showed us the empty space in front of the hut. “There was another hut right here. It was completely washed away when the rains came.” Some people from the tea estate arrived to click pictures of Santalachi’s broken house the next day. “They took photographs,” she said, “but they didn’t come back.”
Barnana Hemoprava Sarkar works as a freelance journalist. Santalachi Subba has been working at Badamtam Tea Estate for nearly 28 years.
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