Probe Ordered After 21 Labourers Die in Assam Tea Garden

Authorities at the tea garden claim that the deaths might have occurred due to “excessive consumption of local liquor”.

New Delhi: As many as 21 deaths have been reported from a tea garden in Assam’s Golaghat district in a span of a month due to a sudden illness.

All were either labourers living in the quarters of the Doyang tea estate of the district or their dependents. One of them was a two-and-a-half-year-old child.

While the tea garden authorities had initially told local reporters that the deaths might have occurred due to “excessive consumption of local liquor”, the district administration has instituted a magisterial inquiry to ascertain the reason.

According to local media reports, the deaths have been occurring since February 3, particularly from two of the 13 labour lines or residential rows of the garden. Till March 6, the toll had risen to 21. The symptoms included sudden vomiting, high blood pressure and fever, leading to a “mysterious disease”.

With the number of deaths rising, the panic-stricken labourers have begun visiting the garden dispensary for a check-up. The labourers complain that the dispensary has minimum facilities and all the cases were, therefore, always forwarded to the Civil Hospital in Golaghat town, situated about 25 kms from the garden. Many of them alleged that the garden authorities provided no help to shift the sick into the Golaghat hospital and several died on the way as they had to arrange for resources to take them for better treatment.

Speaking to The Wire, Rajat Das, the garden manager, refuted the allegations stating, “There is a process in place in every garden. Once a labourer or his dependent complains of illness, he/she is first brought to the garden dispensary. When the health team feels that the cases need better handling, they are referred to the Civil Hospital in Golaghat after first aid. We always provide the garden vehicle for transporting the sick. If the Golaghat hospital can’t handle a case, it further refers it to the Jorhat Civil Hospital. This was the standard procedure followed.”

Das said, “Initial inquiry by the district health department has pointed out that the deaths have occurred due to various reasons, such as high blood pressure, hypertension, etc. Not due to unnatural reasons. Several labourers also have tuberculosis. Many don’t complete the treatment and get back to drinking local brew which drastically affects their health.” Recently, the state government”, he added, “transferred Rs 2,500 to the bank account of each labourer as part of a two-time instalment given through a scheme post demonetisation. Many of them used this money only to buy local alcohol.”

He said, “As per our estimate, 19 deaths are of those belonging to the Doyang tea garden community. The rest don’t belong to the garden.”

“The health department of the district has maintained a criminal distance from the issue by even having the impertinence to write off the reasons behind the deaths as natural. How could [the] death of 21 people in a time span of one month be natural? We demand immediate post-mortem and pathological reports to prove it to us,” said Soneswar Narah of the Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha (JKSS), a local labour rights outfit.

Arabinda Sonra of All Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (AATTSA) felt, “The tea garden hospital should be turned into a club if it cannot provide us with basic treatment and save our lives”.

JKSS and AATTSA representatives jointly submitted a memorandum to the DC seeking a judicial enquiry to find out the reason behind the sudden deaths. However, the DC had asked for a magisterial inquiry. The Wire tried contacting the DC, Gaurav Botha but failed to get a response.

State health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has not responded to the issue yet. Meanwhile, local MLA and former Congress minister Ajanta Neog visited the affected labour lines on March 8 and conducted a health awareness camp along with district health officials. Many labourers complained that the sole doctor at the garden dispensary barely visits it, thereby denying them the basic health facilities. When contacted, Rina Ekka, the garden doctor, refused to speak.

According to the garden manager, there are 575 permanent labourers. “The entire tea garden community living within the premises comprises of about 3,500 people. During peak leaf picking season, we hire casual labourers from them totalling the labour strength to about 1000-1,200.” The garden is owned by the 100-year-old company Grob Tea Company Limited, which was acquired by Rawalwasia Group in 2009. Besides Doyang, it also owns Dessoie, Kanu, Teen Ali and Pathemara tea estates in Assam.