Relishing your cup of fine Darjeeling tea? Hold that sip and consider this: the workers who plucked those tea leaves may be dying of hunger.
In the last two weeks alone, at least 14 tea estate workers have died due to malnutrition and lack of medical aid on the Bagracote tea garden owned by Duncans Industries. As we write this, reports are coming in of another death.
Ask the government and the estate owners about these deaths and they blame "prolonged illnesses". What they won't say is that the "illnesses" are directly related to hunger and the workers' abysmal working and living conditions.
It's no secret that West Bengal's tea gardens are plagued with administrative, financial and labour problems. But, unfortunately, they only draw attention, if any at all, when workers die.
What's worsened the crisis is that the tea gardens are shutting down at an alarming rate, depriving the largely tribal workers of even their menial jobs. Abandoned by the estate owners as well as the state government, they are forced into abject poverty, which many don't survive.
To get a sense of the utter decay in the tea estate sector, India's oldest organised industry, consider the following numbers:
India's estimated tea production in 2013-14, the second largest globally.
China became the global leader in tea production in 2006 -- displacing India from that perch after 111 years.
Other major players in tea production are Kenya, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
Due to high domestic consumption, India exports only 15%-20% of its total produce. Kenya and Sri Lanka export over 90%.
West Bengal accounts for about a fourth of the country's total tea production.
Is the number of registered tea plantations in Tarai and Dooars regions of north Bengal.
These estates employ about 3 lakh people, temporarily and permanently, or a fourth of all tea garden workers in India.
Some 60% of these workers are women, mostly tribals and Nepalis.
The workers, even here, can't escape the prejudices of caste and ethnicity. Here is an example.
"Not all workers do their work properly. Otherwise the garden would not be in such a bad condition. There is differential attitude towards us, the adivasis and the Nepalis," Medha, a Hindu tribal woman at Kalka tea plantation told Supurna Banerjee of the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata.
"While we work hard, they get away with everything. If they ask for a day or half day off, they get it easily. When we make such requests we are turned down."
That's the number of tea garden workers who died in Dooars and Terai between 2002 and 2014, according to a study by the United Tea Workers Front, Dooars.
Official data on workers' deaths is hard to get since successive regimes in Bengal have been in denial. They have blamed the deaths on "illness", and dismissed charges of not caring for the workers' well-being as "politically motivated".
At least 23 tea gardens have closed in the recent past - although seven have since reopened - affecting 21,000 workers.
Add casual labourers and the workers' families and the figure swells to 95,000.
That's the daily wage of Bengal's tea workers in 2014-15, after the wage revision of February 2015.
Earlier, the daily wage was Rs 95.
In comparison, the daily wage of tea workers in Kerala is Rs 225 a day. Indeed, even the MNREGA wage in Bengal, at Rs 175, is higher than what tea workers get though they belong to the organised sector.
"The role of the government has been unsatisfactory. It has only proposed meager wage raises of Rs 40 in three years," said Anuradha Talwar, Principal Convenor, UTWF.
"Rather than confronting errant owners for failing to guarantee the workers' basic needs, as required under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, it has nearly let them off the hook," says she.
The ideal daily calorie intake, according to the Planning Commission, is 2,400 calorie. That's ten times more than what the tea workers get.
Additionally, as per a survey done by the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, a large number of tea estate workers had a Body Mass Index of 14, low enough to cause decreased immunity, bone loss, cardiac problems, even death.
"What they are overlooking is that workers there are suffering from diseases because they go without adequate food," added Giaul Alam of Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union.
The fund the Mamata Banerjee regime has set up for the "welfare" of tea estate workers, as per the state document titled "Labour in West Bengal, 2014-15".
This amount is laughably paltry given that the tea gardens are closing due to lack of investment, rising input costs, lower yields, and falling prices, as the state itself has admitted.
"Profits earned by the garden owners have not been ploughed back for investment in the industry. The repeated negligence of owners has resulted in the growing sickness," the report says.
Or about 60% of Bengal's tea estates have no labour welfare officers, as per a report by the state's labour department.
Of the 283 tea gardens, at least 116 have been run by different managements between 2002 and 2012. About 90 did not provide registration certificates to the labour department, suggesting fictitious ownership.
At least 41 estates did not deposit their Provident Fund share in 2012-13, three times as many as in 2009-10.
According to the labour report, over 100 estates lack in-house medical care. And 35 estates have not disbursed mandatory food rations.
That's the net loss of Duncans Industries in 2014.
Producing a kilo of Duncans' tea cost Rs 144 in 2014. They plan to bring it down to Rs 100 to plug the losses.
Duncans' highest yielding tea factory at Birpara was shut in July last year after it failed to clear electricity dues of Rs 35 lakh.
Over the last decade, the yield of Duncans' plantation has decreased by six quintals per hectare a year.
On 4 December, Duncans' management met state officials and sought Rs 70 crore for paying their workers' pending allowances and for replantation and rejuvenation of the garden.
The Centre has initiated some welfare measures - medical care, clean drinking water, education facilities -- for tea garden workers as well as special funds for rejuvenating the industry.
However, clearly this hasn't worked, largely due to the estate owners' ineptitude and greed and the state's apathy.
As a result, the workers continue to suffer.