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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Strike halts Assam tea production
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC correspondent in Calcutta

Tea workers
Indian tea prices, exports and consumption are all on the slide
A strike by tea plantation workers in India's north-eastern state of Assam has brought work in about 800 tea gardens to a halt.

Tea worker leaders called the one-day strike to fight for better health care and greater financial incentives.

They say 600 workers have died in the past three months due to diseases like gastroenteritis and malaria.

India's tea industry, the world's biggest, faces a crisis with falling prices, exports and consumption.

Government blamed

Durga Bhumij, president of the Assam Tea Tribes Students Association, said the strike won backing from workers across Assam.

He said management in some tea estates had tried to break the strike but failed.

A day's production in the current high picking season amounts to around 2m kilograms, industry officials say.

Madhusudan Khandait, secretary of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh or Tea Workers Association, which has one million members, said the state government must take the blame for the deadlock.

He said the government had not intervened effectively during negotiations between owner associations and unions.

India is the world's largest tea producer, with Assam accounting for about 55% of its 856m kilogram production last year.

But the $1.5bn industry has been facing a crisis with prices dropping in weekly auctions, export figures slumping and domestic consumption also on the slide.

Last week, Assam's best quality tea was priced 10% lower than five years ago.

The slump has led to the closure of 20 tea estates and has left thousands of workers jobless.

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