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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 October 2007, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
India's malnourished tea workers
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Jalpaiguri, West Bengal

Prashad Sharma
Until they put someone in to manage them our lives will be miserable
Community leader Prahlad Sharma
It's just after dawn on the Ramjhora estate in northern Bengal. In this remote region, not far from India's border with Bhutan, tea has been the bedrock of the local economy for more than 150 years.

But five years ago this estate was shut down when the owner packed up abruptly leaving unpaid salaries and no alternative employment.

Weeds are now infesting the tea bushes, buildings are abandoned, and estate workers say that they have been slowly dying because they are not eating enough food.

Exact numbers are hard to pin down. But one study released recently estimates that more than 700 people have died in this region in little more than a year from malnutrition.

Not enough food

One of the community leaders at Ramjhora, Prahlad Sharma, says local people want to work, and they're desperate for help.

Tea pickers at Ramjhora
For many, it's a battle against malnourishment Pics: Vivek Raj

"Due to malnutrition people started falling sick," he says. "In the last five years more than 200 people have died on this estate alone."

He puts most of the blame on the owner who abandoned the estate. And he also wants the state government, which has taken possession of the land, to make some effort to use it properly. "Until they put someone in to manage them our lives will be miserable."

Lakshmi Gosain is getting her early morning supply of water - she'll feed her three children with bread and tea.

Her husband died three years ago, and she's had to give her fourth child to an orphanage. Last month there was more bad news - her tiny house was trampled by an elephant, a constant threat in this region.

Occasionally she works, breaking stones by the river. But she says she feels weak most of the time. It's the same for everyone, Lakshmi says, and the reason is simple - they haven't had enough to eat.

Ramjhora hospital
The hospital at Ramjhora is often without staff...

"They don't have any rice," she says. "They're hungry and then they work with an empty stomach - so they fall ill and die. All of them died due to hunger and malnutrition."

"That's how my husband died," she adds. "He worked hard without enough food - and he died because the tea garden was shut down."

Some younger people have left, looking for work in Calcutta and Delhi. Others cross the border into Bhutan, working for a pittance at local construction companies. But the majority remain on the estate, waiting for better times, and hoping that sudden death won't strike their families.

Constantly sick

These aren't deaths caused by catastrophic famine - this is a green and fertile land. Instead, the insidious effects of malnutrition have weakened entire communities - making them vulnerable to anaemia, tuberculosis and severe dysentery.

When we arrive at Shamilla Gwala's house it's obvious that she has to make an enormous effort just to get to the front door.

Disused tea factory in Ramjhora
... And the tea factory has closed down

A severe deficiency of iron has made her joints swell and she can hardly walk. Her eldest son died shortly after the estate was closed, and two of her other children are constantly sick.

The doctors want her to eat more green vegetables but she can't afford to buy them.

"I have to rely on my younger son now," she says, "to earn any money he can get."

Like many others on the estate, Shamilla's son still plucks tea. But the factory is closed - in fact it's falling down - and there's no investment coming in at all.

The quality of the leaves is deteriorating fast and people here have to sell what little they can pick for far less money than they used to receive.

Many of the estates which have shut down fell into disrepair after a fall in tea prices a few years ago.

Owners who'd come into the market to make a quick profit rapidly abandoned the estates when times got a little tougher.


Ramjhora alone provided money and other benefits for more than 7,000 people. All that's now gone.

The state government has stepped in with offers of help - providing food and medical aid. But workers say they get less than half the amount of food they used to have, and for some it simply isn't enough.

Overgrown tea bushes
The tea estates of Ramjhora are overgrown with too few workers

Many government subsidies are creamed off by corrupt local officials, and promises made aren't kept.

"The next few months is the worst time," Prahlad Sharma says. "It's cold, there are no leaves to sell, there's no temporary work on other estates, and no-one can buy any food."

But it doesn't have to be that way. Drive up into the hills above Ramjhora towards Darjeeling, and the rain starts to beat down. But most of the tea estates here - like dozens of others across West Bengal - are thriving.

At the pristine Makaibari estates, Rajah Bannerjee started Darjeeling's first organic tea production back in the 1980s - now he sells some of the most expensive teas in the world.

"Try this one," he says, "it's quite peachy. And this is 'first flush' - a very delicate tea. It's eagerly sought after by most buyers globally."

As we taste some of his most delicate brews, Rajah says there's no reason why estates like Ramjhora can't recover and prosper - if only someone would care.

"If we can do it up here in the hills, they can do it down there, they've got much more top soil. All it needs is a little bit of consolidated, concerted thought."

But that's in short supply at Ramjhora. And the people who live there feel trapped.

So this is a story which typifies the contradictions of modern India. On the one hand there's innovation, creativity and progress; on the other there's outright neglect, and a callousness which still has the capacity to shock.

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