Tea Time Part 2: Why We are in Birpara

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The simplest answer to the question of what my wife and I are doing in Jalpaiguri District, several hundred kilometers off the tourist trail in the farthest reaches of northeastern India is this:

We are bearing witness to starvation where starvation should not be. I know, such suffering should not be anywhere; but I am more used to hearing about hunger rooted in obvious (if disastrous) causes like scarcity, war, or natural disaster, instead of this — this human folly in which people fall sick and die because of their employers’ lack of business skills and compassion. (Perhaps it is, as the managers contend, more complicated than that, perhaps it is purely the fault of the new global market — I have time to investigate.)

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A more detailed explanation of our role as AJWS Volunteers:

S. and I, along with our counterparts, Sarmishta and Debasish, are attempting to systematically measure the malnourishment of a sample of tea worker families, in both closed and functioning plantations (or “gardens”). We are surveying 160 tea worker families on eight gardens. We visit them in their homes and ask about their diets and health, and their access to medical care, drinking water, and protein. We ask them to recount deaths in their family in the last three years; we probe for details and are amazed by their lack of outward emotion as they speak of children and parents who died of diarrhea, vomiting, and mysterious fevers.

We measure heights and weights for body mass index calculations. We have a special line of questioning for pregnant and breastfeeding women. We ask about current illness and hear stories of brothers sisters children inside the houses, in pain, waiting to die; most of these cases were brought to the Government Hospital in Birpara where they were neither diagnosed nor treated, only referred to the hospital in Siliguri, an impossibly expensive three-hour bus ride away. So brother father mother is taken back to the garden and placed on a wooden pallet in a dark, estate-supplied shack.

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We are not here to treat people, a frustrating fact for my clinically trained R.N. wife and my own former incarnation as Emergency Medical Technician and Firefighter, but it is something that we accept the best we can.

The things we carry with us on our daily trips to the gardens: questionnaires, a scale, a tape measure, and our lunches, which we eat hurriedly in the vehicle, sneaking so many lavish calories in between bowling-ball bellies, skin rashes, swollen ankles, and oozing ulcers. Of course, there are smiles too, especially from the children; they always manage to find a way, it seems.

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Who are these people? They are tea workers, the sweat and sinew behind one of India’s most important economies and also the most downtrodden and ill-treated of India’s (supposedly) organized workforce. Their descendants (80 percent indigenous tribals and 20 percent Nepali immigrants) were rounded up by the first British tea planters, swept from the jungles of Bihar and placed on the plantations, enslaving entire families and their future progenies. More than one hundred years later, most of these families have not left their gardens, dynasties of disempowered pluckers.

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The question of the current crisis (i.e. why so many gardens closed their doors in 2002-2003, completely abandoning tens of thousands of workers who are as rooted to the land as the 100-year-old tea bushes that define every aspect of their lives) is a story for another day.

For now, I must write up a few more case studies — a few more deaths and deficient diets — before I crawl under the mosquito net to rest up for tomorrow’s batch.

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