The final phase of fieldwork for our tea worker nutrition survey has been frustratingly slow. Our work has been hampered by access problems in the form of both permission issues and physical access (erratic and late monsoon rain keep filling rivers whose normally dry beds we must cross to reach the gardens). With our deadline fast approaching, it looks as if weâ€™ll only be able to complete surveys on five or six, rather than eight, gardens.
Still, weâ€™ll have data on at least 100 families which should be a valid sample size to show that (1) malnutrition and starvation persist on both open and closed gardens, and (2) garden and government attempts to address the problem have been wholly inadequate or nonexistent.
In the meantime, we travel to the gardens: Sarmishtha, Debasish, my wife, and I facing each other in the back of our vehicle as our driver Mohammed dodges potholes, truck traffic, various animals, and negotiates the gravelly river beds. The landscape in which we constantly move reveals, more than anything, the scope of it allâ€”the sheer vastness and number of gardens which so dominate the entire region. The images are repeated day after day: flat-topped tea fields; umbrella-shaded workers wading slowly through the bushes; dilapidated houses of the labor lines shaded by tall clumps of bamboo and palm trees . . .
Today we came across a crew spraying the bushes. As Debasish and I approached them (he asking them if it was cool for me take photos), they put on their shirts and continued mixing the chemicals, bare hands and feet, a burlap apron for protection. Iâ€™m not sure what they were working with, but Iâ€™ve met managers on several gardens wearing hats advertising paraquat, an infamous carcinogenic herbicide that (I believe) is banned in the U.S.
But the most powerful images we see are the faces of the workers. In the worst cases, they are faces of illness, faces of despair. But sometimes, when they gather around Sarmishtha and Debasish, who explain to them how to apply for certain forms of relief, they take on a faint glow of purpose and hope, a glow which increases if Sarmishtha and Debasish are discussing the possibility of their garden re-opening. Because, once theyâ€™ve got a little food in their bellies and have overcome the grief of dead family members, they want nothing more than to work, to earn a living.
â€œThese workers do not want to be beggars,â€ said Sarmishtha. â€œThat is not the way.â€