Today’s meal: salt, water, boiled tea-leaf
Mala Santal is an indigenous tea worker at Baikunthapur Tea Garden in Habiganj's Madhabpur. Since December, she has not received a single penny from the ration-wages she's owed. After a period of digging into her savings, she's now exhausted, leaving loans as the only means to sustain her family of four.
"I saved up some money for my three children's education. But without any ration-wages since December, I've spent up all of my savings," she told this correspondent yesterday. "I'm now taking out loans to ensure the minimum of meals for my family, but I don't know how I can pay it back."
Her eldest daughter Smriti Santal was supposed to get into ninth grade in Jagdishpur High School this year. But after the family ran out of money, this had to be put on hold.
In disarray, Mala has decided to leave her vocation of long and started to work as a construction worker these days. Though this new job will be difficult, at least it can pay for her family's meals.
When this correspondent went to visit tea worker couple Parbati and Sagar Kul's mudhouse, he only found their four kids at home, with the youngest sibling, Gaurab Kul, crying loudly.
"Mother and father went out to look for work," said their eldest child eight-year-old Prashanta. "They haven't left any food for us. Out of hunger, Gaurab has been crying non-stop."
Far from being isolated incidents, this food crisis is currently gripping all of Baikunthapur Tea Garden's 400 permanent workers' families. Children waiting out of hunger, their parents running to-and-fro for work, mothers feeding their child a mix of salt with boiled tea-leaf in water, it's as if the entire neighbourhood is crying out in despair.
NO POUSH SANGKRANTI THIS YEAR
The traditional Poush Sangkranti is scheduled for today. One of the biggest festivities observed by indigenous tea workers, the merriment was supposed to begin yesterday night, as the night before the Sangkranti is meant to be spent making pithas for the day.
The day was supposed to see families indulging in delicacies made out of muri, flattened rice, and molasses. But at a time when the families don't have money to even afford rice, the joys of the Sangkranti will stay further away from Baikunthapur.
ORIGINS OF THE CRISIS
The crisis began after the tea garden closed down due to an untoward incident, which cut out the workers from earning their ration-wages.
According to the management and workers of the garden, the debacle began after the firing of tea worker Dilip Keut, a permanent worker of the garden who began constructing a house for himself on the agricultural land inside the garden in November last year. He was expelled earlier this month.
This followed meetings and clashes between the management and workers, which peaked after the workers allegedly assaulted acting manager of the garden Mohammad Shamsul Haque Bhuiyan, prompting the authorities to close down the garden on December 8.
On December 14, Shamsul filed a case against 12 workers with Madhabpur Police Station.
Garden worker Mira Kairi said, "We work for Tk 120 per day and some ration. This was never enough to run the family, but now we don't even have that."
Talking to The Daily Star, ex-worker Dilip Keut said, "I am a permanent garden worker, working here for 15-16 years."
"As I didn't have a house, I used to live at my brother's. It was too small for both of our families, so I decided to build a house in a vacant place with the garden authorities' permission."
"But as the works neared completion, they suddenly objected, and even expelled me," he alleged.
However, acting manager Shamsul Haque said Dilip hadn't taken permission to build the house. "While the saga was going on, a few workers came to my office and attacked, which left me and another staff member injured. After that, in the interest of our safety, the owner stopped the activities of the garden."
"We have given the workers some conditions, but they're refusing to meet them. We won't reopen the garden until they meet the conditions," he said.
Nahidul Islam, deputy director of the Department of Labour, Srimangal, said, "I have visited the tea garden. Hopefully, both parties will reach an agreement soon."