A tea garden path in Assam. Photo: nallin a/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
A year ago, Mohan Tanti realised that the intense pain he had been suffering from for a while was due to kidney stones. Tanti lives and works at Letekujan, a tea plantation in Jorhat district in Assam, northeast India. To get treatment, he travelled to Jorhat city – about 23 km away from Letekujan. At the public hospital, doctors told Tanti that they couldn’t do much about his disease.
The 35-year-old, who owns a small grocery shop in Letekujan, then spent more than 100,000 Indian rupees (nearly USD 1,400) at a private hospital in Dibrugarh city, 156 km from Letekujan. “Thanks to the surgery, I have now recovered,” Tanti said. “But the water condition is terrible in the plantation area, which has led to many of us falling sick.”
Nearly 55% of tea produced in India is from Assam, with the state supplying 80% of the country’s exports of the commodity. To produce such quantities requires a large workforce: around one million people labour in more than 800 tea gardens. These plantations are located far from towns and cities, and lack proper drinking and sanitation facilities. Several studies have found that drinking water quality is poor, and most plantations have no toilets, drinking water or running water.
As Tanti recounted his ordeal, Shyam Karmakar, another worker from the same plantation, chipped in: “He [Tanti] had the money so he was able to save himself, but there are so many of us who wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”
A 2019 study published by Oxfam interviewed 510 workers from 50 Assam tea estates. The report revealed that water in every tea estate was of “poor quality”, often containing heavy metals. “The lack of clean and plentiful water on the estates – and the fact that the habit of filtering water is almost entirely absent – means that diseases such as cholera and typhoid are common,” the report said.
With limited access to healthcare and average salaries of less than Rs 200 per day (about $3), Assam’s tea garden community is one of the state’s most marginalised and vulnerable groups. Due to their high numbers, tea workers are a large and influential voting bloc. Nevertheless, despite regular promises of higher wages, better living facilities and robust healthcare services, they continue to live an undignified life.
Pandemic comes to Assam’s tea gardens
Access to sanitation is crucial in stopping the spread of COVID-19. According to the latest reports, over 200 workers from at least two tea gardens in Assam’s Dibrugarh district have the virus, prompting the district administration to lock down the estates.
A public health worker from Assam, who requested to remain anonymous, pointed out that hand…