Kolkata: Acute poverty coupled with administrative apathy has led to the death of 70 tea garden workers in West Bengal this year.

In the past six months, 32 of 277 tea plantations have closed down in the area, and many others have laid off workers, citing growing losses.

Workers and families at these plantations, unprepared to deal with the crisis, were left to face malnutrition and diseases.

Though the West Bengal government has denied there have been deaths due to starvation, officials accept tea workers live in subhuman condition and cite federal laws for their inability to intervene.

“There has been no starvation death in the area. We stand by the tea workers and the government is providing them with rations and medical help. But the state government is unable to do much as the gardens are governed by central government laws,” state labour minister Malay Ghatak said.

A recent survey by an international fact-finding mission, however, reported that neither the state or central governments, nor the companies, have done anything to mitigate the plight of the workers and all existing labour laws are being violated by them.

According to the survey, tea garden workers and their families continue to earn wages way below the amount meant to ensure decent living and face food shortage.

Currently, a labourer is paid a daily wage of Rs122.50 (Dh7), which does not suffice for the minimum needs of workers’ families.

“Most of the families there are run by women, who represent close to 70 per cent of the workforce and are suffering inhumanly,” Yifang Tang, a member of the team, said.

S.S. Ahluwalia, who represents Darjeeling constituency in the parliament, said since 2002, 2,000 such workers have died due to starvation and illness, with 70 having died this year alone.

He said the 1951 Plantation Labour Act governing tea gardens was biased towards owners and management, who often escaped their responsibility while shutting down the facilities.

“While Kerala and Karnataka pay a minimum wage of Rs254 per day to tea garden labourers, their counterparts in West Bengal get Rs112 per day. The workers should be brought under the ambit of Food Security Act and treated as those living below the poverty line,” Ahluwalia said.

The central government has not intervened and many locals say the inhumane conditions are being artificially created by companies that no longer need manual labour.

“There is a larger ploy to all this. Over the years tea plucking has become mechanised and these companies wants to get rid of the workers by any means, even if it means killing them,” Sukuimar Yangru, a local resident, said.

“They claim that there is no profit from the business but the companies’books show a profit of 11 per cent, of which some money could have been used for the welfare of the workers,” Yangru said.