Respected Narendra Modi ji,
Foremost, I want to congratulate you on being the most well-traveled prime-minister in our nation’s history. I also want to give you a tip of my hat for bringing about systematic changes in our country. Almost all your initiatives, be it Jan Dhan Yojana, to Demonetization, to Swachh Bharat, to Arogya Bharat I am sure must have helped the people across the nation.
However, like old Hindi movies used to have this dialogue delivered in the saddest possible tone, ‘dipak taley andhera…’ I feel you are yet to be made aware of the darkness that you have caused in the lives of the very people, on the shoulders of whom you rose to become the Prime Minister of our nation.
I still remember the enthusiasm and joy with which we welcomed you at Sukna, during your 2014 election rally. You had connected with all tea garden workers when you had said, ‘jab chai ki baat aati hai, mein khush ho jaata hun… aap bhi chai wale mein bhi chai wala…’
So this letter is addressed to that Chaiwala, who I believe, must remember the hardships he has faced himself, when he used to be a Chaiwala and not the Prime Minister.
In case you are wondering, who I am, let me introduce myself to you. I am a second-year college student, and my mother is a tea garden worker. My father, unfortunately, is no more, and my mother is our only source of support.
My earliest memory of my mother is of her tattered hands, trying to gently touch my chin, unlike other mothers, most mothers in the tea garden do not have silky-soft hands, and they are mostly tattered. Working at plucking teas, pruning, cleaning the gardens, digging, weeding – every day for over 8 hours from Monday to Saturday in pouring rain and the blazing sun does that to your hands and body. Yet, I have never heard her complain about the hard work she has to do, and the lack of rest she has suffered from, all her life. She has taken everything in stride, including the death of my father.
Yet, yesterday, I saw my mother weaken. I asked her what had happened, and she told me, “sarkar le 10 rupey badayecha hamro roz – the government has raised our wages by only Rs 10.”
For the past two years, the Joint Forum of tea garden workers union have struggled to get the tea gardens included under the Minimum Wages Act, yet shockingly enough, nothing has been done to make it happen from the government’s side. Instead the West Bengal government yesterday slapped people like my mom, by raising only Rs 10. This amounts ot Rs 300 increase per month. I am sure, you do realize that Rs 300 is nothing in this day and age.
Sir, did you know, in West Bengal, tea gardens are the only sector where Minimum Wages Act is not applied?
While the minimum wages in West Bengal for unskilled labourers is Rs 255 per day and in rest of India at least Rs 300, the tea garden workers in Darjeeling and Dooars are only paid Rs 132 per day. On paper, the rate has been Rs 159 for a few months now, but in reality most tea gardens are still paying Rs 132 per day.
The reason, most tea garden owners state for paying us low wages is that they give us additional facilities. Let’s talk about that for a moment. Those facilities are only existent in papers, and whatever little is given is based on 1951 Plantation Labour Act calculations. Sir I am sure that you are aware, the world has changed since 1951. We cannot be governed by laws that were prevalent over half a century ago. Those laws were written by the British to protect their own planters, and now the same law has been used by the Plantation Owners for the past 70 years to exploit the workers.
Be honest to yourself PM sir, do you want to work for Rs 132 a day for the rest of your life? Most of the tea gardens are today run on a feudalistic bonded-labour system. Each retiring worker has to give one replacement worker to the tea garden, otherwise the retirement benefits such as gratuity, provident funds, and pension are all stopped.
I am trying my best to finish my college education, so that I can find a better employment opportunity that will help make life a little easier for my mother. We are lucky as we are three siblings, but there are families that only have one child, who has finished college education and wants to work for a higher pay and not the paltry Rs 132 or the newly proposed Rs 169 per day. These wages are simply NOT ENOUGH to meet our daily needs. In such a case, the threat of whatever little saving in the form of gratuity, provident funds, pension being taken away or denied due to a family not being able to provide an alternate worker, I feel is MOST INHUMAN. This is literally a practice of Bandhua Majdoor – bonded labour, which from whatever little I know, is illegal.
Yet it continues to be practiced widely in the tea gardens of Darjeeling and Dooars.
While workers are thus exploited into sending another generation of cheap labour to work in the tea gardens once again, numerous tea gardens owners have simply vanished overnight, without paying the workers their salary and their dues. Yet no law has been made to bring such tea garden owners to book.
Sir, you may not know this, but one such tea garden owner who has left without paying the tea garden workers KD Singh, today sits as the MP in the Upper House of our Parliament – Rajya Sabha. Had it been a developed country, that individual would be sitting behind the bars, but tragically in a country run by a Chaiwala criminals like him are our lawmakers.
Your previous Minister of Commerce Nirmala Sitharamana had visited our region twice, and promised us structural changes. Yet NOTHING HAS BEEN DONE till date.
The tea produced from Darjeeling and Dooars are famous world over. Even you gifted the Queen of England a packet of Darjeeling tea. Sir, may be you didn’t realize this, but what you gifted her was probably the blood and sweat of my mother, and mothers like mine across our region.
Honestly Sir, I don’t expect you to bring about a radical change in the tea plantations. Yet, can I kindly as a daughter of this nation, request you to make MANDATORY MINIMUM WAGES applicable across all the plantations in India.
I am sure as one Chaiwala to another, you will show some empathy with our people, and do the needful at the earliest.
*We have only used her first name following her request. She has earlier written this Open Letter to Rajnath Singh