Thanks to a silent, unique programme initiated by UNICEF and Indian Tea Association (ITA), plantation workers in Assam and Bengal have successfully managed to keep the dreaded Coronavirus out of gardens which produce some of the world’s most expensive tea. Across Assam and Bengal, not a single tea garden worker has been impacted by the deadly virus because the UNICEF-ITA programme for almost four months has pushed workers to enroll into mandatory hygiene programmes and increase their sanitation levels.
What is interesting is that the UNICEF-ITA combine alerted the tea garden workers way back in February 2020, when information about the then anticipated outbreak of this pandemic was slowly filtering across India, and in the world.
Plantation workers, a closely knit community, were told that their presence in the workplace is a safe option from the point of view of social distancing and protection from Coronavirus. Workers in tea gardens always work with a gap of more than a metre. What is interesting is that the tea bushes are so aligned that the workers can maintain safe distance while plucking leaves.
“We have ensured their rations, and told them to stay put inside the gardens. They live close to the gardens. So they are not coming out, nor anyone is going inside the gardens,” Sandip Ghosh, a senior functionary of ITA, said in an interview.
Ghosh said for convenience of plucking freely without any hindrance and subsequently for weighments, the relative positions and movements of individual workers are sufficiently apart. “Not just in the gardens, workers in the tea factories are sufficiently abreast of the safety and distancing related protocols and they are adhering to these requirements. Hand washing or sanitising before and after work, sanitising of labour lines were initiated well in advance. And it has worked wonders in the tea gardens,” adds Ghosh.
The UNICEF-ITA programme has also pushed the workers to maintain sanitising norms at the time of payment of wages and distribution of concessional ration. “Workers have stopped crowding up for rations long ago. And it is now doing wonders because the workers have become habituated in queuing in marked boxes or circles, spaced a metre to ensure social distancing,” says Ghosh.
The tea garden formula has been noticed by physicians handling Covid-19 victims across India. Some of the doctors have even visited the tea gardens to check for themselves how the workers — who normally live cheek by jowl — were maintaining social distancing.
In the Indian Capital, experts told this reporter that efforts of the workers in the tea garden to maintain sanitising norms and social distancing should be implemented in all farm-related work across India. “The fact that UNICEF and ITA warned the workers way back in February 2020 was a unique move,” said a senior government functionary.
The nationwide lockdown induced by COVID-19 which came into force from midnight of 24th March, 2020 had suspended operations in the tea gardens of Assam, West Bengal and Tripura. Subsequently, from the 2nd week of April, the operations have resumed following exemption of the tea industry and plantations by the Home Ministry. Currently, tea estates are functioning with deployment of 100% workforce in Assam and 50% workforce in West Bengal.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, tea planters in Assam have suffered losses to the tune of Rs 1,218 crore.
North Eastern Tea Association (NETA) said the gardens in Assam, Bengal and Tripura have lost almost the entire crop of March 2020 which is estimated to be about 30 million kgs. As per Tea Board of India figures, the harvesting of tea in Assam in March 2019 was 4.6% of Assam’s annual production in 2019 (Jan to Dec) which was 715.79 million kgs.
“Human lives are more important than anything else,” says Ghosh, adding there has been a general welcome from workers concerned. “In fact a lot of pictures have gone around showing how social distancing has been maintained in the plucking and manufacturing.”
Tea garden workers with no land or other means of survival are dependent on the companies that employed them. Assam and West Bengal account for 80% of the country’s tea production. The lockdown came around the time when the first flush, or the best quality tea leaves, were to be plucked.
The planters are pushing the Central government to initiate measures to increase the auction price of the tea since the crop that fetches the highest price is lost.
That is a separate story. As of now, beating the deadly virus is uppermost on the agenda of UNICEF-ITA combine.