Bharat Bhugel mopped his brow at 4.30 am on a chilly day in January 2003. Under the cover of darkness, he and three others had chopped down a huge sal tree inside the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in the foothills of Darjeeling in West Bengal. Bhugel has been carrying out such clandestine operations at the behest of the forest mafia ever since he was rendered jobless due to the closure of the adjoining Sepoydhura Tea Estate towards the end of 2002. His is not an isolated case. There are at least 700 more retrenched labourers from the same estate. Worse still, Sepoydhura is just the tip of the iceberg.
At the last count 35 tea gardens out of 257 in the northern part of the state had shut shop, leaving upwards of 70,000 workers solely dependent on forestland for their livelihood. With environmental and socio-economic crises looming large over the region, the Union government set up a high-level Tea Expert Committee to formulate an action plan. The panel submitted its interim report to the Tea Board of India in early May 2003.
In the meantime, nearly 1,000 people have succumbed to poverty and water-borne diseases in the region. According to Stephen Toppo, a local tribal, Kathalguri Tea Estate alone has witnessed 80 deaths, including those of 28 children, in the past eight months.
The origin of the problem can be traced back to the year 2000, when tea estates found themselves in the red in the face of India's dwindling global market share of the product. Owners of tea gardens panicked, declaring lockouts, closing down businesses and simply abandoning estates.
D Chakravorty, secretary general of the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations