Fifty-three-year old Tara Singh who tested Covid-19 positive on Monday was advised for home isolation as he did not show stark symptoms of the infection. However, this home isolation for the employee of Cinnamara Tea Estate in Jorhat district of Assam ended abruptly in the evening as he had to be rushed to a nearby hospital.
Home isolation for Singh and 14 more like him of the same tea garden was proven to be a blunder. "There are nine of us in this ward at the hospital. I had a fever and cough initially when the garden authorities advised me to get my COVID test done. I tested positive and they asked me to go home and keep myself in isolation. The labour quarters barely have two-room the toilets are distant apart. In most of cases it’s open defecation that still exists. Each household is adjacent to the other and is overcrowded as its mostly joint families. I had locked myself in one room in the afternoon, however by evening they admitted me to the hospital. The fever is still there but I am recovering. They are giving me food and medicine regularly" says Tara Singh who works at the malaria labour at the garden.
Owned by the Assam Tea Corporation Limited, Cinnamara Tea Estate has around 2,500 employees and a population of over 6,000. On May 10, 19 garden workers including men and women were tested positive and referred for home isolation as per practiced Covid-19 protocols. However, the 8×8 allotted garden labour quarter does not physically qualify for the basic requirements of home isolation in Covid-19 patients.
"I am worried about the rise of Corona cases in the tea gardens and it might lead to a catastrophe. Earlier in the case of Gastroenteritis, the impact was severe. Thick population, congested dwellings, lack of isolation facilities and the abandoned hospitals in the tea gardens add to the woes. A formidable step needs to be taken urgently. I am not sure that the virus won't spread in Cinnamara as positive people were allowed to go home. If this is repeated in other gardens then the situation shall go out of hands. I have informed the Deputy Commissioner of Jorhat and the Joint Director of health too. I would appeal to the health minister of the state to initiate special measures in this regard. Most of the hospitals in the tea garden do not have COVID care facilities. It's the responsibility of the state government, I am not satisfied with the COVID care facilities in any of the tea gardens of Assam” says Kamakhya Prasad Tassa, BJP MP from Jorhat.
Meanwhile, on May 14, 11 tea garden workers tested positive in Bishakupi Tea Estate of Tinsukia district, in Badla Bheta tea estate another three tested positive. The numbers are precariously increasing every day.
Labour lines of the gardens are getting converted into containment zones. Around 1,000 people in the tea gardens of Assam have tested Covid-19 positive while the causality till now has been around four to five. Last week 193 workers, including their family members as well as some members of the management, tested positive in Zaloni tea estate of Dibrugarh district. 66 tested positive at Maijan tea estate. Similarly, 46 workers tested positive at a tea garden in Biswanath district.
However, the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha has written to the Chief Minister expressing their concern on the COVID situation in the tea gardens of Assam.
General Secretary of ACMS and BJP MLA from Doomdoma Rupesh Gowala stated "I personally had sent 50 testing kits to Bedla Bheta Tea estate yesterday. The situation is worsening and there are no vaccines available at the garden hospitals. COVID testing kits are not there either. However, the most worrying factor is that most of garden workers do not know the use of smartphones or app. How shall they get themselves registered online for vaccination? I would urge the government to make the vaccine, testing kits and online registration for the tea garden worker available at the local tea garden hospitals"
There are about 850 major tea gardens in Assam and the small tea gardens add another 1.5 lakh. Former state Labour Commissioner Ghanshyam Dass in 2020 expressed his concern as he wrote to assistant labour commissioners and labour inspectors stating that if due to any reason there is community spread of Covid-19 in the labour lines it will lead to a major catastrophe as the present medical facility available is not sufficient to cater to a pandemic which would lead to high mortality."
Gauging the sensitivity of the situation the state government has issued separate SOP's (Standard Operating Protocol) for the tea gardens of Assam to be effective from May 15. According to the protocol all tea garden employees need to be tested for COVID19 on a regular basis and no home isolation will be allowed for any COVID positive person. The garden should have one or more COVID care centre in existing infrastructure such as a hall or school which shall be looked after by the tea garden management. The CCCs shall have three oxymeters and basic medicines. There shall be a designated official and vehicle at the centres. An amount of Rs 300 for the refreshment of the individuals at the CCCs. The garden which accounts for 20 positive cases shall be declared as a containment zone.
The tea community in Assam accounts for 17% of its population. Seeped in economic backwardness, low literacy rate, poor sanitation and abjure living conditions, health is a major concern for the tea garden workers. Hypertension, malnutrition and low rates of immunity adds to the vulnerability of the situation.
"There are no vaccines. How can the management of the tea garden get the vaccines? It's essential that the garden workers get themselves inoculated, we are only the facilitator and we are doing our part. The SOP says to provide a hall or school for CCC but from where will the beds and other infrastructure come. In schools, there are no toilets. A government official is supposed to visit to inspect the infrastructure, we are waiting" says Sarvzit Singh Marvah Manager Khoomtai Tea Estate of Golaghat district in Assam.
One of the largest industries of the state, the tea sector is enlisted in the list of the essential services, though garden work mostly winds up by 2 PM. The Assam Mazdoor Sangha, Golaghat district unit has urged upon the management of the tea gardens of the district to make adjustments to wind up work at the gardens by 1 PM so that the external exposure for the garden workers is limited. It needs mention that owing to complete lockdown and strict and disciplined adherence to the protocols the spread of COVID in the first phase was negligible in the tea gardens of Assam.
As per available records, 25,827 tea garden workers have been inoculated and 1,904 have been provided with the second jab.