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Pratyush Deep

Tea worker’s grisly accident in Assam spotlights how workers are given no safety gear

“When I saw her, I almost lost hope,” said Tulsi Nayak. “She was senseless and there was no hair or skin on her head.”

For the last four days, Tulsi’s sister Moina Nayak has been fighting for her life at Guwahati Medical College and Hospital. Moina, 24, works at a tea factory at Dibrugarh’s Lepetkata Tea Estate, owned by Luxmi Tea Company Private Ltd. At 8.30 am on July 19, she was sweeping residual leaves from the floor when her hair got caught in a CTC machine, which crushes, tears and curls tea leaves. The machine ripped the hair and skin from Moina’s scalp.

Moina, like so many other tea factory workers in India, was not provided with safety gear, like a helmet, which might have mitigated her injuries. And, like many workers before her, she received help from her employers so her family chose not to file a police complaint. At a time when India has nominated her first tribal president, their stories often go untold, especially given the dearth of official data on accidents and deaths among workers in these factories.

Tulsi said he heard about the accident through a cousin. “I was cooking food when my cousin informed me that my sister met with an accident at the factory,” he told Newslaundry. “I rushed to the spot.”

Moina was taken to Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh. Here, her hand, which had been fractured during the accident, was bandaged but little else was done.

“We were told the surgery doctor was on leave and would only be available after July 30,” said Tulsi. “Then they referred us to Guwahati Medical College and Hospital.” Moina was accordingly admitted to GMCH and is presently in the intensive care unit. Her condition is stable.

Moina is one of three breadwinners – all daily wage earners – in a family of eight. Her father works at the same estate as she does, while Tulsi is a daily wager in the neighbouring Dibrugarh town. As a temporary worker at the tea estate, Moina earns Rs 205 a day, is given employment for only six months a year, and is denied benefits like a provident fund.

Moina was assigned to the factory two months ago. Previously, she had worked in housekeeping at the residence of a babu, a management-level official at the same tea estate

“She was sweeping the tea leaves falling from the CTC machine when her hair was caught in the machine’s shaft in motion,” Tulsi said. “However, there was nobody nearby to stop the machine and it ripped off her hair, decorticating the head.”

Tulsi said the manager of the tea estate provided the family with money for Moina’s treatment, and also paid for the ambulance and other expenses. No FIR has been filed.

“What is the point of a police case,” Tulsi said, “since they [the estate] are taking care of all treatment-related expenses?”

Laws on paper, not in practice

Past and present tea factory workers told Newslaundry their employers never provide workers with safety gear, despite the risk of severe injury. This is despite the Factories Act of 1948 mandating that workers be adequately equipped with gear and also wear “tight-fitting clothes” to prevent clothing from being caught in machinery.

The act also clearly states that only “trained workers” should operate machines with safety gears in place, while women and young persons are barred from cleaning, lubricating or adjusting machinery when the machinery is in motion.

On the factory floor, however, things are very different.

“As per protocol, workers must be provided with safety gear like aprons, helmets, etc while working on these CTC machines. But no factory does so,” said Shyamol Saikia, who works at a tea factory in Jorhat. “They provide [gear] only when they get prior information about a labour inspector’s visit.”

He added, “Actually, no one should be allowed to go near a functioning machine. But they engage workers to sweep tealeaf residue from the machine to put it back into the machine.”

This task – of sweeping the leaves to reuse them – is a “common practice”, said Ajoy Nayak, who used to work at a tea factory in Bokahola Tea Estate in Jorhat. “Many workers get injured in the process,” he said. “There are many incidents where workers’ hands get fractured, or someone loses their fingers, or even dies. But still, no safety measures have been taken so far.”

In December 2020, for instance, 27-year-old Rima Manki died after an accident similar to Moina’s. According to Ajoy, who worked at the same factory at the time, she had been sweeping residue from a CTC machine when her sari got caught. Her head was dragged into the machine and she died immediately.

“Following her death, we demanded the tea estate administration provide us with all safety gears and relevant equipment for workers,” he said. “They promised it at the time...In reality, it never happened.”

Instead, he said, the management opened a fixed deposit account of Rs 2 lakh in the name of Rima’s seven-year-old daughter, and also took over the child’s education expenses. “Was that enough?” Ajoy asked. “What about workers who still work in these factories without any safety equipment?”

An official from the Tea Board of India admitted to Newslaundry that “many factories in Assam” do not follow the norms laid down in the Factories Act. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he was not authorised to speak to the media.

“This is, of course, an act of negligence by the factory,” he said about Moina’s case. “But workers also need to be more aware of these risks. This is not the time for a blame game...All sides need to learn from this incident and move forward in a positive direction.”

Meanwhile, the All Assam Tea Students’ Association has called the incident “an outcome of utter negligence by factory administration”.

“They don’t follow any norms or rules,” said Lakhinder Kurmi, president of the association’s Dibrugarh district unit. “No one should be allowed to go near the machine without protective gear or safety equipment. Women are also not allowed to go near such machines. But they don’t adhere to these rules. The labour department is entrusted to make companies comply with rules, but they also work in tandem with the tea estate management.”

Newslaundry reached out to Biswajit Pegu, district commissioner of Dibrugarh, and the manager of the Lepetkata Tea Estate to ask about Moina’s accident, but received no response.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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