Cannibalism in Assam’s tea fieldsBy Asia Sentinel Jan 15, 2013 1:44PM UTC
Plantation workers go berserk in northeast India, writes Asia Sentinel’s Nava Thakuria
The poisonous labor relations in the tea business in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam have spawned a horrific incident in which hundreds of uncontrollable workers descended on a tea estate, murdered the owner and his wife, burned his home and cannibalized the bodies.
The story is depressingly emblematic of a situation in which laborers are often paid half of the minimum wage, are denied the most rudimentary human needs, and which Maoist and other insurrectionist forces are seeking to exploit to the fullest against employers whose management relations are redolent of a long-departed colonial regime.
In the latest case, police found two lumps of scorched flesh in the debris which were later identified as those of Mridul Kumar Bhattacharya and his wife Rita at the Konapathar Tea Estate in a district bordering Arunachal Pradesh in the last week of December.
The 365 hectare tea garden, which is nearly 575 km from the state capital, was owned by the Bhattacharya-led MKB (Asia) Pvt Ltd., which exported quality tea to the United States.
Assam produces around 50 percent of India’s annual tea production of nearly 990 million kg and is considered to harvest some of the world’s finest teas in conditions that have changed little in the past century and a half. British colonials discovered tea in Assam and started farming it, making it famous across the world. Today the state has more than 800 big tea estates and thousands of small growers. The industry employs more than 2.2 million people, directly or indirectly. Cumulative tea production from nearly 69,000 small gardens in the state is estimated at 25 percent of Assam’s total production.
The 75-year-old Bhattacharya was no stranger to disputes with his workers, having been arrested two years ago for killing a teenager at the Rani Tea Estate on the outskirt of Guwahati. The planter allegedly opened fire on protesting workers with a revolver, killing the youth and wounding several others. The mob set fire to his bungalow but he was rescued by the police. Since then the tea estate has remained closed, rendering more than 300 workers jobless. Bhattacharya spent two months in a Guwahati jail and later was bailed to move on to his other tea estates in eastern Assam.
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