India’s Tea Plantations Hide a Shocking Reality

Assam, a state in north eastern India, accounts for 52% of India’s tea production and almost one-sixth of that of the world. In spite of the booming tea trade, the estimated 450,000 tea workers in Assam suffer the same exploitative conditions as those of their ancestors, forcibly brought to work in the gardens by the British in the 1860s. Tea workers there receive the lowest wage of all sectors in India, often earning less than $1 a day, and experience some of the worst working conditions, malnutrition, and literacy rates in India.

60% of these tea workers are women. Poverty, malnutrition, carrying loads of up to 25 kilos a day, routine harassment and abuse takes the harshest toll on pregnant workers. This can lead to serious health issues for mother and child who far too often fail to receive adequate healthcare, particularly during pregnancy or childbirth. Assam has the highest maternal mortality rate in India.

The human rights NGO Nazdeek was set up by a group of young female lawyers in Delhi in 2012. It seeks to promote the economic and social rights of some of the marginalized communities in India, with a particular focus on the rights of tea workers in Assam. Nazdeek is helping bridge the gap between India’s progressive legal framework and its weak implementation on the ground by giving grassroots organizations, local activists and lawyers the skills to consistently push for implementation and to undertake fact-finding, documentation, and litigation.

Landmark Legal Cases

In 2010, a young homeless woman died after giving birth unaided on the streets of Delhi, well within reach of a number of hospitals. She lay there for four days as hundreds of people stepped over her – until she eventually died of an infection. Her baby was taken into care. Jayshree Satpute, human rights advocate and founding member of Nazdeek, took the case to the Delhi high court resulting in a landmark ruling recognising maternal mortality as a human rights violation and the right to survive pregnancy a fundamental right protected by the Indian Constitution. This ruling is the first of its kind in the world, and Satpute is determined to see it rolled out across India.

Nazdeek also helped secure a landmark investigation by the World Bank Compliance Advisor Ombudsman into the living and working conditions on three tea gardens in Assam owned by multinational Tata Tetley. The investigation is ongoing and has generated unprecedented media coverage which Nazdeek intends to capitalize on to demand enforcement of labor rights and action on maternal deaths.

The Fund for Global Human Rights provides ongoing vital core funding to Nazdeek.