A total of 1,200 families live in the Bandapani gram panchayat and each household had at least one or more members employed in the tea garden until the estate was closed eight years ago due to financial irregularities.
Barely legible sign of the Bandapani tea estate. Image courtesy of Anurag Khati
Alipurduar: Phoolbanti Lakda, a 30-year-old Adivasi woman from Bandapani tea garden village in Alipurduar district of West Bengal, was glowing with joy as she showed off her rain-washed emerald green vegetable patch which had a green range of ladyfingers and brinjal loaded with vegetables. . Long beans and bitter gourds hung from climbing plants tied with bamboo trellises in her small but very well-landscaped garden in the backyard of her small tin-roofed house.
Like Lakda, there are many other Adivasi and Nepali women in this gated tea estate who have earned their place in the sun by establishing their own vegetable gardens. The women of this village who live on the margins of society have decided to grow their own vegetables to meet the nutritional needs of their families since the estate closed in 2013.
Women farmers with a minimum literacy rate between 20 and 50 years old have found the freedom to decide what they eat. From spinach to mushrooms, they grow everything. “Some families sell their surplus vegetables after meeting their family needs in the weekly. Mangal Haat (Tuesday market) in the village. I don’t sell my vegetables at the market but I don’t have to buy them either. We mainly eat what we grow,” said Anima Xalxo, another farmer from the village. Another resident, Sujita Oraon, said she sells her surplus vegetables in the local market and earns around Rs 3,000 for each batch of vegetables. She had a relatively larger garden than the others and there were ladyfingers and spinach growing when this writer visited her farm.
Bandapani tea estate is about six kilometers from Dalgaon (Birpara) railway station and lies side by side with the Bhutanese border. There is one bridged river and three unbridged rivers that must be crossed to reach the village. During the monsoon, the village is disconnected from the mainland as the rivers swell with rainwater.
“More than 200 families in the village have large or small vegetable gardens. This has helped families meet their nutritional needs and become less dependent on the market,” said Rajmuni Kindo, who runs a ration shop in the village. “Most of the time, families trade vegetables based on their yield. A sense of community connection develops through our vegetable garden,” she added. Kindo has worked for some years as a liaison between the district rural development agency and the villagers. district program and a small vegetable garden where I grow all the seasonal vegetables,” Kindo said.
Brewing problems in the locked tea area
A total of 1,200 families live in the Bandapani gram panchayat and each house had at least one or more members employed in the tea garden until the estate was closed eight years ago due to financial irregularities. Many have left the village after losing their jobs for bigger Indian cities while a few unfortunates have fallen prey to human traffickers and are still far from their families.
“There are many tea estates in the Dooars area which have been closed for many years now and due to poverty and lack of employment it has become a breeding ground for human traffickers. We hear of many incidents of women being trafficked for sex work and domestic work in the area,” said Shanti Oraon, Village Coordinator of an Alipurduar-based NGO. “Livelihoods are a major concern in the village of Bandapani. Although many former garden workers have formed a committee and pick and sell the tea leaves and few have joined the functioning tea gardens nearby, many women who previously worked as tea pickers and factory staff are still unemployed,” Oraon said.
The tea industry is touted as the country’s second-largest employer, but it is also an industry that undermines workers’ rights and deprives workers and their families of their most basic needs.
Bandapani suffers from a severe water crisis as there are only 17 functioning boreholes for 1,200 families. The village is heavily dependent on Bhutan for water. The neighboring country has provided two water pipes from which the villagers carry water home every morning. But there are times during the monsoons when the pipes break and the village suffers huge drinking water problems.
“Despite the crisis, we irrigate our vegetable garden with the water we collect from boreholes and Bhutanese supply,” said Rathni Lakda, another nutritious gardener. The mother of two has a good yield of seasonal vegetables all year round. “I get villagers who come into my house to buy vegetables. I earn around Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 every month selling surplus vegetables,” Rathni said.
Five minutes by car from the Chaybasa line where Lakda lived, we lead to the house of Puja and his mother Rita Kujur. The mother and daughter duo have been growing mushrooms in their house and a shed built next to their two-room house for three years. “We don’t have a vegetable garden but growing mushrooms has proven to be quite profitable. We make over Rs 6,000 per lot,” the 26-year-old said.
There were many cylinders (bags of mushrooms) hanging from the shed where oyster mushrooms were growing. If the climatic conditions are favorable, one cylinder can produce between 4 and 5 kilos of mushrooms and it takes 25 days to grow,” said Puja. “Women farmers in the region still need many summers to grow vegetables that can make them economically independent by selling the harvest in the local market. Instead, the vegetable garden has definitely given us the independence to depend on the local market for nutritious vegetables,” Puja said.
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