Employers claim to have enforced social distancing norms. Workers point to large gatherings at several points in the production process.

While industries across the country remained shut because of the nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus, tea garden employees in eastern India went back to work.

On April 3, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order granting the tea industry an exemption from the lockdown, provided they followed certain restrictions on the workforce and social distancing measures were strictly enforced.

Early in April, tea gardens in the North Eastern states of Assam and Tripura started operating with 50% of their workforce. West Bengal tea gardens must make do with 25% of the workforce.

“There has been a general welcome from workers concerned,” said PK Bhattacharjee, secretary general of Tea Association of India. “In fact a lot of pictures have gone around showing how social distancing has been maintained in the plucking and manufacturing.”

However, several workers said there were no health check ups, not even basic thermal screening. “There is no testing kit or hospital here,” said Chhetri. “What if something happens to us? We will not even know if someone has symptoms. We should not be getting out.”

But there was one reason that had driven tea workers across states back to work: hunger. Tea garden workers with no land or other means of survival were dependent on the companies that employed them.

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