March 28, 2014

On the Road before E Day | March 27, 2014

Day 4: A day in the tea gardens

My trip to north Bengal and the Darjeeling constituency has been a most unusual one. I have participated in a series of singular but heart-warming political and semi-political interactions that can only happen here. Earlier this week, I met wives of tea garden workers from 11 gardens at the Gulma Tea Estate. I was seeking votes for Bhaichung Bhutia, Trinamool Congress candidate from Darjeeling, but that seemed almost beside the point.

As we walked into the Recreation Club at the tea estate, I was struck by the venue. Despite its grand name, the “Club” was really a weather-beaten wooden room that was used by workers. Welcomed in the traditional manner, with sandalwood paste applied to my forehead, I decided to ignore the lone chair and sit on the floor with the others. It was an icebreaker as the shy women opened up with their problems. It helped when I told them my wife had grown up in the tea gardens of north Bengal and we knew the region extremely well.

For this humble tea-garden community, the big issues of a national election seemed rather distant. Rather, it was immediate problems they wanted the government – and specifically Mamata Banerjee, who was mentioned often in our conversation – to sort out. These problems may seem minor in a broader context, but to the women of Gulma, they were and are existential issues.

Hospital access from outlying and remote tea gardens, one of my interlocutors told me, was a concern. The winding journey it required meant people had to pay for fuel for the ambulance. Often this led to poor families borrowing money – not to buy medicines but to buy fuel! Another lady spoke about the quality of rice and wheat in the ration shops and the fact that there were so few ration shops in the first place.

A young girl spoke up towards the end and said she was worried the delay in getting appropriate caste and identity certificates would deprive her of the chance to apply for scholarships. I took notes, promised to help, and promised to be back.

On the return journey, I was lost in thought. In that interaction, not once was Delhi mentioned, not once was the UPA or the NDA, or the blockbuster issues and scandals influencing the national capital’s self-important media, raised. In Gulma, I sensed the rhythms of the real India. Thank heavens there were no television cameras around.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress