Bangladeshi tea workers are mostly indigenous people from India who migrated during British rule. They are among the most deprived and marginalized communities in the country. (File photo from UCAN Bangladesh archive)
A Bangladeshi government plan to acquire hundreds of hectares of agricultural land from a tea estate for a special economic zone has triggered strong opposition from activists, including church leaders.
Officials in northeastern Sylhet's Habiganj district are in the final phase of acquiring 207 hectares of land at the Chandpore Tea Estate. Authorities plan to develop the land into an economic zone.
The current lease owner is Duncan Brothers Bangladesh Ltd, a British firm.
Opponents of the government plan fear it could adversely affect the lives of about 6,000 indigenous people, many of whom are tea workers.*
"For generations, we have been living here. Neither the government nor the tea company told us anything about an economic zone," Swapan Santal, a labor leader from the Bangladesh Tea Workers Union, told ucanews.com on Sept. 20.
"Many family members of workers don’t have jobs on the tea estate, so they survive by growing crops on spare land within the estate. Without this land, it would be impossible for workers and their families to survive," he said.
"If necessary, we will stage mass protests against the economic zone."
Santal was speaking on the sidelines of a seminar on "Land Deprivation of Tea Communities and Adivasis of the Plains" organized by the Dhaka-based Society for Environment and Human Development.
Tea workers are mostly landless Dalit Hindus from what is now India when the British set up the first tea estates in the 1850s.
They are among the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in Bangladesh, living in small, thatched-roofed mud houses where they are allowed to stay as long as a family member is working.
A registered worker gets a meager 69 taka (US$ 0.88) as a daily minimum wage, which ranks among the lowest in the world.
The government's attempts to introduce an economic zone is just another case of neglect and discrimination against tea workers, said Pankaj Kanda, a Catholic leader from an indigenous community.
"We are Bangladeshi citizens and we have voting rights, yet we are among the most deprived people in the country. We have been living and cultivating on the land for over 150 years, but still we don't have a place of our own," said Kanda, director of the Indigenous Peoples Development Organization, a social and human rights body covering tea workers and tribal people in Sylhet.
He said his organization is negotiating with the government and the tea company to stop the move.
The Catholic Church in Sylhet said it is backing the workers.
"Everyone has the right to a livelihood. So do the tea workers. We are in solidarity with the workers and we will support their actions for survival," said Holy Cross Father Subroto Tolentinu, secretary of the church's Justice and Peace Commission in Sylhet diocese.
"We will help and support workers every way possible," Father Tolentinu said.
However, a senior Habiganj district official has offered the workers some hope by saying that the plan for the economic zone was not finalized.
"This scheme is not final and can be reviewed," said Sabina Alam, the district's deputy commissioner.
*This paragraph has been corrected and updated.