A child walks past an agricultural plantation in Lakhaichhera village allegedly destroyed by armed workers from Julekhanagar tea estate in this 2015 file photo. The owner wants to expand the estate by driving out tribal and Hindu communities. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Hundreds of tea workers in two estates in northeastern Bangladesh fear for their future over a looming eviction threat and the recent jailing of workers who opposed land being cleared.
The communities in various villages of Julekhanagar and Jhimai tea estates in Sreemangal, a tea plantation hub have been distressed since police arrested and jailed 12 tea workers in January.
Last year estate owners allegedly sent armed men to clear agricultural plots that were being used by the indigenous Kanda and Hindu Tanti communities in Julekhanagar estate. The communities tried to resist the move but the owners sued several workers in response.
"Five locals were arrested over clashes with men from tea estates, and seven others were arrested during a hearing of the case in the court," said Abdul Jalal, officer in-charge at Sreemangal police station.
The estate owner has charged the 12 for illegally obstructing the tea estate activities, the police officer told ucanews.com Feb. 4.
Three of those arrested are Catholics and the local church has been trying to secure their bail, said Holy Cross Father Subrato Tolentino, parish priest of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Sreemangal.
"The lower court rejected our bail petition and then we moved to the high court which accepted our bail petition but police officials in Sreemangal say they have not received the papers yet," he told ucanews.com Feb. 4.
For more than 10 years, tea workers and activists have been resisting moves by the tea estate owners to expand estates onto land being used by workers.
"What's happening over tea estate expansion is saddening. We are trying to meet and negotiate with the estate owner for a solution to the problem," said Father Tolentino.
Ever since the arrests, the communities are living in anxiety and uncertainty, said Rambhajan Kairi, secretary of Bangladesh Tea Workers Union.
"The threat of eviction is an old problem. Tea workers have little land, but the owners want to grab whatever they have," said Kairi.
"Tea workers and their leaders are afraid of opening their mouth now in fear of false charges. People fear that if the owners put all activists and leaders in jail, there will be no one to speak for them," he added.
Tea estate owner Syeda Gulshan Ara denied any wrongdoing on their part.
"In the past, we have generously allowed tribal people to reside and cultivate the land, but it is frustrating that they claim it as their own," she said.
"They even attacked our men as they tried to clear the lands for estate expansion," she said, adding that the company is the lease owner and it will do everything to develop the estate.
Marginalized and disadvantaged
Tea workers in Bangladesh are mostly landless lower-caste Hindu people and indigenous groups, used by the British colonial rulers who started the first tea estates area in the 1850s.
Since then they are among the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in Bangladesh, living in small, thatched-roofed mud houses where they can stay as long as a family member is working. Most workers don't have adequate access to basic needs including education and health services.
A registered worker earns less than a U.S. dollar a day, which ranks among the lowest wages in the world.