Tea pickers in Bangladesh finally have access to life-changing clean water

The Surma valley located near the thriving Sylhet province, northern Bangladesh, with its idyllic rolling hills and verdant fields are as beautiful as the lives of the pickers of the world’s favourite drink are deplorable.

The tea pickers, segregated by the geography as much as their Hindu culture religious affiliation in a dominantly Muslim nation, stand among the world’s most marginalised and excluded communities, and earn 85 Bangladeshi Taka (USD$1.06) for one gruelling day of work.

Tea pickers on a tea plantation in northern Bangladesh. Photo credit: Abir Adbullah/WaterAid

It was not until recently that the inadequate access to toilets, safe water, and the basics of hygiene and sanitation on the tea plantations came to light. Open defecation was common, and usually close to the streams and waterways that contribute the water for the cleaning and washing. As a result, waterborne illnesses were commonplace, especially among the young and old – the most vulnerable people.

But now, a simple new standpipe seated on a plain cement foundation running on a dirt track cuts across the tea plantation, conveying plenty of fresh water.

A bamboo shack close to the pump houses a clean lavatory shared by the workers who used to go to the toilet in the bushes. In the school, the pupils are educated on hygiene and how to wash their hands.

These developments, brought about by international charity WaterAid and its local Sylhet partners may not look like much, but it has changed lives completely.

“These pumps and latrines have made such a difference for us,” Bina Patrou, a tea picker from the Gulni tea estate in Sylhet, said during an interview with The Guardian. “We used to have to walk more than half-an-hour each day to collect water from a well. We’d do that journey in the rain and the heat, walk with one jug on our heads, another on our hip. Water for everything else came from the streams. People had to go [to] the toilet in the bushes and some went near the streams.

“I used to miss days at work because of illness and so I wasn’t paid. Our children were often sick – my daughters suffered from diarrhoea and dysentery when they were growing up – and sometimes I had to look after them rather than work.”

Bangladesh holds an estimated 165 tea plantations, employing some 400,000 people who grow, harvest and process the tea for the market.

Initiating the project was not easy; WaterAid and its local partners had to negotiate long and hard with managers and owners of the tea estates wary of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But victory finally came in the form of the Institute of Development Affairs (IDEA) and its push to introduce water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes.

Not surprisingly, the reasoning that won the bosses over was the economic one; that a healthy worker was more productive and efficient than an unhealthy one.

The project was first launched in 2010 in four tea plantations where less than 4 per cent of labourers and their families had access to good sanitation and hygiene, according to an IDEA assessment. By 2012, other plantation managers were inviting them to their estates to provide services as well. Funded by the HSBC Water Programme, the project now extends to 14 gardens and a population of 33,000.

“The [estate] authorities didn’t want to let the NGOs in because they didn’t want us to be educated”, Mrittunjoy Kurmi, chairman of the panchayat, or village council, said. “Now they have learned that if they let the NGOs in and we get educated, then their companies will benefit too.”

WaterAid and IDEA are now looking for additional funding to spread their work into many more tea plantations found nearby. But the other challenge is the need to persuade the management at the team plantations and the government of Bangladesh that water and sanitation for the workers must be made a top concern without humanitarian aid.

“This programme has helped change the mindset of tea garden owners, introducing them to the need to respect workers’ rights and the value of a healthier workforce, while helping the tea pickers understand they have the right to good health, education and hope for a better future,” Regional Director for WaterAid in South Asia, Tom Palakudiyil, said. “As we continue our work, we’ll also continue our advocacy with local governments and tea garden owners to ensure water ans sanitation is made a priority for everyone, including the poorest and most marginalised.” 

Source: The Guardian