Bina Patru is unsure of her age. She thinks she is in her mid-40s, but knows that she has spent a lifetime toiling in the tea bushes that carpet the rolling hills of the Surma valley of northern Bangladesh.
A slight figure in a bright yellow sari, she has just returned from a morning pruning plants and pulling up roots as the tea gardens prepare for the start of harvest for the world’s favourite drink.
In tea country around Sylhet, conditions for workers such as Bina – descendants of labourers imported by the British during the 19th century from what is now India – have long been as wretched as the landscape is enchanting.
The estates are the only world they know, run by managers overseeing business from hilltop, British-era bungalows in semi-feudal operations that have changed little since colonial days.
Isolated by geography, as well as by their Hindu culture in the predominantly Muslim country, Bangladesh’s tea pickers are among the most excluded and marginalised communities, earning 85 taka (barely $1) for a day of back-breaking work.
Until recently, notable among the privations has been the lack of access to safe water, toilets and the basics of sanitation and hygiene on estates such as Gulni, where Bina picks tea, a 90-minute drive from the thriving provincial capital of Sylhet.
Open defecation was widespread, near the same streams that provide water for washing and cleaning, and waterborne illnesses were common, particularly among the most vulnerable – young and old.
But now, on a dirt track that cuts through the tea estate, is a simple new standpipe on a cement base, delivering plentiful fresh water.
In a bamboo shack nearby, a clean latrine has been installed to be shared by residents who used to have to walk into the bushes to go to the toilet. At the estate primary school, children are taught how to wash their hands and then to relay the same message about hygiene at home.
These simple innovations – introduced by WaterAid and its local Sylhet partners – have transformed lives.
Bina Patrou, a tea picker at the Gulni tea estate, collects water from a pump installed by WaterAid and partners.
“These pumps and latrines have made such a difference for us,” says Bina. “We used to have to walk more than half-an-hour each way 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 the toilet in the bushes and some went near the same 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 has around 165 tea gardens, employing about 400,000 people, growing, harvesting and processing tea for the thirsty domestic market.
To launch the pilot project, WaterAid and its partners had to overcome the opposition of tea estates managers and owners. The estates had long blocked any access for NGOs, suspecting that they would try to organise workers and advocate for their rights. But the breakthrough eventually came after long negotiations by WaterAid’s partner, the Institute of Development Affairs (Idea), to introduce water, sanitation and hygiene (Wash) programmes.
Tea-pickers at the Gulni tea estate now have use of a toilet.
Unsurprisingly, it was the economic argument – that a healthy worker is more efficient and productive – that finally won the day with the bosses.
The pilot project started in 2010 in four tea gardens where less than 4% of workers and their families had access to good sanitation, according to an Idea assessment. By 2012, other estate managers were asking them to come in and provide services too. The project, funded by the HSBC Water Programme, has now covered 14 gardens and 33,000 people.
In places such as Gulni, wells, filtration systems, standpoints, piped water lines and technology to reduce the heavy iron content have been introduced. Just as importantly, the message of good hygiene and hand-washing has been spread to a community with limited access to education.
“The garden authorities didn’t want to let the NGOs in because they didn’t want us to be educated,” says Mrittunjoy Kurmi, chairman of the panchayat, or village council. “Now they have learned that if they let the NGOs in and we get educated, then their companies will benefit too.”
Numan Haider Chowdury, the general manager of Gulni and neighbouring Khadim estates, entertains guests in the sunroom of his bungalow. “Built by the British in 1910,” he says proudly.
He is a convert: “We’re very grateful for their help for the poor people of this tea garden. If workers are disease-free, then they work well, so we all gain.”
Asked about the resistance of the estates to NGOs, he displays the paternalism typical of the industry. “We welcome NGOs that work for the benefit of the workers’ health and development of the estates,” he says. “But we don’t want the wrong sort of NGOs.
“We won’t allow in the NGOs providing micro-credit as that is bad for the workers as they just go and buy mobile phones. If money is in their pockets, they utilise it all wrong. It is not good for them.”
Beneath his sweeping vantage point, a noisy Hindu wedding party is under way, with a young groom accompanied by drummers. The celebration is a reminder of the traditions of a population brought from provinces such as Orissa and Bihar by the British to clear jungles and plant the estates.
A troupe of tea workers’ children deliver the Wash message via theatrical and musical role-playing. One sings and acts out the rules of good sanitation while another mimics eating straight after a toilet break without washing his hands.
At Kadhim’s school, teacher Nantu Ranjan Singh used to note an marked increase in absenteeism in April and May, after the start of the annual rains brought outbreaks of waterborne diseases. “But that’s dropped right off since the interventions by Idea and WaterAid,” he says. Tackling taboos about menstrual hygiene for teenage girls has been another achievement, he adds.
Children attend classes at the Gulni Tea Garden Primary School, where they learn about hygiene and sanitation.
WaterAid and Idea are now seeking funding to expand their work into dozens more tea gardens in nearby districts. But just as much of a challenge is to convince the local powers – the tea estates and the government – that they need to make water and sanitation for the workers a priority without charitable help.
“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,” says Tom Palakudiyil, regional director for WaterAid in South Asia.
“As we continue our work, we’ll also continue our advocacy with local governments and tea garden owners to ensure water and sanitation is made a priority for everyone, including the poorest and most marginalised.”
The need to extend the initiative is evident at the Sreepur estate that runs along the banks of the Shari river separating Bangladesh from India’s Khasi Hills.
Sreepur is a “pre-intervention” tea garden, where labourers live in in makeshift houses of stone, mud and corrugated metal, with no Wash programme.
Women return home after collecting drinking water from a ringwell at the Sreepur tea estate, Sylhet. They have to cross a dangerous highway to reach the water spot.
During the dry season, women walk for more than an hour along a dangerous road to fetch drinking water. For washing and cleaning, water is collected from fetid ponds beneath tea bushes. Few have access to latrines.
Nikhil Shantal, 35, is among those with no access to a toilet to use. “I go into the jungle where it’s private and I take some water with me to wash my hands,” he says. “I hope one day we have a latrine, it would be good for our hygiene and our dignity.”
Basonti Singh, 44, co-chairwoman of the panchayat, said the plight of Sreepur’s labourers was “very sad”.
“There’s a lot of illness here – diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach upsets. Even the water from the well is red from iron and tastes bad. But when you’re thirsty, you don’t care if the water you drink is clean or not.”