With spike in Covid-19 cases, Darjeeling tea planters demand test labs closer to...

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Siliguri: Tea planters in West Bengal’s Darjeeling, Terai, and the Doors regions have urged the Union government-run Tea Board of India to set up coronavirus disease (Covid-19) testing facilities closer to the tea gardens amid fears over a spread of the viral outbreak in north Bengal.

The planters have urged the board to set up Viral Research and Diagnostic Laboratories (VRDLs) at various locations.

At present, the only VRDL facility in the region is the Siliguri-based North Bengal Medical College and Hospital (NBMCH), whose daily testing capacity far outstrips the demand.

The Tea Association of India (TAI) has written a letter to the Tea Board of India, urging the government-run body to set up testing facilities at Banarhat, Nagrakata, and Odlabari in the Dooars.

Ram Avtar Sharma, secretary of the Dooars unit of TAI, has urged the Tea Board of India to sponsor the setting up of VRDL facilities in the state government-run hospitals in the region.

“The Tea Board of India allocates funds for workers’ welfare and human resource development. The organisation should perform its duty to the workers. Its action has left a lot to be desired,” said Sharma.

Mani Kumar Darnal, president, National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW), said, “The situation at the tea gardens in the Dooars is alarming. Even those workers living under institutional quarantine aren’t being tested properly.”

AK Ray, deputy chairman, Tea Board of India, said, “We’ll assist the district administrations to prevent the spread of Covid-19. We’ll comply with the district administrations’ instructions.”

John Barla, who represents the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from Alipurduar Lok Sabha constituency, said: “North Bengal may surpass Maharashtra’s Covid-19 related death toll, if VRDL facilities are not set up in the region at the earliest, as the crisis has deepened because of the return of the migrant workers in large numbers.”

There are 283 functional tea gardens spread across Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts in north Bengal, which have around three lakh workers on its rolls and several thousand contractual workers are also hired during the peak plucking season every year.

A large number of migrant workers, who left the tea gardens and went to other states in search of livelihood, have returned amid the easing of nationwide lockdown restrictions, which were imposed on March 25 to contain the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak.

North Bengal’s eight districts have reported 995 Covid-19 positive cases till Wednesday and 95% of them are migrant returnees.

However, a month ago, the region had recorded only 34 Covid-19 positive cases and three districts were still in the green zone.

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