Assam: The mushrooms killing India tea garden workers

By Dilip Sharma and Zoya Mateen
Assam, Delhi

  • Published
Anjali Kharia
Image caption,
Villagers in Assam are dying from eating poisonous wild mushrooms

When Anjali Kharia sat down for dinner with her daughter on 8 April, she didn't know this would be their last meal together.

After a long day of work at a tea garden in Assam's Chapatoli village, Ms Kharia had made her way home, walking through the gentle curves of the hills around her neighbourhood. She ate and slept immediately.

Around 3 am, she woke up to the sound of her six-year-old daughter Sushmita vomiting violently. Then she became nauseous and began to shiver and shake.

When her condition persisted all night, Ms Kharia grew worried. And when her son and father-in-law also started to throw up just hours later, she panicked.

"All of them were puking at once," Ms Kharia, 37, says. "Then they developed terrible and unrelenting diarrhoea."

Soon, she realised that several others in her neighbourhood had similar symptoms that night. "It was like a nightmare. Everyone was throwing up but no-one knew why."

As the sun rose over the village, which is located in Dibrugarh district, Ms Kharia rushed with her daughter to a nearby pharmacy, which gave her some saline water and medicine.

An ambulance was called to take other patients to hospital, so she used the last of her savings to send her father-in-law and son with them. "I didn't send my daughter because she was feeling better after taking the medicine," Ms Kharia says. "I thought she would be fine soon."

In less than 24 hours, her daughter started vomiting again. This time, Ms Kharia didn't have the money to take her to hospital. Sushmita died in her arms hours later.

It was later found that all those who fell sick that day had consumed some wild mushrooms, which Ms Kharia's father-in-law had plucked from a nearby forest and distributed among his neighbours. Apart from Sushmita, two more people died from mushroom poisoning, official records confirmed. A total of 11 people were admitted to hospital.

A month on, the village is still unmoored by the tragedy.

"I will never forget that night, I thought no-one would survive," says Neha Lama, 36, whose in-laws were among those who died and who herself fell sick and spent days in the hospital along with her son.

"We have been plucking and eating mushrooms for years. How could we know they could be poisoned?"

Image caption,
Anjali Kharia's daughter was among the three people who died from mushroom poisoning last month

Mushroom poisoning routinely makes headlines in Assam and the neighbouring north-eastern states where locals forage the woods for elusive mushroom colonies, ferns and wild berries, and cook them into various food preparations. Wild mushrooms are also considered a delicacy in some parts, to be relished in the form of a thick soup and cooked vegetables.

In Assam, such deaths are especially common in March and April when hundreds of mushrooms dot the blue-green fields of the state's famed tea gardens. And the victims are almost always the poor workers who labour in these estates.

No official records of these deaths are kept, but two state health officials told the BBC that of the 16 people who died in April, most belonged to families of tea garden workers.

In 2008, 20 people died after consuming poisonous mushrooms - the highest so far - after which the state government constituted a panel to investigate the matter. Even then, most victims were tea garden workers, says Dilip Kumar Sarma, a scientist at the Assam Agricultural University and one of the members of the panel.

Image caption,
Villagers in Assam eat wild mushrooms in various food preparations

"A major reason for this is the lack of awareness among tea garden workers when it comes to types of mushroom - they don't know which kinds are rare, which are tasty, or which are poisonous," Dr Sarma says, adding that it is the responsibility of plantation owners to protect their workers.

"The government has published newspaper advisories against such consumption in the past, but the message does not reach the families as most of them are illiterate."

Members of the community say it's not that simple.

The fertile hills of Assam are home to some of the most prized teas in the world. The sprawling estates - owned by some of the biggest Indian and multinational corporations - also have luxury lodgings that are hugely popular with tourists.

But the living conditions of the workers are far from idyllic.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Assam is famous for its sprawling tea gardens

Several tea worker families the BBC spoke to in Chapatoli said they lived in ramshackle bamboo cottages with leaking tin roofs and poor sanitation. The wages are so pitifully low that their families often go hungry. And the recent rise in prices of vegetables and essential commodities has made matters worse.

"That's also why we pluck whatever we can find and eat it," says Ms Kharia, who earns 130 rupees ($1.67; £1.35) a day and is the sole earner in her family of six.

"After my daughter's death, we were visited by government officials who told us not to eat poisonous mushrooms. But we are so poor and everything is so expensive. We have to live with what we get."

District authorities say they have tried to tackle the problem of high prices through public welfare schemes. "We ensure that they get free ration under the public distribution system," Dibrugarh Deputy Commissioner Biswajit Pegu says.

But Ms Kharia denied this, saying they had never received any free foodgrains. "Some days, there is nothing to eat. But no-one comes to help us."

Image caption,
Villagers in Chapatoli live in rickety homes made of bamboo and tin

Health experts say the most serious illnesses occur when locals pick and eat Amanita phalloides, or "death cap" - a poisonous dull green or white mushroom that is also reputed to be delicious. Its side effects include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and severe diarrhoea.

A lot of the times, patients don't come to hospital immediately after falling sick, leading to major health problems like kidney or liver failure, says Prashant Dihingia, superintendent of Assam Medical College and Hospital (AMCH). "By the time they seek treatment, it's already too late."

Creating awareness about which mushrooms might be poisonous, he adds, is the only way to tide over the problem. "You can't stop communities from eating their traditional food, but you can teach them safer practices."

Mr Pegu says while it is not possible to "go and meet every person", authorities have been holding campaigns at the grassroots level to teach people how to distinguish poisonous mushrooms from edible ones. "Our health volunteers regularly visit the villages and we are taking the problem seriously."

But the people of Chapatoli are far from convinced.

"We are on our own. They [officials] only come when one of us dies," Ms Kharia says.

Related Topics