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Beware! Wild Mushrooms are Causing Deaths in Assam’s Tea Gardens

"We would never have eaten wild mushrooms if we had known about the risks, that people may die."

Shruti Kandwal
"I can't believe mushroom intake can cause death"
"I can't believe mushroom intake can cause death"

Rajesh Kharia took wild mushrooms from a forest near his house in Number 4 Chapatoli village on April 8. In Assam's Dibrugarh district, it's close to the tea estate where he works. He retained some for his family and gave the rest to his local neighbours. The next day, 11 persons were admitted to the hospital, including Kharia.

Two of them died on April 11: Kharia's six-year-old granddaughter and Sine Lama, his next-door neighbour. Lama's wife died the next day. Kharia was treated at the Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh for several days.

"I can't believe mushroom intake can cause death," Anjali Kharia, the mother of six-year-old and daughter of Rajesh Kharia, said. She claimed they had been gathering mushrooms from the tea gardens for years and eating them.

"We would never have eaten wild mushrooms if we had known about the risks, that people may die," she claimed.

In Assam, 16 individuals died in April after eating wild mushrooms, mainly in the Upper Assam areas. Furthermore, after eating mushrooms, 39 people from Upper Assam and six from Dima Hasao were hospitalised.

The majority of people who deceased, according to Dibrugarh Deputy Commissioner Biswajit Pegu, belonged to families of tea garden workers.

It's difficult to untangle the many causes of these fatalities. But, among other things, they serve as a terrible reminder of Assam's tea garden workers' persistent poverty.

Tea garden laborers have been agitating for an increase in daily earnings for years. The government hiked it to Rs 205 for laborers in the Brahmaputra Valley last year, a significant decrease from the Rs 351 originally asked. The daily wage in the Barak Valley is Rs 183. Workers in private tea estates may be paid much less.

Officials from the state agricultural department stated that the recent increase in the price of vital goods has forced tea workers to eat wild vegetables.

"Because of the huge increase in price, the ordinary people have cut their vegetable purchases," claimed an agriculture official who did not want to be named. "Clearly, price increases are a factor in mushroom-related mortality."

At the same time, many tea garden workers have not benefited from government assistance programmes. Anjali Kharia claims that her family does not get the free government rice distributed through the public distribution system. "We have not been provided any assistance," she stated. "After the mushroom deaths, they [officials] came to our house."

"There is no documentation of the traditional knowledge or observations that the ancestors or grandparents used to identify [poisonous mushrooms from edible mushrooms]," said Pranjal K Baruah, executive director of the Mushroom Development Foundation, located in Assam.

Pesticides in tea gardens

Pesticide usage in tea gardens might be another less-studied cause of death. The death of a worker at the Barbaruah tea plantation in Dibrugarh drew Baruah's attention, and he believes it was caused by pesticide use.

Anashi Hhumij, 55, died on April 7, and five others were hospitalised. It may not have been because the mushrooms were harmful, but because they had absorbed dangerous chemicals, according to Baruah.

The impact of insecticides has received relatively little attention. However, a representative from the Barbaruah tea plantation, who did not want to be identified, agreed that pesticides were used. To manage pests and enhance yields, most tea estates employed chemical fertilizers "indiscriminately," he noted.

Mushroom deaths are also a source of worry in other North-East states, according to the Mushroom Development Foundation.

According to data gathered by the organization through Right to Information Act requests sent to public health offices around the Northeast, over 200 individuals die each year from eating wild mushrooms.

According to Baruah, most victims died from eating the "death cap," but there is little study on why wild mushrooms kill so many people every year.

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