Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party intensified its poll campaign in election bound Assam on March 14 with Union ministers Rajnath Singh and Amit Shah addressing meetings, all is not well for the ruling party in the state. On the same day, the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) questioned the BJP over its “unfulfilled promises” and asked why they should vote for the party.
Addressing the annual mahasabha of the AASAA at Biswanath district’s Halem, the association’s president Stephen Lakra posed 10 questions to the ruling party regarding the promises over scheduling, daily wage and land rights for the tea tribes, who form a significant section of the adivasis in Assam.
Interestingly, the venue of the mahasabha was just 12 km away from where Defence Minister Singh addressed a massive rally listing out the achievements of the state government in five years compared to previous governments, especially targeting the tea community.
According to a report in The Telegraph, the adivasi community in the state holds sway in over 40 of the 126 seats. However, resentment against the BJP-led state government has been growing among the community, particularly due to the way the demand for increasing the daily wage for the tea tribes has been handled by the government.
Also read: Assam Polls: Discontent Brews in State’s Tea Gardens
As opposed to the long-standing demand of increasing the daily wage of tea garden workers to Rs 351 per day, the government hiked the wage to just Rs 217 in February, ahead of the Assembly elections. The increase in daily wage was a poll plank which the BJP used to woo the tea garden workers away from the Congress, that had held sway over the community, during the last Assembly elections in 2016.
It should be noted that despite accounting for nearly 17% of the state’s population, the tea tribes fall among the most exploited and socio-economically backward communities in Assam. Not only that, the community is marked by poor health conditions, low literacy rates and unkept poll promises.
An earlier report by NewsClick had noted that, “In the last two assembly elections in the state, the tea tribes have emerged as a potent electoral force. In 2011, the Congress, under the leadership of Tarun Gogoi, won a record third term despite facing heavy anti-incumbency owing to its impressive performance in the ‘Tea Belt’. The grand old party won 44 of the 56 seats in the Upper Assam region, an area dominated by the tea tribes. However, in 2016, as the Congress was decimated in the state, the BJP’s maiden victory was attributed to the overwhelming support it garnered from the tea tribes. A Lokniti post-poll survey finding added credence to the theory that the decline of the Congress was exacerbated by the tea tribes deserting the party. About 52% of the respondents in the survey were of the opinion that the condition of tea garden workers had deteriorated during the last five years of Tarun Gogoi’s rule.
Highlighting this, Stephen Lakra told The Telegraph, “They want our vote and cheap labour but they don’t want to give us our due. Our population is over one crore but we are taken for granted. That is why we have posed these ten questions.”
The AASAA also raised the demand for Scheduled Tribe status for the adivasi community. “The message we want to send from the sabha is: No ST No Votes for BJP; No 351 no votes for BJP, no mati (land rights) no votes for BJP!,” the Telegraph report quoted the AASAA president as saying.
The other demands raised in the 10 questions include the provincialisation of lower and middle primary schools in the tea estates, distribution of land pattas to the community, among others. The AASAA also questioned the BJP’s failure to set up 100 residential schools in the tea belt as promised.
Another group, the Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA) has reportedly called for a bandh in tea estates across the state on March 22 in protest over the daily wage fiasco of the state government. According to the ATTSA, the wage hike prior to the elections is nothing more than an election sop to woo the members of the tea garden community.
The tea estates are concentrated in Upper Assam, which goes to polls in the first phase on March 27.