Before the 2016 Assa Assembly polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had pledged to the tea garden workers to raise their daily wage from Rs. 138 to Rs. 351.33. However, more than five years later, in the run-up to the state polls again, which are due to start on March 27, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has declared to raise the existing wage of Rs. 167 to Rs. 217, a hike of only Rs 50 and yet Rs. 134 less than BJP's actual promise.
A month after the meagre hike, Prime Minister Modi on March 20, alleged that the opposition Congress party is supporting those who "want to destroy the image of Assam Tea". But, he conveniently forgot to mention why his party, the BJP, even after ruling the state for five years, failed to deliver on its promise to raise the wages of tea garden workers.
Addressing a mega rally at Chabua of Tinsukia district, Modi said, "The Congress party, which ruled in the country for 50–55 years, is now openly supporting those who created a conspiracy and are trying to remove India's image associated with tea. Can we forgive the Congress party for this? This Congress party should be punished or not?"
"You might have heard of a toolkit. The toolkit makers want to destroy Assam's tea and the yoga that was given by our sages. The Congress party is supporting these conspirators," alleged Modi.
Modi was referring to a "toolkit" tweeted by teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg that suggested ways to support protesting farmers who have been camped on Delhi’s outskirts since late-November. An initial version of the tweet, which Thunberg later deleted, allegedly listed among its objectives the disruption of India's "yoga and chai" image. The toolkit was allegedly used by some farmers who disrupted India's Republic Day ceremony on January 26.
A global conspiracy to damage the reputation of world-famous Assam Tea could make part of a good comedy script, but the country's head peddling a half-baked idea is not funny. NewsClick spoke with the workers from tea gardens to find out the reality of and whether they actually appreciate the incumbent BJP any more after five years.
HAS THE WAGE ACTUALLY BEEN INCREASED?
On Tuesday, March 23, the Gauhati High Court, acting on a petition by the Indian Tea Association and 17 other petitioners, directed the BJP-led Assam Government not to take any coercive action against the tea garden owners over non-compliance of the government order to raise the wage.
By the time, NewsClick visited a number of tea gardens and workers had clearly said that they were yet to receive any increased wage. Most of them did not even know the issue was pending with the HC. Interestingly, on March 11, the Assam Tea Tribes Students' Association (ATTSA) had called for a state-wide strike on March 22 demanding raising of wages, but they withdrew the strike, citing the case to be pending with the HC on March 21. The next day, the HC ruling came in favour of the tea garden owners. NewsClick called ATTSA president Dhiraj Gowala a number of times, but he did not pick up the call.
Dipak Kole works as a regular worker at the Deputline division of the Panitola Tea Estate near Tinsukia town. Kole said, "We still receive the hajira (daily wage) at Rs. 167. We have been informed that the wage would be increased, but it has not happened so far."
The Congress party has also promised to raise the wage to Rs. 365 a day, but tea-estate workers such as Debnath Majhi of the Gutibari division are not satisfied yet. "They said they would raise the wage, but it's not certain yet whether they would actually come to power. If they do, only then they may increase the wage. While with BJP's promises, you know better," said Majhi, indicating BJP's failure to raise the wage.
Also read: Assam Polls: Discontent Brews in State’s Tea Gardens
Umesh Bhumij of the Deputline division clearly said he wanted Rs. 365 instead of BJP's promised sum of Rs. 351.33. "We are not happy at all with the BJP as they said they would increase it to Rs. 351, but instead they've raised only Rs 50 rupees, that too, we are not sure of receiving."
NewsCick obtained a payslip for 14 days’ work from February 14 to 27, which shows the gross earning of a worker is Rs. 2,016, while he receives a net sum of Rs. 1,540. The daily wage stands at Rs. 102.67. The regular deductions are in the form of contribution to provident fund (Rs. 262.32), a loan deduction of Rs. 92, a medical loan deduction of Rs. 100, Rs. 10.80 as ration price (10 kg of wheat flour and 10 kg of rice) and there is a deduction of Rs. 10 under the heading 'other deduction'. The total sum of all the deductions stands at Rs. 475.12 — still with a deficit of Rs. 0.88, nearly a rupee.
WHAT ABOUT RATIONS?
Payslips show that for 14-15 days, a worker gets only 20 kg of rice and wheat, which precisely means only 1.7 kilograms of rice or wheat for a day. Asking how do they survive with that amount,, Kole — with a family of four including his wife and two kids — said, "It takes at least 1 kilo of rice to make only one meal, and we eat thrice a day."
Kole informed that it takes only 2-3 days to finish the ration he receives. For the rest of the days, he has to buy rice at the cost of Rs. 25 per kg. On being asked how do they survive with such minimum ration, Kole said, "We usually have more loans pending at grocery shops than the wages we receive."
The BJP, however, as alleged by Majhi, wants to remove the ration system entirely in tea-estates. "The leaflet the BJP has distributed among us says that they will give Rs. 101 in lieu of ration. It seems that they are going to abolish the ration system."
Also read: Assam: Same Promise Each Election, but Tea Workers still Await Minimum Wage
The allegation is serious and debatable as the BJP in its leaflet, kept it quite ambiguous. An English translation of the bullet point reads, “The daily wage of tea-estate workers will be raised from Rs. 167 to Rs. 217 per day. In addition, a sum of Rs. 101 will be given as wages for rations.”
The phrase "wages for rations" or in Assamese, "Eksho Ek Tokaloi Rationor Baabod Briddhi" is quite ambiguous to make out any meaning. Many workers are making the meaning of it to be abolition of the ration system in lieu of a daily sum of Rs. 101. In the face of such ambiguity, a group of Panitola workers said they wanted both the existing ration system in addition to the daily sum of Rs. 101 as promised by the BJP in its distributed leaflet, signed by BJP state president Ranjit Das.
PROMISES OF PATTA AND THE REALITY
The BJP in its election manifesto, says it clearly that it has given pattas (government-issued land deeds) to 3.33 lakh. However, contrary to the claims in the manifesto, NewsClick could not find even one fresh patta given to any tea garden workers' family, apart from the existing ones — across tea gardens such as Itakhuli and Panitola of Tinsukia district; Teok and Toklai estates of Jorhat; Sarojini and Tingkhong estates of Dibrugarh.
Budhiram Kole is in his 80s now and lives at a brick-cemented quarter that had been initially allotted to his wife, but now following his wife's retirement, is under his daughter's name. He and his wife are living now in constant fear of being evicted after they marry off their daughter. They are one of the millions of families living lives like this. Meethu Mahali of the Machbari division of Panitola, even after working as a regular worker for more than 17 years now, is yet to get a pukka house. Talking about the land patta, he said, "Forget about patta, I don't have even a house."
Also read: Assam Elections: Adivasis Question BJP Over Unfulfilled Promises
Apart from the unavailability of these basic necessities, tea garden workers do not have access to proper education and healthcare. While the BJP, in its election manifesto, says it had provided differently abled people from tea estates a sum of Rs. 1,000 every month, but Suraj Mahali of Panitola said there were many left out from receiving the sum, while he himself had received the sum for only one month.
Suraj also alleged that the BJP’s claim of millions of tea tribes having Atal Amrit Abhiyan's designated card, with free healthcare benefits worth Rs. 2 lakh, is actually a false one — as his family itself is yet to get the card like many in his neighbourhood. While the state’s BJP government claims it has provided every family pure drinking water under the Jal Jeevan Mission, the truth is: most of the tea-garden workers drink water from their self-installed tube wells. There is hardly any house of the tea garden workers with any public water supply or individual household tap connections.
While most analysts consider low wage as the primary issue faced by the tea tribes, many think they actually have too many issues to be covered, such as the demand for scheduled caste (ST) status, which has been a burning issue in upper Assam for too many years now.
Governments come and go, but the plight of tea tribes remain the same. The last time in 2016, the tea tribes, a.k.a Adivasis voted the BJP to power as it had promised a lot to them, ranging from ST status to wage increase, and in almost every front, the BJP government has failed them. As the tea tribes reportedly have a whopping population of over 60 lakh, their swinging votes may cause the rise or fall of any government.
So the incumbent BJP government of Assam should have reasons to fear in the first round of polls due only in days on March 27, especially in a region where there are more than 500 tea estates and millions of Adivasis, tea tribe consisting the major part, to decide the fate of which party or coalition will rule Assam for the coming five years.
(The author is a freelance journalist.)