Kolkata/Agartala: For Badal Karmakar of Narendrapur tea estate or Naresh Chaki of Mekhlipara tea estate, there is an unofficial gag on speaking to reporters about their struggles. They fear they will be physically attacked if they do so.
There are around 55,000 tea garden workers spread across 56 tea gardens of Tripura, which produces the orthodox CTC tea. The condition of these workers with wages as low as Rs 105/day is beyond contemplation. Their houses have not been repaired in the last five years, especially since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power in the state.
Speaking with NewsClick, Kanu Ghosh, vice-president of Tripura Tea Workers' Union, alleged that biker gangs currently control every aspect of tea gardens.
"During the Left government's rule, tea garden managers controlled the administration. Their position has been made redundant now. Biker gangs control everything, including the transportation of tea leaves to factories. The conditions are especially dire in small tea gardens, which do not have own factories. They are forbidden from purchasing coal from the lowest bidders and are forced to purchase it from these gangs," Ghosh alleged.
NewsClick learnt that tea workers in the state are paid the lowest wages in the country among all plantation workers. In Kerala, tea garden workers make around Rs 412/day, whereas in Assam, the daily wage is Rs 330. In comparison, the minimum wage in Tripura ranges from Rs 105-130/day.
Just before the last Assembly elections, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM) government had increased the minimum wage to Rs 176, which couldn't go through due to orders from the Election Commission.
Wages have not been revised since BJP came to power. As the time for the second revision approaches, the government is trying to persuade workers to accept Rs 176/day as minimum wage. Ghosh said tea garden workers are migrating to other states due to low wages.
"Only those who don't have their houses here or are mandatorily required to stay are currently working despite the crumbling state of their accommodation."
Jia-ul Alam, general secretary of All India Plantation Workers' Federation, the nodal organisation of plantation workers of the country with a strength of over 2.5 lakh members, told NewsClick that the dismal condition of tea workers in Tripura was reported in the last general body meeting of his organisation in Guwahati.
"After rubber, tea plantations are the second-largest organised industry in Tripura. The BJP government is responsible for the dire conditions of these marginalised workers. The absence of democracy in Tripura is hurting tea workers the most. Since the BJP government came to office, goonda raj in Tripura has increased, hurting the workers' interests," he alleged.
On the condition of anonymity, a tea plantation worker told NewsClick that the state government has banned trade unions in tea gardens.
"Earlier, labour inspectors used to visit gardens, which has stopped now. The biker gangs collude with the planters to wreak havoc on the workers. The rice/wheat ratio is an important component of our wage calculation. The whole thing is facing uncertainty because planters decide the ratio now. The medical infrastructure in tea gardens is crumbling. They don't have any medicines," the worker said.
In this context, the Tripura Tea Workers' Union recently held a conference in Bhanu Ghosh Smriti Bhawan in Agartala, where Manik Sarkar, Opposition leader in Tripura Assembly and CPIM polit bureau member, was the main speaker. Around 200 delegates attended the conference.
Addressing the gathering, Sarkar said that the situation in the state is changing fast. "Tormentors won't have the last laugh," he said. He called upon tea garden workers to resist the goonda raj of the biker gangs.
"There's no way to evade this situation. Tackling the situation head-on is the only answer."