Ahead of polling in five Parliamentary seats in upper Assam on April 11, Prime Minister Modi, addressing a rally at Moran in Jorhat constituency on March 30, said, "Friends, only a tea seller can understand the pain of tea people [referring to the tea-estate tribes]”. The response from the tea estate workers was sharp and quick. A week later, in adjacent Dibrugarh seat, tea-estate workers made it clear how the Bharatiya Janata Party had utterly failed them in the state.
Workers at four tea estates, Tingkhong, Sarojini, Rajgarh and Korangoni, were seen working in the tea gardens with placards hanging around their necks, which read: "What is the use of voting for the BJP, which has failed to ensure daily wage of Rs.351.33 per day?"
In the 2014 polls, tea-estate workers had whole heartedly supported the BJP because it had promised to increase daily wages of the tea tribes from Rs. 138 to Rs. 351.33. The number of people belonging to tea tribes is reportedly a whopping 60 lakh in the state. Currently, the average daily wage of a tea-estate worker is no more than Rs.150 in the Barak valley — or even less — while it is slightly more in the Brahmaputra valley, where it is Rs.167 at places such as Panitola Tea Estate in Tinsukia district, parts of which are also going to polls on April 11.
"If the wage increases, we can at least get our children educated and get proper medical treatment too," said Menoka Ekka from Panitola Tea Estate.
Demands of Tea Tribes: Higher Wages and Arrears
Besides the demand for daily wage hike, arrears from March 2018 to July 2018 is another important aspect of the recent surge of agitation in the run up to the polls. Almost all the tea estates increased the daily wage from Rs. 138 to Rs.167 in upper Assam in March 2018 but implemented it in August 2018 — but all this was done on paper only. The workers are yet to receive a single rupee of the back wages.
Also Read: Tea Workers Demand Hike in Minimum Wages in India
Unfortunately, neither the Dibrugarh BJP candidate Rameshwar Teli nor his party have responded to the demands. The anti-BJP campaign, which kicked off from Dibrugarh constituency, is likely to spread rapidly in other constituencies of upper Assam too. There is little time left for the ruling BJP — both in the centre and the state — to make any move to quell the agitation. In such a scenario, the fate of BJP or any other national party seems to be hanging in balance because tea tribes comprise a significant population in all the five constituencies going for polls on April 11.
Balindra Saikia of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist-Liberation), who has been closely working with the tea estate workers, said, "Even though the BJP brought about some schemes such as road construction in the tea estates, giving free rice to tea tribes and giving a dole of Rs. 5,000, it has still not fulfilled even the basic needs and its own promise to increase the daily wage to Rs. 351.33, nor has it directed that pending arrears, which amount to Rs. 5,000 per worker, be paid. If aggregated, this amount will be nearly Rs. 500 crore. On these two basic issues, the BJP has maintained complete silence."
With the existing daily wage, the workers get a sum of Rs. 1,689.40 quarterly, while the actual wage stands at Rs. 2,004 for 12 days' work. The regular deductions are for provident fund (Rs. 255.64), union fee (Rs. 20), and daily ration (Rs.3.24 X 12 = Rs. 38.88). Apart from these, there may be medical or Provident Fund loans or festival-related cost deductions too. In some areas, managements deduct house rent too. NewsClick obtained a pay slip, which shows that one worker received net pay of only Rs. 1,540 in a quarter, which makes his daily earning only Rs.102.67.
BJP's Dole of Free Rice and Rs. 5,000
Even though the BJP-led state government has announced the first instalment of Rs. 2,500 and free rice for every worker, most of the workers are yet to actually receive the money. The workers got 5 kg free rice only once in March 2019. However, there are deviations here too, as Sukru Mahali of Panitola Tea Estate said, "While giving away free rice to a family of seven, they struck off the names of two members from the list, without any explanation."
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Even those who did receive the first instalment of the said Rs 5,000 dole, they are still to actually draw the money from banks because their ATM cards are yet to be activated. They often go to the local customer service points (CSPs) of banks, where they are told to come some other day, citing the crowd gathering there. This way, the workers miss the day's wage too, as they are marked absent for the day. Some workers did not receive the money even on paper, as a female worker of Panitola Tea Estate complained.
The lack of patta, or the document of land rights, is another burning issue among tea tribes. The tea tribes have been living in the areas for generations, maybe even more than 100 or 150 years, while the estate owners are relatively new in the areas. They bought the estates from British owners after Independence. Yet, the workers do not have any right on their ancestral lands. The tea-estate managements give houses only to permanent workers, but even they are deprived in some cases. Methoo Mahali, who has been working for more than 15 years in Panitola Tea Estate as a permanent worker, is still awaiting a house. "I have made a bamboo house here, but we do not have toilets. There are tube wells in the area, but we had to install them on our own. The company has not given us anything."
Lack of proper education is a major concern for the tea workers. There are schools, but the pupil–teacher ratio (PTR) is extremely high. In Jorhat constituency's Rajoi Tea Estate, at a lower primary school, there are only two teachers for 139 students. At the Hindubari Bagan Lower Primary School, there are only two teachers for 55 students, including the head teacher, while there is no electricity in the school, and there are no provisions for safe drinking water or lavatory for the children.
In addition, medium of instruction in schools is a problem causing low attendance and high drop out rates. Although different tribes and castes have their own languages, depending on their places of origin, Sadri or Bhojpuri languages are usually spoken at home. But the medium of instruction in schools is Assamese in Upper Assam and Bengali in the Barak Valley region.
Healthcare and Hooch
Lack of proper healthcare facilities also make a significant impact on the tea tribes. There are company-owned health centres, but they provide people with only basic facilities and government-provided free medicines. If people get extremely sick, they have to be taken to the government health centres, which can cost as much as Rs. 700 just for a one-way trip.
Country liquor or hooch related, tragedies are also common in the tea-tribe belts of Assam. In the latest Assam hooch tragedy on February 21–25, 2019, at least 168 people — mostly tea workers, including women, lost lives owing to alcohol poisonings — in the districts of Jorhat and Golaghat. The ruling BJP government is yet to trace the origin of the tragedy or the culprits behind. Talking to this reporter, Panitola Tea Estate women folk said that hooch comes to their area from outside vendors and that they want a complete ban on liquor.
As the political parties are counting days for the polling, the revolt of the tea tribes is also gaining momentum. The big question remains hanging — to which party will the tea tribes vote for? Only time will tell, if the fate of the tea tribes will change or not.
The writer is an independent content management consultant based in Assam.
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