Politicians Want Their Votes, But Provide no Relief for Assam’s Tea Garden Workers

The life of a tea garden labourer in Assam is fraught with challenges that no political party is willing to address.

A tea garden worker holds a bunch of plucked tea leaves inside Aideobarie Tea Estate in Jorhat in Assam, India, April 21, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

A tea garden worker holds a bunch of plucked tea leaves inside Aideobarie Tea Estate in Jorhat in Assam, India, April 21, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

Fifty-two-year-old tea garden labourer Dulu Karmakar has never seen a below poverty line (BPL) card. “I have only heard from friends who sometimes go outside (the labourer colony) to work as daily wagers that something like that exists,” he says.

Issued by the Assam government as part of a central scheme to anyone who earns less than 10,000 rupees per month so that they can access the welfare schemes meant for the poor, that card should have ideally been with Dulu since he earns 3,600 rupees a month.

But he is not in an ideal situation. The worker from Chabua Tea Estate in Upper Assam lives inside the plantation area (locally referred to as the labour or coolie line) which does not fall under the purview of the Panchayati Raj system of governance. This deprives not just Dulu, but scores of fellow tea garden workers living within the nearly 800 registered tea gardens of the state from availing the benefits of central and state government welfare schemes, even though they live in abject poverty. The reason for this is that the tea garden labour lines are considered neither urban nor rural on government land records. They have not even been declared habitat villages within the tea gardens. So, it’s not just the BPL Card – labourers, ex-labourers and their families living on tea garden land don’t have government ration cards either.

In the just-concluded state assembly elections, there was a fierce tug of war between the two main contenders – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress – to corner the votes of the tea garden community, which are estimated at 60 lakh. The parties are obviously interested only in gathering their votes since the community, also known as the tea tribe, plays a decisive role in 35 of the 126 assembly seats. However, no one raised this crucial aspect related to the basic rights of tea garden labourers as a political issue affecting citizens. 

The community traces its origins to indentured labourers brought to the state by the East India Company in the late 19th and early 20th century, mostly from the Santhal Parganas district of modern-day Jharkhand, and other places like Chota Nagpur and Singbhum in present-day Chhattisgarh and Telangana. It is mostly found in the seven districts of upper Assam. These districts – Golaghat, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji – are filled with sprawling tea gardens. The community also has some presence in the Sonitpur and Cachar districts.

Not just this time, but during every election, the community is the subject of public focus. However, this does not better its situation in any way. The community’s destitution stems from a colonial legacy, still reflected in the fact that its members are referred to locally as ‘coolies’. Illiteracy, poverty, the men’s addiction to country liquor, poor standards of living and limited health facilities are part and parcel of the community’s life. The constant exploitation by employers often leads to violent clashes in the tea gardens. In a paper entitled Adivasi Struggle in Assam, published in The Economic and Political Weekly, Udayon Misra points out that there are instances of employers refusing to supply life-saving drugs to workers dying of epidemics.

The living quarters that this writer visited in four tea estates in Assam’s Dibrugarh district consist mostly of kutcha houses with thatched roofs. They are cramped, and have cracked walls and broken roofs. The broken latrines have created cesspools running through the labour lines. This despite the fact that the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, requires that the management must provide housing facilities for permanent workers and their families.

Most people in the community own no land. Just before the state assembly elections, the Congress promised that it would facilitate the ownership of land, and also give 25,000 rupees to each family to build a house. The party also promised to provide drinking water and a public bus service for students from the community to commute to nearby educational institutions. In its vision document for the state, the BJP also promised that it would give land to the tea tribe.

The labour lines in the tea gardens are not covered by any subsidised rural electrification schemes, a facility enjoyed by the BPL population. The consequences of this are palpable. The labour quarters in the Muttuck Tea Estate, nine kilometers from Dibrugarh city, have had no electricity for the last five years because labourers can’t afford to pay the sum that employers demand from them.

Forty-five-year-old Rupesh Kurmi, an employee of the tea estate for the last 15 years, says: “The management began deducting around 400 to 800 rupees from our monthly wage in the name of electricity. So we decided not to have electricity in our dwellings.”

In the litany of the poll promises made by both Congress and the BJP, there was also mention of complete electrification of the labour lines. However, neither of them had anything specific to say about increasing the literacy rate of the tribe, which is a mere 25%, as opposed to the state average of 73%.

There are many factors contributing to this dismal percentage. While there is provision for only primary schools in most gardens, for anything higher than that, children have to travel a long distance. There is not a single tea garden in Assam which has a high or higher secondary school. Sending the children to schools in nearby villages and towns becomes difficult for labourers’ families because of poor connectivity.

Also, there is high absence rate among the teachers in primary schools run by the garden management. About 50% of the teachers work only half the time, because they work as labourers in the other half of the day. In most cases, the management appoints a literate labourer as a teacher instead of hiring someone from outside.

A 33-year-old worker in the Chabua Tea Estate, Kaberi, says, “While I am a casual worker, my husband Sonu (40) is a permanent labourer of the estate. Both of us are illiterate. We have seven children, three boys and four girls. Our eldest daughter Sumon is 13, and she too works in the tea plantation.” Some 10 to 15 years ago, the crèche meant for the children of the workers closed down. “So during the peak plucking season, women workers also have to take care of their kids,” says Kaberi.

A 2013 study by the National Foundation of India and The Ant showed that 38.5% children of the tea tribe community in the 2-5 year-age group had stunted growth. The study also mentioned the prevalence of wasting (low weight for height) among 10.4% of the people of the tribe.

In such a scenario, in 2014, the Narendra Modi government stopped the monthly allocation of the additional quota of 7600 metric tonnes of rice and 5000 metric tonnes of wheat to the tea gardens. This quota was used by the employers to provide subsidised ration to the labourers. The government’s decision created a hue and cry in the community.

Royal Soreng, an activist associated with Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in the Rongapara area of Sonitpur district, led many agitations against the decision. Soreng and fellow agitators fear it will cause many people in the labour lines to die of starvation. The Congress-dominated trade union Assam Chah Majdoor Sangh (ACMS), which enjoys considerable influence in the community, moved the Gauhati High Court to get the order suspended. This January, the high court suspended the order. Undoubtedly, the Congress hoped that this would get them votes during the elections.

Long concerned about its condition, the community has been demanding Scheduled Tribe status, which people belonging to the community enjoy in their states of origin. While the Congress has been promising this for a while without results, the BJP too joined in just before the 2014 parliamentary elections. Though the assurances brought huge dividends to the BJP and helped it to cause a severe erosion in the otherwise traditional strongholds of the Congress, the demand has not yet been fulfilled.

(The writer visited Chabua, Ethelwood, Naduwa and Muttock tea estates in Assam’s Dibrugarh district.)