When in tea gardens, talk about selling tea.
On March 25, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Assam’s Tinsukia he did just that. Directed at the people living in the tea belt of upper Assam, his speech included a familiar tale of a chaiwallah.
“When I was a tea-seller, it was Assam tea I sold which refreshed people. I owe a debt to Assam for that,” Modi had said.
But the PM refrained from mentioning the plight of the Assam’s tea garden workers, the work force behind his favourite tea.
Modi’s relationship with tea has been emphasised – often by the PM himself – time and again. Programmes like ‘Chai pe Charcha’ kept that story alive, reminding us of a tea seller who became a prime minister.
He took the same formula to poll-bound Assam, to sway the minds of the tea communities, traditionally a Congress voter base.
Many, however, have questioned whether the prime minister has done anything to pay off that debt.
“If he wanted to give something, we still have our passbooks. We haven’t received anything,” Laxmi Tanti, tea garden worker, said referring to the free accounts they opened under the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojna.
Tanti works eight hours a day, plucking tea leaves at the Chalkhowa tea estate near Dibrugarh.
“We’re still waiting for the promised Rs. 15 lakh,” Gulab Gond, a supervisor in the tea garden, chipped in.
On March 29, Congress president Sonia Gandhi attacked Modi during a rally over his inaction.
“Prime Minister praises Assam tea, but has done nothing to improve the plight of Assam tea garden workers,” she alleged.
But has the Congress?
Yes and no, say members of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), the tea garden workers’ union. ACMS, which has given the Congress leaders like Paban Singh Ghatowar, has been supporting the party and continues to do so in the coming elections.
There are six million plantation workers in Assam who have been demanding a Scheduled Tribe status, which the PM’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised before the Lok Sabha polls.
“The Congress government, too, failed to get this [giving ST status to the tea workers] cleared, that is why today you see a divide within the tea tribe voters,” Nobin Chandra Keot, ACMS secretary, said. “But, whatever has been done, has been done by the Congress government.”
More than the tribal status or the lack of facilities, the current fight between the labour union and the government is for one basic necessity, food. The subsidised ration – rice and wheat flour – given to the tea garden workers was stopped by the Centre last year. The subsidised rate made it possible for the workers to avail rice or wheat flour at 55 paise/kg.
The Centre’s decision was challenged by a petition in the Gauhati high court by ACMS. The court ordered to continue the subsidy, ACMS claims, but the Centre has refrained from implementing it.
To protest against the Centre’s withdrawal of the subsidy, the ACMS took up an agitation programme on February 24 across 800 tea gardens of the state.
Since January, the management at the tea estates say they are facing increased expenses. As per the Plantations Labour Act, 1951, the management is mandated to provide permanent workers with housing facilities, including water and electricity, medical facilities to their families and ration at 55 paisa/kg.
“Our costs have shot up by around 15%,” Samar Jyoti Chaliha, senior manager at Rossell Tea-owned Dikom tea estate, said. “Take into account the gardens in Dooars. What it was and what it has become. The politics, highly unionised workforce, political vote bank, etc finished the tea business there,” he said.
Reports say at least 1200 people have died in 17 tea gardens in north Bengal between 2000 and 2007.
“The government has to take care of them all. But the fact is only a fraction of workers are permanent, rest are just living here,” Chaliha said.
The senior manager estimates that of the 8,000 tea workers in his garden, only 1,200 are permanent, rest are employed temporarily during peak season.
According to an Action Aid report, since legal provisions apply only to permanent labourers, tea companies have been taking on more employees as ‘casual’ labourers who are paid far less.
In addition, ACMS’ Keot mentions several issues that are rampant in the tea gardens, which include malnutrition among children, high mother mortality rate and general maternal health conditions. Women, who work in the gardens through the day and go back to take care of the family, are the worst affected.
According to the National Rural Health Mission, 80% of maternal deaths occur inside plantations, as there are no hospitals in the vicinity or adequate medical help in case of emergencies.
“Doctors are not regular here. The previous one left about four months ago, there has been no replacement since. The company provides us with the medical facilities, but many times we have to go to Dibrugarh to see a doctor,” Bohagi Pande, a tea worker at the Sialkootea tea estate, said.
Pande is a permanent worker, a ‘badli’ or replacement for her father after his retirement. She mentions that provisions are irregular, including her father’s pension.
Meanwhile as the centre, state and tea gardens’ management point fingers at each other, the workers continue to suffer. Largely landless and unskilled, the conditions in the plantations offer no escape route for them.