Assam: Politics over tea, wages and a court order in poll season | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Assam: Politics over tea, wages and a court order in poll season

Mar 18, 2021 07:18 PM IST

The community of tea workers in Assam was traditionally considered a Congress vote bank. But in the past few years, the BJP has been able to make inroads.

On Tuesday, the Gauhati high court directed the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Assam not to take coercive action against tea garden owners over non-compliance of a recent order to increase daily wages of tea-garden workers in the state.

Tea garden workers have been demanding an increase in daily wages for some time now. (HT Photo)
Tea garden workers have been demanding an increase in daily wages for some time now. (HT Photo)

Acting on a petition by Indian Tea Association, the biggest organisation of tea producers in India, and 17 other petitioners, justice Michael Zothankhuma ruled that tea garden owners were at liberty to pay workers any interim enhancement of wages, they deemed proper, till the issue was decided by the court.

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The order follows another one by the court a few days back, staying the government order in February to raise daily wages of tea workers by 50, from 167 to 217. The move ahead of the assembly polls was aimed at wooing the tea-tribe community. The ITA and other tea planters approached the court challenging the order.

While the court directive comes as a relief for tea planters, it might not be so for two major political parties in the poll-bound state-- the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress. While the saffron outfit announced an increase in daily wages (and also daily ration allowance of 101, taking the total to 318 per day), the Congress said it guaranteed an increase in daily wages to 365 if it came to power in Assam.

Significantly, the HC fixed the next date of hearing in the present case on April 23, by which time, polling in Assam will be over. The state goes to polls in three phases on March 27, April 1 and April 6.

Tea-tribe and Politics

Tea-tribes as they are called in Assam are a community of workers or families of former workers in tea-gardens, spread across most districts of Upper Assam. The workers were brought here from West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh etc in several phases from the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries by British tea planters. Over the years, the community has grown and at present it comprises around 17% of Assam’s total population of 31 million.

Around a million of them are still employed in the 800 big gardens, some in small tea holdings, while some have left work in tea gardens for other professions. Due to their sizable numbers, the community plays a key role in outcome on around 35-40 of the total 126 assembly seats. Political parties routinely give tickets to members of the community and over the past decades, several of them have become ministers in both the state and Central governments. But the lot of most members of the community hasn’t improved much as their health, education and sanitation levels are still poor, making them one of the most marginalised sections despite their numbers.

The community was traditionally considered a Congress vote bank. But in the past few years, the BJP has been able to make inroads. In the first phase, polling will take place in 47 seats in the tea-rich belt. In 2016, when BJP came to power for the first time, the party along with ally Asom Gana Parishad won 35 of these seats (BJP alone won 27). Since coming to power, the BJP-led government has launched many schemes targeting the tea-tribe community, including promise of granting them scheduled tribe status, cash benefits to pregnant women, reservation of seats in educational institutions, setting up schools in tea gardens as well as providing mobile phones, bicycles, money to meritorious students and funds to youths to set up small businesses.

“We have been implementing several schemes for the tea-tribes community over the years. The schemes have earned heavy praise from members of the community,” finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told the state assembly last month, while presenting a vote on account. He mentioned how the government has opened 730,000 bank accounts for tea workers and transferred 2500 to each account in two tranches and 3000 in the third tranche.

Organisations of tea garden workers have been demanding an increase in the daily wages to 351 for long. In 2018, the state government in an interim order increased daily wages of tea workers by 30 from 137 to 167. While the earlier order was yet to be notified, another interim order was issued in February this year, taking the total hike to 80. The move came a few days after the Congress promised to increase the daily wages of tea workers to 365.

Accusing the ruling BJP-led government in the state of exploiting the tea garden workers and giving benefit to businessmen from Gujarat, Rahul Gandhi promised at a rally in Sivasagar on February 14 that if the Congress returned to power in the state it will increase daily wage of tea workers from present 167 to 365. During her visit to Assam a few days after her brother, Priyanka Gandhi also made it a point to visit homes of tea workers, interact with them and even pluck tea leaves.

The tea tribe community has two Lok Sabha MPs and one in Rajya Sabha, all three are from the BJP. One of them Rameshwar Teli is also a minister in the Narendra Modi government. In this election, BJP has given tickets to four members from the community, including two sitting MLAs. State minister Sanjay Kishan from Tinsukia is one of them. On the other hand, Congress has given tickets to six tea tribe members including three sitting legislators.

Daily Wages and Economics

While political parties try to woo tea workers with promises of increased wages and other schemes, the tea industry, which is trying to recover after the loss of production due to Covid-19 lockdown and other restrictions, feels interventions by governments could hurt the industry more. Assam produces more than half of India’s total tea output. On an average, the 180-year-old industry produces around 650-700 million kg of tea annually. While around half of this comes from the 800 big gardens, small tea growers, who are nearly 70,000 in number, account for the rest. As tea production is a labour intensive industry which involves plucking of tea leaves by workers, nearly half of the costs of companies goes to paying wages.

“Nearly 60-70% of our expenses go on the salaries of workers. Earlier, wages were decided between workers and the tea garden owners through discussions. But now political parties have stepped in for political reasons. There can’t be a sweeping order as all gardens have different issues, cost of production and profits. We also know workers need more money, but to do that, we also need more money. Any increase in wages has to be feasible and should not break the industry itself. That’s why we went to court against the government’s interim order hiking wages to 217,” said Deboshyam Barua, director of Golaghat-based Dalowjan tea estate and also an office-bearer of Assam Tea Planters Association.

“The price of tea hasn’t increased significantly in the past two decades. Some argue that tea-gardens in south India pay much higher wages, so why can’t we? But, while gardens there produce tea almost throughout the year, we do so for a few months. During our meetings with the government, we had suggested that the industry will be able to pay around 197 daily to workers. We said that anything higher than that will affect the industry adversely. But the government decided to hike it to 217 and pushed us to seek relief from court,” he added.

Assam Chah Mazdoor Sanga (ACMS), the most prominent tea workers’ body (affiliated to Congress) accuses the BJP government of playing politics over wages without having any serious intention of implementing it. The government’s move to increase wages by issuing interim orders without notifying them is seen as an attempt in that regard.

“The government has been issuing interim orders on wages, the latest one issued days prior to the announcement of polls. Tea gardens found flaws in the order on technical grounds and went to the court, which in turn stayed the government move,” said Pawan Singh Ghatowar, president of ACMS, which is also a party to the HC petition. One of the most prominent politicians from the tea-tribe community, Ghatowar has been elected an MP from Congress five times and was also a union minister.

“If the tea industry in Kerala can pay 380 daily to workers, why can’t we do it in Assam? The government should also come to the aid of nearly 500,000 workers in small tea gardens, who don’t have any provision of minimum wages or other benefits that workers in big gardens get. A minimum wage for them should also be fixed. If the government can fix wages of those in the unorganized sector why should workers in small tea gardens be left out?” he questioned.

Amidst all this, the Assam Tea Tribes Students Association (ATTSA), a student body of the tea community, has called for a complete shutdown of tea gardens across Assam on March 22 in protest against the state government’s alleged negligence towards tea garden workers.

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