‘I am a worker, I can feel their pain’: John Barla

Jalpaiguri | By
Jul 15, 2019 07:20 AM IST

John Barla plunged into local politics in 2007, joining the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP).

When John Barla dropped out of high school in 1990, he never imagined that he would one day be sitting in Parliament. The son of tea garden workers from a tribe that was uprooted from its homeland in what is now Jharkhand and made to settle in the foothills of the Himalayas by the British, 14-year-old Barla had little choice but to follow his friends and relatives into a tea garden job in north Bengal’s Dooars region. “We had been doing this job for four generations. I never thought I would it make out of the garden,” said the first-time member of Parliament from the Alipurduars Lok Sabha seat, reserved for scheduled tribes.


Like most of the one-million-strong labour force of British-era tea estates in north Bengal and Assam, Barla’s parents owned little besides meagre savings to see them through their old age. Their cramped two-bedroom house, where Barla, 43, still lives, was provided by the Lakhipara tea estate and, therefore, is contingent on the family continuing to pick tea leaves. Barla started helping around the estate, but soon felt restless. Around him, ambitious young people left homes to pursue their dreams in newly liberalised India, while his friends languished as jobs shrunk in industry-starved north Bengal. “It felt like we didn’t have the right to become doctors or engineers.”

He plunged into local politics in 2007, joining the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP). A few political somersaults later — he briefly flirted with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) before dumping them — the tribal leader joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. Three years later, he delivered to the saffron party the Alipurduars seat with a margin of 243,000 on the back of his dense network among tea garden workers, local tribals, and labour unions.

“My job in Delhi is to convince the Prime Minister that the tea garden workers are suffering. My job is to ensure that the next generation of tribals has a better future,” said Barla.


Set in the verdant foothills of the Himalaya, in the scenic Dooars region of Jalpaiguri district, Lakhipara tea estate is almost 150 years old. The weather is pristine, light showers are common, and cool gusts of wind blowing from the Teesta river have made it an ideal destination for tourists for at least a century.

Lakhipara is run by the Goodricke Tea Company, a British-era firm that is now headquartered in Bengal with the fragrant Darjeeling tea among its specialties. The estate is home to roughly 3,000 workers and is situated off the national highway near the Bhutan border.

Rusting wrought-iron gates lead the visitor into picturesque fields of tea bushes, decaying buildings, and a township complete with a school, playground, church and temple. Everything carries a faint whiff of British nostalgia, and some of the workers, such as Vijay Mirdha and Amar Darji, fondly remember the times of “Burra Sahib”. But the scenic gardens are slowly turning into silent graveyards. In 2014, local activists and media reported that more than 100 workers died of starvation and though the state government challenged the figures, reports blamed nosediving wages and closure of at least 28 gardens for the chronic malnutrition.

The tea industry in India is 180 years old, but has been roiled since the 1990s as exports slumped. Poor management and obsolete trade practices meant the notoriously labour-intensive industry failed to keep in step with global trends, sparking a health and humanitarian crisis.

Ratna Sen, a former professor at the Kolkata-based Indian Institute of Social Welfare & Business Management, noted that lax laws meant managements could easily abandon gardens once the finances became tight while workers, who were isolated, had no access to alternative employment. “We have worked here for five generations but are not sure of our benefits. We are so poor that we cannot get our children good education,” explained Darji, who just finished his 34th year working at the estate.

Barla blames the state government’s education policy for this plight of tribals, who make up roughly two of every three tea garden workers. Many tribespeople, with their homes originally in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh or the Chhota Nagpur plateau, speak Hindi. “There was only one Hindi-medium higher secondary school, and we would never get board exam question papers in Hindi. It was a ploy to keep us enslaved. After a decade of struggle, we got more schools, and in one year, the pass percentage jumped.”

Language is one facet of their long-held local resentment against Bengali elites. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s stoked it further during the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign when she called on all Bengali residents to speak in Bangla. “How can you ask us to speak Bengali? We are not outsiders, we have been here for 200 years,” Barla fumed.


Barla joined the BJP in 2014. “At the time, the party didn’t even have people to man local booths. Our people would go from door to door, telling people about the lotus, and making the BJP popular.” He contested the 2016 assembly elections from Nagrakata but lost.

In 2018, before the panchayat elections, Barla was arrested and thrown in jail. He claimed vendetta while the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) said he was bent on destroying law-and-order. When he came out, he had nine cases against him — ranging from theft to illegal assembly and attempt to murder. But Barla was unfazed, and linked his struggle to those of his idols: legendary freedom fighter Birsa Munda, and former Union minister Kartik Oraon.

During his campaign, he focused on simmering anger over closed tea gardens, language politics, and so-called illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. In speech after speech, he spewed vitriol against “Rohingyas, and migrants”, who, he claimed, took over local jobs. “This is why we need NRC. In every town here, there are Bangladeshi, they are eating us up.”

The National Register of Citizens aims to identify illegal migrants and is currently underway in neighbouring Assam. His campaign also rested on hammering the TMC on its “corruption”, which many experts believe undid Banerjee’s many visits, special endowments (she claims to have spent R1,000 crore for the area) and outreach programmes.

“Every monsoon, the local rivers from Sikkim wash away many homes and flood banks. Every year, dams and embankments are built but the Trinamool contractors force substandard material so they are breached again and again,” Barla proffered an example.

Barla’s victory is representative of the BJP’s new formula in Bengal, where it was always seen as a north Indian party with no real roots in the state, that helped the party post its best-ever results: induct grassroots leaders who have strong community bases, reach out to newer demographics, and present local leadership alternatives to the TMC. “That the BJP gave someone like me a ticket exposes the propaganda of the Opposition,” Barla, a tribal and Christian, reasoned.

For now, his focus is on getting tea garden workers deeds for the land they live on, tripling the daily wage, which stands at ~176. He says he is willing to work closely with even the Trinamool administration to get benefits for workers.

“I am a worker, I understand the pain of these workers. Modi-ji has vision. He works. We have organisation. Together we will change the face of tea gardens.”

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    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

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