Though elections are over in Assam but air is still seethes with political tensions. This is probably the most unpredictable electoral battle ever in Assam. In this elections most crucial tug of war between BJP and Congress, was over the vote banks of present and ex tea garden workers, who play deciding role in 35 seats. They are included among what are popularly called the Tea tribes, who are estimated to be about 60 lakhs in Assam.
While political parties are playing over their vote bank, story of Tea Garden workers remains at the margins of the narratives of a globalizing and ‘developed’ India. Almost all of those who were brought to Assam as indentured labourers by the East India Company from 1830’s through 1920’s, mostly from the Santhal Parganas district of Bihar (now in Jharkhand state) and places like Chota Nagpur, Singbhum, Ranchi, Telengana etc. All of them have Schedule Tribe Status in their place of origin. But in Assam that recognition for them still mired in electoral politics. Congress has been promising ST status for them many years. BJP played that promise game more loudly before 2014 General Election. In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP caused severe erosion in the traditional strongholds of the Congress among the tea tribes. Its candidates won in 26 of the about 35 seats where ‘tea tribes’ have decisive numbers. Whereas in 2011 assembly election, Congress had won 26 of those seats ad BJP managed to win only one.
The tea tribes are found mainly in the districts of Darrang, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Jorhat, Golaghat, Dibrugarh, Cachar, Karimganj, Tinsukia. The tea tribes of Assam are among the backward and most exploited tribes in India. Beneath these tug of wars for their vote the plight of everyday life of tea tribe workers show picture of dire destitution, abject poverty and colonial legacy. The tea tribes, being labourers, live in hamlets (Locally called Cooli Line, Coolie is the local name for tea garden workers), inside tea estates (established by tea planters). Violence and agitation of labours against the management is common, where the state machinery normally protects the tea planters (Sahu, 2004). No education, poverty, poor standard of living and impaired health facilities are part and parcel of their life. There are instances when tea planters do not even supply the lifesaving drugs when workers are dying out of epidemics (Misra, 2007-08).
Congress has promised Land for every Tea garden worker family, financial assistance of 25,000 for dwelling, Chief minister’s ‘Bagan Jal Yojana’ for providing drinking water and Public bus services for students of tea garden workers’ family. BJP too has no dearth of Promises. But no vision document deal with one basic discrepancy of governance in tea garden areas. The coolie lines do not fall under the purview of the Panchayati Raj system, the residents here are being deprived of benefits accruing under many Central and State government welfare schemes. The tea garden coolie lines are considered as neither urban nor rural areas. They have not even been declared as habitat villages within the tea gardens, while the labourers residing here are not recognized as Below the Poverty Line (BPL) despite their obvious poverty and poor living conditions. They have thus not received any ration card-cum-identification card mentioning their BPL status. A recent study by NFI (National Foundation of India) in 2013 showed that 38.5 percent children among tea tribe community in 2-5 year age group, were stunted (low height for age). Prevalence of wasting (low weight for height) was found to be 10.4 percent among tea tribe. In such a situation in 2015 Modi Government at centre stopped the monthly allocation of additional quota 7600 metric tone of rice and 5000 metric tone of wheat for tea garden workers which is required for subsidized ration in tea gardens at 50 to 55 paise per kilogram. But Congress controlled trade union Assam Chah Majdoor Sangh (ACMS) moved the court to get that order suspended. Now Congress is hoping to gain ground among tea garden workers on that basis.
The coolie lines in the tea gardens are not covered by any subsidized rural electrification schemes for the BPL population. The Muttuck tea estate, just 9 kilometers away from Dibrugarh town has no electricity for the last 5 years. This time both BJP and Congress have promised complete electrification of coolie lines.
None of the parties have anything concrete to say on the Education policy for Tea Garden workers. The literacy rate of Tea tribe population in Assam is around 25% when that for Assam is 73%. While there is provision for only Primary schools in most of the gardens, for anything higher than that children have to travel a long distance. Not a single Tea Garden in Assam have a High or Higher secondary School. The problems are critical as most of the gardens are located in the isolated places with a very poor connectivity to nearby urban centers and villages. Even when the schools are available there is virtually no public transport available for the children. About 50% of the teachers worked only half time teaching and other half as tea garden worker, since in most cases a literate labourer is appointed as a teacher.
Workers live crowded together in cramped quarters with cracked walls and broken roofs. The permanent workers along with their families are provided with housing facilities by the management under the provision of the Plantation Labour Act (PLA). Most of the tea garden workers still live in kutcha houses, its roof is made of thatch resting on bamboo walls with mud plaster. Latrines have created a vast network of cesspools throughout the labour lines. The crumbling walls and broken roofs in the houses, the unrepaired latrines, the inconsistent supply of water, or the abusive treatment by medical personnel, all of these are feature of their daily life.
Tea Garden workers are still living a “slave like” life for two centuries. Their isolated and socially and economic destitute life still waits for something beyond electoral promises.
(The observations are made by the author in four tea estates in Dibrugarh Districts. The Tea estates are Chabua, Ethelwood, Naduwa and Muttok.)
Fernandes, W., Barbara, S., & Bharali, G. (2003). Children of The Plantation Labourers And Their Right To Education. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre.
Misra, U. (2007-08). Adivasi Struggle in Assam. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, No. 51, 11-14.
Sushant Talukdar, “Assam Poll – high stakes for Congress and BJP”, NEzine.com, 1 April, 2016