Only Thing Defaming Chai is Plight of Assam’s Tea Garden Workers

Daily wage for tea garden workers in Assam is Rs 167 per day, half of what it is in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Updated
Politics
4 min read
At a rally in Assam’s Dhekiajuli on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that ‘forces abroad were conspiring to tarnish the image of Indian tea’.
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At a rally in Assam's Dhekiajuli on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed, "Forces abroad were conspiring to tarnish the image of Indian tea."

“I want to tell you about a conspiracy hatched to defame the country. The conspirators have not even spared Indian tea. They are saying the image of Indian tea has to be defamed worldwide, systematically,” PM Modi said.

The comment appears to have been a response to the ‘toolkit’ shared by activist Greta Thunberg, which allegedly spoke about aspects like yoga and tea adding to India's soft power.

However, the fact that the PM chose to make this ‘conspiracy against tea’ remark in poll-bound Assam indicates that this is an attempt to reach out to the people of the state, which is the largest producer of tea in India.

In particular, the PM seems to be targetting the tea-garden workers, who are an important vote bank in Assam.

What PM Modi missed in his speech, is the sordid plight of the tea-garden workers — in particular their low wages and the difficult work conditions.

The unfortunate truth is that, these poor conditions could be the reason to ‘defame’ Indian tea.

This story will try and answer three questions:

  1. Who are Assam's tea garden workers?
  2. What problems do they face?
  3. Has the BJP government fulfilled its promises to them?

Who Are Assam's Tea Garden Workers?

  • Most of the tea garden workers or tea-tribes as they are often referred to, are originally Adivasis from Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and Bengal taken by the British in the 19th century to work in Assam's tea gardens.
  • By rough estimates, they form around 15 percent of the population in Assam though some estimates put the number as high as 20 percent.
  • Tea tribes have a higher concentration in tea producing districts of Upper Assam like Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Golaghat, Sivasagar and Sonitpur. Naturally, they are an important voting block for all political parties.

What Problems Do They Face?

Wages:

  • Their main demand has been a hike in wages. Presently tea garden workers get Rs 167 per day and are provided residence within the labour lines in tea estates.
  • However, tea garden workers have for long been demanding a wage hike to Rs 351.33, which the BJP government hasn't agreed to so far.
  • Just for the sake of comparison, the daily wage for tea garden workers in Kerala is Rs 380.38. It becomes even higher after adding up other statutory benefits. In Tamil Nadu, the wages are reportedly Rs 333 per day.
  • Even West Bengal has a higher wage than Assam, though it is much lower than Kerala and Tamil Nadu. After a recent hike, the daily wage rate in Bengal is now Rs 202 per day. Before the hike it was Rs 176 per day.
  • In Assam, the plight of temporary workers is even worse. Temporary workers, who form close to 70 percent of the total workers during the peak plucking season, are getting just Rs 135 and are deprived of even the minimal housing and healthcare facilities given to regular workers.

Reservation and Autonomous Council:

  • Though tea garden workers belonging to Adivasi communities may have Scheduled Tribe status in the states of their origin, they are denied the same in Assam. They have been provided OBC status.
  • Tea tribes have been demanding ST status or a separate quota for many years. Tea Tribes Advasi Autonomous Council Demand Committee, Assam have demanded 30 percent reservation.
  • The main demand of the council is of course for a separate Autonomous Council in the tea producing areas, on the lines of the Bodoland Territorial Council and the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council.

Working Conditions:

The tea garden workers work under very difficult conditions.

  • According to a report by the International Labour Organisation, "Typical violation of workers’ rights on tea plantations in Assam, India and Kericho, Kenya, include denial of healthcare and subsidised food, inadequate provision of housing and water, and sexual harassment. Wages are significantly below living wages and bad working conditions in turn lead to widespread malnutrition in main tea-producing regions."
  • A report submitted to the Women and Child Development Ministry in 2017 said that 89 percent of tea gardens didn't have sanitation facilities.
  • The report also said that 84 percent of the women workers said they had to work even during menstrual periods and also that creche facilites for children were inadequate.

What Has BJP Government Done?

  • The BJP government in Assam and the Centre have been criticised for not doing enough for tea garden workers.
  • For instance, during the 2016 election campaign the BJP had promised to hike the daily wage for tea garden workers from Rs 137 per day to Rs 351.33. But after coming to power, all that the workers got was a hike of Rs 30. The current wage is Rs 167 per day.
  • The wages of temporary workers remain low and they continue to be denied many of the facilities given to regular workers.
  • The demand for reservation has also not been implemented.
  • In the recent Budget, the Modi government announced an allocation of Rs 1,000 crore for the welfare of tea garden workers in Assam and West Bengal.
  • The state government on 7 February also provided financial assistance of Rs 3,000 to 7.46 lakh tea garden workers, as part of the third phase of Chah Bagicha Dhan Puraskar Mela.
  • In the first phase in 2017-18, an amount of Rs 2,500 was provided to 6.33 lakh tea garden workers holding bank accounts and in the second phase in 2018-19 Rs 2500 was deposited in the accounts of 7.15 lakh workers.
  • However, workers' unions point out that this assistance doesn't solve the fundamental issue of low wages and poor working conditions.
  • Assam's Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that a wage hike will be announced in the next ten days. This may be just before the announcement of the model code of conduct by the Election Commission.
  • Whether the hike is sufficient and brings about a change in plight of tea garden workers remains to be seen.

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