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Assam’s Tea Tribes: Merely Vote Bank or Do They Really Matter?

A critical vote bank in 40 constituencies, Assam’s tea tribes are suffering from low wages & poor living conditions.

Updated
News Videos
3 min read

Cameraperson: Tridip K Mandal
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

“This cup of tea will cost around Rs 200 in Delhi or Mumbai. I wouldn’t be able to afford this cup of tea even if I work for 8 hours.”
George Lagun, Tea Garden Labourer

Sitting outside his one-room mud hut in Assam’s Sonitpur district, George Lagun is holding a clay teacup that this correspondent has carried all the way from Delhi.

He’s surprised that a cup of tea could cost Rs 200 at a fancy café in India’s metros. It’s more expensive than the Rs 167 he earns after working eight hours a day in a tea garden.

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Lagun belongs to Assam’s ‘tea tribe’ – a term used to represent the tribals or ‘Adivasis’ who work in the eight hundred tea estates of the state. They are originally tribals from Odisha, Jharkhand, and Bengal. The British brought them to Assam in the late 19th century to work at the tea plantations here.

Today, this community of tea workers is a critical vote bank in almost 40 constituencies of Assam, their vote is essential for a win. However, they claim that in return, they haven’t got much from the political leaders they have elected to the Legislative Assembly and the Parliament.

“We vote for them. Then they become big and powerful. They take the vote from us. But after that they forget about us.”[sic.]
Mono, Tea Garden Temporary Labourer

For long, labourers like Mono have been demanding an increase in their daily wage. They want to be paid Rs 351.33, which even though is not at par with their counterparts in Kerala – Rs 380.38 – it is still a huge increase from what they get paid at present.

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.

“We are poor and uneducated. Shouldn’t we have dreams? We also want to give good education to our children. But our dreams will never get fulfilled.”
Mono, Tea Garden Temporary Labourer

Another long-standing demand has been for the status of Scheduled Tribe. Though tea garden workers belonging to Adivasi communities may have the Scheduled Tribe status in the states of their origin, they are denied the same in Assam. They have been provided the OBC status.

“When Congress was in power, we should have got the ST status. But they didn’t give it to us. The Modi government said they will give us ST status. Even they didn’t give it.”
George Lagun, Tea Garden Labourer

The Assam government on 7 February also provided a financial assistance of Rs 3,000 to each of the 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 2,500 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.

Just before the elections were announced, the BJP government in Assam increased the wages of plantation workers by Rs 50.

However on 16 March, the Gauhati High Court effectively nullified this wage hike by giving tea estate owners in Assam the “liberty” to decide if they want to follow the state government’s order or not.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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