By Nupur Das:
Relishing over a cup of tea is a household phenomenon worldwide. The lashing tea garden might provide serenity to us and taking snaps with the tea gardens in background might be joyful but that is not the end to the story of the tea gardens of Assam. For here, I can vouch that many of us are unaware of the level of exploitation and trouble the tea garden workers undergo. Assam‘s biggest contribution to the world has been its tea and amounts half of India’s total tea production. Tea is grown in almost 27 districts of the state and employs about 2 million people directly or indirectly, of which nearly 50 percent of the work force in the tea gardens are women. Here lies a story of oppression since 200 years when the tea plantation industry was set up by the colonial powers. Even after independence nothing substantial has been done neither by the State nor the Central government to address their problems. The workers were ferried from the states of Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar comprising of the Adivasi tribe due to the shortage and unwillingness to work of the local workforce at that time.
Hunger deaths, domestic violence, low wages and other health concerns like stress and malnourished tea pluckers are serious cause of concern. Surveys conducted by various NGOs have found out that being underweight and anemic is very common amongst the women folk, while infant and maternal mortality rate has always remained high. On the other hand, deaths have occurred due to the excessive consumption of alcohol (locally prepared). Many a times hunger or starvation deaths have also been reported, which is so because of the abandoning of the workers by their respective tea garden owners or manager without paying their dues and salaries, when they aren’t able to find alternatives to earn their livelihood. The workers are also paid below the statutory minimum wages level ranging from 40-60 rupees per day(women are generally paid less than the men folk) depending upon the nature of work and the mercy of the tea garden managers or owners. The minimal wages to the labourers don’t allow them to get access to proper medical facilities and nutritious food. The workers sometimes being unable to bear the burden of maintaining their children are compelled to send them to neighbouring town and villages to work as domestic help or as any other unskilled labourer. This leads to a large number of school dropouts, ultimately creating an unskilled labour force for the country. The general appearance of the tea pluckers is sickly and lustreless as they are overburdened with work and lot of stress.
Last year, in an unfortunate incident in Tinsukia district of Assam about 1000 agitated workers of a tea estate marched up to the owner’s bungalow and burnt alive its owner and his wife, which is condemnable and inhuman act. But when we get to know the flip side of the story the matter seems to be more serious than it appears to be. The workers allege that the deceased used to exploit them to the fullest and even physically abuse them at times. He was also accused of serving eviction notice to two of its workers to vacate the quarters, on refusing to which the workers were forcibly thrown out with the help of local police forces. Out of anger which was accumulated from a long time the workers committed this crime.
Political parties have wooed the voters of tea belt areas and despite having many representatives from the tea belts the agony of the workers are never healed. Here in many places of the tea belts, Central government schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) are not implemented properly. The workers are merely looked upon as vote banks by the political class and petty initiatives have been taken to emancipate this oppressed section of the society.
On a closing note, a song of the musical icon of Assam, late Dr. Bhupen Hazarika- “Ek Kali do Patiyyan Najuk Najuk ungliya..” comes to my mind which portrayed a glorious picture of the tea gardens but would not match with the contemporary situation where hundreds of families are living below the poverty line.