While India celebrated 70 years of independence, there is still an isolated community bearing the tyranny of slavery. It is the tea tribe community, also known as Adivasis.
Their whole world is confined within the perimeter of the tea estates in Assam. They have been a victim of exploitation since the days of the British Raj. These Adivasis are migrant workers from Santhal, Mundas and Gonds tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha whose forefathers were brought into Assam’s tea industry in the late 1870s by the British.
My attention goes to the women working in the fields, plucking tea leaves. They carry huge baskets on their back and wear a japi (a hat made of bamboo) on their heads, to save themselves from the scorching heat or rain while they are at work. Their wage depends upon the weight of tea leaves they collect at the end of the day.
What they earn, they consume it entirely, hardly leaving any surplus for savings. These Adivasis are completely isolated from financial inclusion. Therefore, even if they get sick or become pregnant, they have to work.
While working in the fields, they do not get any safety apparatus. During the year, at times, a patch of red layer develops on the tea leaves due to a bacteria. It destroys the quality of the tea leaves. To prevent this menace, a massive amount of pesticides is sprayed. These pesticides enter their body via respiration and create numerous hazardous diseases in their body.
The most common disease among Adivasi women is anaemia, and in the tea estates of Assam, where overall malnutrition is at its peak, it is fatal. Moreover, low haemoglobin levels make it increasingly difficult for doctors to save patients in cases of postpartum haemorrhaging.
In the evening, the tea labourers, who worked day long in the fields, are given tea. This tea has a high amount of salt, a habit imposed by the British to counter dehydration that comes from working under the scorching sun for a long duration. But the horrific side-effect of this habit is high blood pressure in pregnant women leading to eclampsia.
The mother of a newborn does not get maternity leave from the tea estate. They are expected to join their work at the earliest. Many times, women bring their children to work. Only few tea estates provide creche. These mothers suffering from anaemia cannot produce sufficient breast-milk for their babies and feed the powder milk.
Many times, due to unhygienic conditions and malnourishment, babies start suffering from diseases like tuberculosis. These cases of tuberculosis are common among children, highlighting the concern over the alarming rate of infant mortality in the state.
An average male labourer working in a tea estate of Assam gets minimal wages. There do exist pay gaps as women are given lesser wages than men. Many Adivasi women do not have access to sanitary napkins. There is a common practice of washing a piece of cloth in hot water and using it as an alternative for a sanitary napkin. Moreover, there is no empathy for those women who have to work hard in the fields even while they’re on their periods to get their wage and run their family. There are no NGOs or watchdog agencies in the premises of tea estates who can monitor the rights and interests of women in a tea estate.
A tea estate in Assam is isolated from the realm of traditional media. The last time, a BBC journalist and his crew entered a tea estate in Assam to show the ground reality, they were warned by the management to stop filming as these tea estates are ‘private properties’ and filming or documenting amounts to the ‘trespassing of private property’.
This issue of Adivasi women living in the tea estates of Assam and the injustices done to them is grievous. We have numerous panel discussions on gender equality and pay gaps, but we tend to focus only on the urban, semi-urban or rural areas completely overlooking the plight of such isolated communities residing in remote areas where TV cameras do not reach.