Long back, when our forefathers were ruled by the British empire, there were lots of British businessmen who came all the way to Assam for tea plantations. They had huge acres of land for cultivation. However, they needed human resources who could do this huge task.
Thus, they brought a large number of tribal people from Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The lives of this ‘tea tribe’ community got restricted within the perimeters of the tea estate. After all, the tea estate is the private property of the owner, which gives them the power to exploit the Adivasis, flout labour laws, and not provide any basic amenities. Nearly 70 years have passed since independence, but there is hardly any change in the lives of these Adivasis.
Apart from the BBC, rarely has a channel covered the plight of this community – mainly due to the fear that they would have to face the wrath of the tea estate management for even trying to document the ground reality and the exploitation going on in there. Moreover, when it comes to the topic of Adivasis in Assam, it is my opinion that the world only knows about the dance form of jhumur. On the other hand, people generally do not have any idea about the life of the Adivasi whose whole world lies within the fences of the tea estate, completely isolated from the rest of the world.
I am from Assam – and upon a discussion with my friend, Rahul Sutabanshi, a student from the ‘tea tribe’ community, we decided to make a documentary on the government-run primary school in a tea growing region in the state. For this, Rahul suggested a tea estate which brags itself to be India first ‘open defecation free’ tea estate. Along with Rahul, Sanjeev Sawashi, Pijush Ekka and Sanjit Kujur came together to help me make this documentary.
Honestly speaking, we did not procure permission from the management because we knew that they would try their best not to let us even enter the estate. Instead, we gathered whatever limited resources we had and headed directly to the government-run primary school. There, we interviewed the headmaster for a couple of hours.
Now, when you are shooting in a tea estate without the permission of the management, it’s always wise to keep a close eye on the people around you. You wouldn’t really like an informer reporting this incident to the manager – because the manager obviously won’t want trespassers to record acts of exploitation.
Despite the risk, after we completed the shoot, Rahul suggested me to take permission of the manager to investigate more and also ask him pertinent. When we entered the premises, the manager was not at all happy to see us. While asking for permission, he cited how the filming of a BBC documentary was banned here, and other such instances. He said that if we wanted to do research, then we would have to take permission from Assam Branch Indian Tea Association – and depending on their decision, they would allot a tea estate for research. So, he didn’t grant us the permission. But even though we left the estate with a somewhat heavy heart, we weren’t really worried because the shooting had already been completed.
A couple of days later, Rahul called me up to say that the management wanted to meet me and verify my identity. Apparently, they were accusing me of trespassing private property – and if I did not produce my ID proof, they would take legal action.
As it was my first documentary assignment, this wasn’t what I had expected in the least. I had no legal adviser – but my conscience told me that what I had shot was the reality. It shows exploitation, negligence and human rights violation. Neither did I have any preconceived notion when I went to the tea estate for the sake of integrity and unbiased documentation.
Once my edits were done and the final cut was ready for preview, the biggest question was where to publish it. I knew that merely publishing it on YouTube wouldn’t reach out to the people.
I believe that today, this video has to spread in the public domain and be a subject of discussions and dialogue. There will be accusations and blame games. But at the end of the day, I believe that these so-called ‘independent’ Adivasis should have true freedom by the time independent India turns 70.