Denied Water, Access To Toilets: How Tribal Women Are Exploited In Assam’s Tea Gardens

In a lesser known part of Assam, far away from the mundane city streets, is a quaint and picturesque tea-garden called Namsang. Not many will be aware of a human world that exists beyond the dense cover of the Dihing Patkai rainforest. Fourteen-year-old Bagmati Urang hails from this garden.

A tea-tribe woman walks 4kms from her house to fetch daily water from a stream
A tea-tribe woman walks 4kms from her house to fetch daily water from a stream.

Urang is a school dropout. Her day starts at 5 in the morning, as she walks about 8 to 10 kilometres to the nearby Burhi Dihing river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra in Upper Assam, to fetch the daily water supply for the household.

Bagmati is not the only one in these lanes – more commonly known as ‘Lines’ or ‘Labour Gallis’ – inhabited by the tea tribe communities of Assam. While the dominant conversation around tea plantations focuses on production, export, etc, often the most important issues of tea garden workers get sidelined. Further sidelined are the issues concerning women workers in the gardens, who constitute around 52% of the workforce and are the backbone of the industry.

As one tries to strike a conversation with these women, one notices their slender bodies, the pale faces that demurely smiles, and the tiny fingers and scarred hands that carry two to three pails of water at one go. As I introduce the subject of menstrual hygiene, almost everyone blushes and coyly looks at one another, not knowing how to make a smooth exit from the situation.

Rabina, a frail 20-something girl from the group, finally courageously says, “Didi, we face a lot of problems during our monthly cycle. Most of us do not have access to proper toilets and have only temporary makeshift arrangements.”

A Deeper Inroad Into Their Lives

As one walks past the narrow gallis called Field Line, Puberun Line, Gutibari, I get how among the many pressing concerns Urang and members of her village face, concerns around sanitation and hygiene take a backseat.

The stigma and shaming of a menstruating woman is highly observed amongst the tea-tribe communities. Sharmila Karuwa is a plucker, for example, and a mother of three adolescent girls. She says, “My daughters are now coming of age, and it is a huge embarrassment for them, especially during their monthly cycle when they have to walk down several kilometres to take a bath in the river.”

Most women say they don’t go to work on the first two days of the cycle, as there is no provision for toilets or water for women pluckers in the gardens. As a result, women end up missing out on their daily wage for two to three days every month, a problem men don’t face. For a community still not covered under the Minimum Wages Act, and depending on a meagre Rs 135 per day, missing out a day’s wage is unaffordable.

Back in the Lines too, they complain of acute water shortage and lack of options for disposing sanitary pads. Although a lot of young girls are now using sanitary napkins instead of a cloth, some say they directly dispose the used napkins in the river when they go to collect water.

The toilet in the only ME School in the entire saah bagan run by the management is just a temporary see-through arrangement made of bamboo and covered by banana leaves. Adolescent girls in the school say they hardly use the toilet since boys in the adjacent playground can openly view whoever goes to the so-called ‘toilet’. “This open shack that you see covered with bamboo leaves is what we call a toilet. But we girls hardly use this, as the boys can easily see us,” says Minee, a 14-year-old girl.

Adolescent school girls in front of the toilet made out of bamboo.

The lack of awareness on menstrual hygiene and sanitation further challenges the lives of women in tea garden areas. Apart from women missing work, young girls miss school every month, and the stigma associated with menstruation does not allow open conversations or knowledge dissemination on the issue. Even ASHA workers hesitate to talk and openly educate women on hygiene and sanitation issues specific to menstruation. At the same time, lack of women’s leadership in several pockets of tea garden areas means that this issue never grabs attention, getting sidelined further.

A Gamut Of Challenges

In Assam, there are around 800 tea estates along with thousands of smaller gardens that are widely mushrooming. Every morning there is a siren that goes out at around 4 am in the morning. This is a wake-up call for pluckers who have to be at the worksite at the break of dawn. They have to work irrespective of the weather.

It is mainly women who engage in plucking, while the men mostly work in the factories. As a result, women end up spending more time in harsh weather conditions and are often exposed to harmful pesticides and insecticides that are sprayed in the gardens. As the condition of crèches in the gardens is extremely poor, women are compelled to carry their infant child to the garden. In the process, the child too is exposed to hazardous pesticides.

Lack of proper awareness on hygiene and sanitation implies that women are also prone to different diseases like fungal infections, allergies, or vector-borne diseases after the monsoon season. Prithviraj Tanti, Secretary of Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (ATTSA) of Joypur Sub-division, told me that of a population of around 5,000, the death toll of people affected by jaundice in Namsang goes up to 40 or 50 every year. This needs timely and proper attention by authorities.

A bathing unit constructed by the management of a tea garden.

“The primary factor responsible for this being impure water that is directly consumed without filtration,” Tanti explains. At Karuwa’s home, I had noticed a hollow pit, with a small iron bucket tied to a rope alongside. This pit is the only source of water for her family.

At work, pluckers are provided with water either twice or thrice a day, depending on the tea garden. However, the purity of the water that is provided to pluckers and if it has gone through a filtration process is something that remains uncertain.

In many tea gardens, salt is mixed with the water that is given to the workers. This is more commonly known as ‘Chai-Pani’ and even young school-going children are found to carry this. The regular consumption of salt in the drinking water has been also found to increase the blood pressure in many cases. Many workers say that this practice of mixing salt with the Chai-Pani is an age-old British practice so that their brain slowly becomes less active and their capacity to think shrinks. This continues to be in practice till date.

Workers opine that the Welfare Officers in the tea gardens need to be made more accountable for their condition to improve. They allege that these officers merely make a visit or two and that the management doesn’t address their issues. Government schemes too, they say, very rarely reach them. Another issue is that the head of the workers in tea gardens, who is known as a Sordaar, is always a man. Hence, women’s issues are never given the importance they deserve.

As the struggle for women’s rights and empowerment picks momentum, there is at the same time a further invisibilisation of yet another category of women whose narratives do not grab ‘mainstream’ attention. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) concerns continue to remain a serious matter requiring immediate attention for these women who work in tea gardens. A lot still remains to be said, a lot still remains to be achieved.

Tea garden women workers on a regular day.


All photos inside the post provided by the author. Featured image source: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint via Getty Images