Tea labours in Assam and North Bengal have long been struggling for the minimum wage which has been denied to them for decades even after seventy years of independence. In 2014, when Darjeeling voted for the BJP for the second term and after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister, the tea labours had immense hope on Modi as he often bragged as being a chai wala himself during his 2014 election campaign. In Assam, the humble background of the Prime Minister had similarly established a connect among the tea labours that significantly played a crucial role in winning the Assam Assembly Election in 2016. However, after more than four years of him becoming the Prime Minister, it appears that the chai wala PM doesn’t have a serious concern regarding the plights of chai mazdoors.
The wages in North Bengal are not given according to the Labour laws but according to some shady agreements between the government, management of the company and the trade union. In Assam, the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha and Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA) decides the wage. Thus such arrangements have set dangerous precedence, bulldozing the labour rights. Such illicit agreements and closed-door meetings provide a tremendous opportunity for collusion among the parties involved. It basically means the protector of the law in the state, i.e., the state govt have been facilitating an arrangement to crush the constitutional rights of the tea workers. The trade union of each state have always demanded the minimum wage, but their demands have always been rejected in such “tripartite/bipartite meetings” convened by the state govt. Most of the time, when the wage negotiation was in limbo. The state govt has cleverly played a big boss role and have often forced the labourers in accepting an interim wage hike which has always favoured the garden owners.
Most of the states in India like Kerala, Karnataka and Sikkim abide by the minimum wage rule. Kerala pays their tea labour more graciously than any other tea producing state in India. Labourers in North Bengal where the tea gardens are concentrated in the foothills of the Himalayas had been receiving ₹ 132.5 per day until Jan 2018. An interim hike of ₹17.5 per day was announced in North Bengal making per day wage ₹150. The wage in Assam was ₹ 137 per day until June 2018 and only after the recent order issued by the Governor Jagdish Mukhi to the Assam Govt, directing the latter to announce an interim hike of ₹30 last month that raised the per day wage to ₹167.
Apart from making an interim hike, the Assam govt has proposed a minimum wage of ₹351.33 which is a composite wage both cash and kind components, including housing, fuel, ration and other benefits. The proposed wage of the Assam Govt is yet to be approved by the CCPA. This new way of compounding all the benefits with the minimum wage appears to be unscientific and deceitful. This figure which is in addition to all other benefits cannot be called minimum wage which the Govts of both the states want people to believe. This is a cunning way to hide the actual minimum wage which is to be paid separately according to the Plantation Labour Act (PLA) 1951. In North Bengal, the mainstream media is also in a way projecting the minimum wage figure much higher than the actual one by adding the monetised value of food ration which doesn’t come under minimum wage as it comes under other benefits. The minimum wage amount should not be distorted and hyped by adding the monetised value of ration, housing, medical and other benefits. On August 6, 2018, the new wage in North Bengal is ₹162 which after adding the ration amount becomes ₹172. The tea gardens in North Bengal was in three days strike after the Govt rejected their demand of ₹243 per day wage.
The labourers in the plantations are the most exploited workforce in the organised sector and are unfairly treated both by the Govt and tea companies. Profits made by the companies have never accrued to the labourers either in the form of wage or bonus. The International Labour Rights Forum states that “the current labour conditions in India’s tea industry are a direct result of a long history of colonialism and repression of tribals.” These labourers working in the tea gardens are largely adivasi migrants from Chotanagpur region in Assam and Adhibasis, Rangbanshis, Gorkhas and Bodos in North Bengal. The migration happened mainly between the 1840s to 1880s as the census of 1891 shows a spike in the population of these regions. The demography of the tea belt region suggests that majority of the workers are from the non-ruling class of the Bengal and Assam. The indifference and the insensitivity of state governments shown on the Tea garden labour may be as a result of the class divide or the lack of awareness of the elite ruling class about the plight of the workers.
The International Labour Organisation have expressed some serious concerns over the living conditions of labour in Assam and the Supreme Court has also given strict directives to the central govt in this regard. The basic physiological needs like housing, ration, drinking water and proper wage are rarely provided in the Tea gardens of Assam and North Bengal. These benefits are the basic rights of labours working in any plantation according to PLA 1951. Such inhuman treatment of the Tea labours by the garden owners have raised a serious question on brands like Tata (Assam), Alchemist (North Bengal) and many others.
According to the latest figures of the World Economic Forum, the 73% of India’s wealth is owned by 1% of its people. This highly uneven share of national wealth can be attributed to the systematic arrangements engineered by the wealthy few and legitimised by the democratically elected representatives. Tea Plantation is a system which is designed and has been dominated by the privileged class. It is an unjust system which lacks social justice. There is no equal redistribution of the economic growth, and the inequality is staggeringly high between the garden owners and the workers. The International Labour Organisation’s view on Social justice is, “Equality of rights for all peoples and the possibility for all human beings without discrimination, to benefit from economic and social progress everywhere. Promoting social justice is about more than increasing income and creating jobs. It is also about rights, dignity and voice for working women and men as well as economic, social and political empowerment.”
The famous Alchemist group which owns several numbers of tea gardens in North Bengal are either completely shut down or is partially run in plucking season. The labourers in the tea gardens owned by the Alchemist haven’t even been paid the remaining wages, provident funds and gratuity. There are several Tea gardens in North Bengal and Assam which have cheated the illiterate labourers by paying a low wage and without giving other benefits guaranteed by the Plantation Act.
The owner of the Alchemist group, Mr KD Singh, who is a Rajya Sabha MP from Trinamool Congress has been issued a restraining order from the Calcutta High Court from buying or selling any properties in foreign countries. The securities and exchange board of India, SEBI has alleged that Mr Singh has been trying to flee the country and has transferred $100 million, i.e., close to ₹685 crores to the United States. Further, the SEBI has claimed that Mr Singh had transferred ₹79.6 crores to Cyprus and applied for the residency and passport in the European Union. The disinterest of both the TMC (Bengal) and the BJP Govt (Assam and centre) in implementing minimum wage and their inaction against their rich Tea industrialist friends raises some serious questions. After the Punjab National Bank fraud, Mehul Choksi whom Prime Minister Modi had once addressed as Mehul Bhai, bought the citizenship of Antigua by investing ₹1.3 crores and now is KD Singh doing the same in Cyprus for ₹79 crore? Can the parallels be drawn between these two incidents? Is Didi deliberately trying to save her KD Bhai?
The central Govt through its statute body, Tea Board, have the power to take actions against any tea garden which have great irregularities in paying wages or low salaries, non-payment of provident funds and other benefits. At times when the Modi Govt is using all the available state instruments in attacking their political opponents has strictly refrained from using Tea Board which could perhaps solve the problems for millions of chai mazdoors.
During his visit to Britain, Prime Minister Modi did Tea diplomacy, when he took the finest Makaibari Darjeeling Tea for the Queen. The ruling dispensation is aware of the fact that traditionally the British prefer Darjeeling tea more than any other varieties. Now the tea Gardens are all owned by Indians, partly controlled by the state and central Govts. The unfortunate story is that the condition in the tea gardens have not become any better even after a ‘chai wala’ became the Prime Minister of the country. The chai wala identity has been fully exploited by the BJP but the ground study suggests that zero effort has been made by the central and Assam Govt to ease out the problems of the chai mazdoors.
As the son of a Chai mazdoor, born and brought up in a Chai bagan, I request the Prime Minister to do ek #ChaipeCharcha on Chai mazdoors.