First Trafficked, Then Overworked: The Lives Of Adivasi Women In Assam’s Tea Estates

Impact: Sumantra was awarded the prestigious National Media Award for his extensive coverage on the women workers in Assam’s tea estates. You can find the rest of his reports on his profile.

Reena Sawashi from Moran says, “It hurts me when people call us labour or coolie instead of recognizing us as Santhal, Oraon, Munda, etc. as our identity.”

Imagine you are taken out of your community, trafficked to a totally new habitat and forced to live the life of a bonded labourer. This has been the story of every Adivasi living in the cocoon of their tea estate, completely detached from the socio-economic culture of their family living in the native hamlets of Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, etc. The terms labour and coolie were labelled to them by the British colonials and it was a deliberate attempt by them to remove their ancestral identity and impose a new identity on them.

As I sit back in my room, reflecting on the observations from the long research on the lives of Adivasi women living in the tea estates of Assam, my heart skips a beat thinking about the murky patriarchal society that gives a very little space to the Adivasi women to live a life of dignity.

Raju Tanti, a young resident of a Margherita tea estate who works for an NGO says, “Most of the men living in the tea estates are very lazy.”

A woman does all the work. And when it comes to the quality of work, the women are far superior. But in most places they get paid less. Raju adds, “Once during a seminar held in Delhi where we participated, there were discussion on feminism; I could so relate it to the women I saw in my tea estate. Instances of men getting drunk and domestic violence at home. But the stories from the homes of tea estates never reach the forums of women empowerment held in big cities.”

During my conversation with Tapan Sutabanshi, General Secretary of Adivasi People Liberation Council, he said, “The economics of work and wage plays an important role in the live of an Adivasi. The philosophy behind the trade is to make the people work more and more and not allow them to think. There are several challenges faced by Adivasi on a day-to-day basis. But this chaosness is diluted by the nexus of folks from Assam Chahiye Mazdoor Sangh or the touts who run the liquor and gambling den so that the labourers remain silent. Thus the idea is that the more nasty place you can create, the more diplomacy you can exert.”

Don’t you want a better life? A question I asked most of the people I met. Some were surprised while the others had an answer but the answer could not come to their lips. Over the years, the rich and powerful capitalist created bonded labourers and the best way is to create a small world of them and exploit them the most. “Imagine working whole day from 7 AM to 3 PM with pains in his body and drinking liquor to relieve from it (at least that’s what they think). This created a habit that is trickling down and creating the labourer mindset from generations to generations,” Santosh Kurmi remarks.

Aren’t the Adivasis supposed to be descendants of matrilineal societies? Abhijit Ekka, a student of anthropology who hails from Tezpur says, “The moment when you remove the tag of their origin like Oraon, Santhal, etc. and label them as Labourer or Coolie, you tend to write-off their past ancestral identity and impose a new one. And this creates its own cult. Thus they were employed as labourer, made to work in harshest conditions and introduced to alcohol that makes them hyperactive. At the end of the day, the women at home have to face the wrath of the frustrated male labourers who are mercilessly exploited in the most brutal way. So, violence is a way they vent out their frustration to someone they impose their authority upon viz. wife, sister, etc.”

Thus, in a small world manifested by illusion, treachery, and exploitation, there is very little space for an Adivasi women to strive for a life of dignity.

(Sumantra Mukherjee is a National Media Fellow, and this article is a part of his work which is supported by National Foundation for India.)

Featured image source: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint via Getty Images.
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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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