This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by India Development Review (IDR). Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Why Are Assam’s Tea Plantation Workers In The News?

More from India Development Review (IDR)

By Bisoya Loitongbam

Due to the upcoming assembly election in Assam, the development issues of tea tribes in the state have been highlighted in the news. There is no doubt that there is a renewed focus on the tea labour community. This is apparent from the recent budget announcement by the Finance Minister allocating INR 1,000 crore for the welfare of tea garden workers in Assam and West Bengal.

On February 7th, 2021, at an election rally in Sonitpur, Assam, the Prime Minister said that those who were out to malign India’s image also wanted to “systematically” attack Indian tea. India’s tea has been “systematically” attacked, but not by external forces. Systemic weaknesses in the tea industry in Assam make it vulnerable. The plight of tea garden workers in Assam manifests the joint failure of the market, state, and civil society.

There are three systemic weaknesses in the tea ecosystem in Assam that require urgent attention from the government.

1. Outdated management practices

Assam’s tea industry is mostly confined to the tea supply chain’s unremunerative plantation activities. In the tea value chain, value addition activities such as blending, packaging, and marketing (which is the most lucrative) take place outside the state. An ILO-funded study observes that 53% of the profit from tea goes to the retailer, 33% to the blender, 7% to the factory, 6% to buyer/agent, 1% to the tea auctioneer/broker, and a mere 0.16% to the tea plucker.

Tea corporates engaged in tea plantation have not evolved with time. They lack innovation and imagination, as is evident from the fact they still follow several colonial-style practices in human resources and labour management and have outdated production technology.

A plantation manager has to juggle not only the activities of growing tea in the estates and making tea in the factory, but also the management of the entire community of workers and their family members, including schools, ration, health centres, and more. Colonial practices such as Bichaar Din—where the management resolves household conflicts—are still prevalent. This context leaves little room for management at plantations to innovate.

Women walking in Assam tea plantation
The government should take long-term measures to improve the welfare of the tea community by according them the much-needed Scheduled Tribe status. Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

2. Exploitative legislation

Tea plantations come under the Plantations Labour Act, 1951, which requires tea companies to provide several social benefits, apart from wages. Tea companies in Assam, therefore, raise concerns about the high labour cost of producing teawhich is roughly 60% of the total cost of tea production. To bring down the social cost that they bear, and to make the tea sector competitive, companies argue that these costs should be shared by government agencies. Several studies, however, show that very few tea plantation managers fully implement the welfare schemes guaranteed under the act (such as housing, medical facilities, schools, creche, etc.), while the state turns a blind eye to such violations.

Tea garden workers in Assam are not covered under the Minimum Wages Act, and earn a daily wage of INR 167. As a poll sop, the Government of Assam has increased the daily wage by an interim amount of INR 50 per day, by an order dated 23rd February, 2021. This does not address substantive conditions such as high social cost and low productivity that have sustained low wages in Assam tea industry. Without addressing these factors, such sops may worsen the tea industry that is already ailing, and negatively impact its long-term competitiveness and viability.

Related article: Are India’s healthcare goals inclusive of tribal peoples?

3. Systemic marginalisation

The tea tribes are one of the most marginalised communities in Assam. They are still considered ‘outsiders’ and are denied affirmative action benefits in the state in which they have lived for more than 150 years. They are denied Scheduled Tribe (ST) status in Assam, thereby depriving them of various constitutional provisions and government schemes. The government reaffirmed its commitment to provide ST status to the tea tribes to garner the support of the community during the anti-CAA uprising in the state, but it is yet to be implemented. Civil society organisations have not been able to intervene as they have limited access, since the majority of the community is confined within the tea company’s property.

The community constitutes 20 percent of the population and is the backbone of an industry that is one of the state’s main revenue generators. The community fares poorly on all development parameters. To highlight a few: Relative to the national average and even average of the state of Assam, more tea garden children drop out from school and are underweight, and more adolescent girls are anaemic. The maternal mortality rate in the tea gardens of Upper Assam is 404, a rate higher than anywhere else in the country.

The tea tribes are one of the most marginalised communities in Assam. They are still considered ‘outsiders’ and are denied affirmative action benefits in the state in which they have lived for more than 150 years.  Representational image.

The Way Forward

The solutions to the woes faced by Assam’s tea industry do not lie in attacking its imaginary enemies. A series of systemic reforms are needed to address conditions that sustain a low level of equilibrium in the local tea industry.

  • First and foremost, reforms are needed to create incentives to invest in improving the quality of tea and adopting sustainable practices at plantations. For the last six to seven years, the average price of tea has remained flat and may have even declined in real terms. While the poor prices may be partly due to the weak demand for tea in the recent period, this alone does not appear to be the complete explanation for the unremunerative prices. It is suspected that large buyers of tea are coordinating on low prices in tea auctions and keeping prices artificially low. This situation calls for an urgent review of the functioning of the tea auction system and reforms to check ‘cartelisation’ if any. Reforms in the price discovery mechanism will go a long way in strengthening the incentives for quality production, and promoting fairness in wages. There is room for the Competition Commission of India to intervene.
  • The government must promote investment in value addition in tea and modernisation of local plantations through targeted investment subsidy and tax breaks.
  • The Plantations Labour Act has become outdated and requires substantial reforms. It is time that the government rationalises the social obligations of tea plantations stipulated in the act and instead promotes higher wages for the tea workers. This would also benefit the large casual labour force in the tea industry who scarcely benefits from the provisions in the act. Rationalisation will also enable focus on economic objectives such as productivity and technological improvements, besides mitigating the colonial hangover of a patronising manager-labour relationship at tea plantations.
  • Finally, going beyond doles offered during elections, the government should take long-term measures to improve the welfare of the tea community by according them the much-needed ST status and expanding the outreach of its welfare programs to the tea community.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

About the author: Bisoya Loitongbam is a social development specialist with 15 years of cross-functional experience, including implementation of large-scale government programmes, designing donor-funded projects, grantmaking, and financial service delivery. She has worked across sectors including government (DAY-NRLM), philanthropy (Azim Premji Philanthropy), private (ICICI Pru, Ernst & Young), and multilateral organisations in areas of social security, gender, promotion of women-led enterprises, financial inclusion, and institutional strengthening of women’s collectives. She is a management graduate from IRMA with an engineering degree from NIT, Warangal.

You must be to comment.

More from India Development Review (IDR)

Similar Posts

By Uday Che

By Santoshi Pando | Adivasi Awaaz Creator

By Manohar Ekka | Adivasi Awaaz Creator

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

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
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below