‘’My dear, if you could give me a cup of tea to clear my muddle of a head, I should better understand your affairs” -Charles Dickens
When you are tired from work, feel stressed and restless then a good cup of fresh tea removes your tiredness, refreshes your body and mind, lift up your spirit instantly. Yes, tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world after water.
Hundreds of lush green tea plantations nestled in the foothills of Assam's Himalayas have not only added to the natural beauty of the states, but are also the backbone of its economy. They are lifelines without which the state would have remained poor, underdeveloped and economically backward. Today, Assam's tea industry is its largest industry, providing livelihood, revenue, employment and development to the state. But unfortunately, those who play a key role in these industries, the thousands of workers of the tea gardens are still live penury.
Debajani Majhi, 34, who hail from Jharkhand is the third generation of her family to live there in the tea garden in Assam. Her great grandfather came here during the British period to work in the tea garden and they subsequently settled there. Her ancestors have lived the same life that Debajani and her family now live in the tea garden –earning a paltry wages, struggling to get the legal status of a Schedule Tribe(ST), Poverty, Malnourishment and dying young.
“I get Rs 167 per day for 8 hours of work but most of time the work hours get extended for plucking about 24 kg of leaves. The wage is very low compare to our work. The work is very tedious and due to the consuming of salty cold black brew, I and my other co-worker use to have, we are very often suffering from high blood pressure," Debajani said.
During the election, Government promised to enhance our wage and provide us free sugar to replace salt in tea but it was just like other promises that the government had been making from time to time which get lost somewhere,” she lamented.
“I want to go outside, explore the world and work elsewhere, I get more money but I could not do it. We are not allowed to go outside without permission. We have to follow the strict rule of the tea state. This is our world and we have to survive here only,"/Sabita Munda, 23, a young tea worker said.
History And Growth Of Tea Garden In Assam
Tea was first discovered in China and then in Japan. It was originated in India in 1823 when an Englishman named Robert Bruce discovered tea plants in the forest of Assam. Later Robert Bruce's brother Charles Alexander started the first tea garden in Assam. For the first time in 1828, tea from Assam was sent to England. Tea was liked by the Britishers and in a short period of time, it became very popular in England. This encouraged the East India Company to start the commercial cultivation of tea on a large scale. In 1835, the East India Company established its first tea plantation in the state. Later in 1844, this garden was sold to Assam Tea Company, which was formed in 1739. Since then the number of tea gardens has increased rapidly. There are more than 900 tea estates or tea gardens in Assam today. These gardens are found in Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Magaon, Sibsagar, Sonitpur, and Darrang districts.
At Present, Assam contributes 15.6% of the world’s tea production and 55% of India’s tea output. It is the largest industry of the state, providing employment to thousands of people in the state. It is estimated that 12.5% of the total population depends on this industry for their livelihood. The tea industry brings in a great deal of revenue to the state exchequer by way of taxes, excise and road levy. The industry has been instrumental in the development of ancillary industries such as, plywood, aluminium, fertilizer, pesticides, communication and transport, warehouse industries. But the backbone of the industries, its Tea workers still struggle to get timely and good quality healthcare, access clean drinking water, and provide their children with a decent education. Women bear the heaviest burden of systemic inequality, as they are concentrated in the lowest paid plucking roles and also shoulder most of the unpaid domestic care work.
Where Do The Tea Workers Come From
Most of the laborers working in tea plantations are native tribal of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and Bengal, who were brought to work in tea plantations at Assam in the 19th century during the British period as a bonded laborer.
According to an estimate, these laborers constitute about 15 percent of the population of Assam. Some estimates give this figure up to 20 percent. The number of these laborers is more in the upper tea-producing districts of Assam like Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Golaghat, Sivasagar and Sonitpur. All these are included in the main voters of political parties.
Tea Garden Workers' Problems
Their main demand has been to increase wages. Currently, these laborers get 167 rupees a day and they are given a place to stay in the labor lines of the tea estate. However, these workers have been demanding to increase wages to Rs 351.33 for a long time, on which the government has not yet agreed. If we compare the the daily wages of laborers working in tea gardens in Kerala is 380.38 rupees. It becomes even more by adding some other payments. It is reportedly Rs 333 per day in Tamil Nadu. Even if in West Bengal the wage has increases from Rs 176 to now at Rs 202.
The condition of temporary workers in Assam is worse. In the peak season of leaf plucking, 70 per cent of the total laborers are temporary workers. They get only Rs 135 per day and also do not get facilities like housing and healthcare.
Reservation and Autonomous Council:
These laborers coming from tribal community may have Scheduled Tribe status in their native state, but this is not the case in Assam. There they are given OBC status. These workers have been demanding ST status or separate quota for years together. The Tribes Autonomous Council Demand Committee has raised the demand for 30 percent reservation.
The council's main demand is for a separate autonomous council in the tea growing areas, Such as the Bodoland Territorial Council and the Dima Hasao.
The laborers working in the tea gardens work under very difficult conditions. According to a report by the International Labor Organization, "There is a clear violation of workers' right in tea plantations in Assam, India and in Kenya. The workers are deprived of healthcare and subsidized food, they are living condition are substandard with no safe drinking ware, and proper sanitation. They are subjected to sexual abuse and harassment. Wages are very low and Working conditions are bad."
In 2017, a report submitted to the Women and Child Development Ministry said that 89 per cent of the workers do not have sanitation facilities. The report said that 84 percent of the women laborers said that they have to work even during menstruation and crèche facility for children are inadequate. Both the state and the Central Government had made so many promises for the tea garden workers but it has remained as a promise as it could not materialize yet. For example, during the 2016 election campaign, BJP had promised to increase the daily wage from Rs 137 to Rs 351.33. But after coming to power, the laborers got an increase of only 30 rupees.
The wages of temporary workers are still low and they do not even get the facilities of regular laborers. The demand for reservation was also not been implemented.
In the recent budget, the Modi government announced to allocate Rs 1000 crores for the welfare of the laborers working in tea gardens in Assam and Bengal. On February 7, the state government gave financial assistance of Rs 3000 to 7.46 lakh laborers. In the first phase of 2017-18, 6.33 lakh laborers were given Rs 2500 and in the second phase, Rs 2500 was added to the accounts of 7.15 lakh laborers in 2018-19. However, the labor unions say that this assistance does not solve the basic issues.