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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Explained: The political significance of Assam’s tea garden workers

The tea tribe community — comprising 17 per cent of Assam's population — is a deciding factor in almost 40 assembly seats out of the 126. The community is spread over 800 tea gardens plus several unorganised small gardens of Assam — living mostly in residential quarters adjacent to gardens.

Written by Abhishek Saha , Edited by Explained Desk | Guwahati |
Updated: March 4, 2021 8:07:40 am
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi with the tea workers of Sadhuru tea garden, Assam. (Source: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra/Twitter)

On Tuesday, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra visited tea gardens in Assam, interacted with the workers and went to their huts, and posed for photographs. To bolster the symbolism, one of the photographs showed her plucking tea leaves with a basket held with a strap over her head, like the women workers traditionally do.

Later in the afternoon, one of the five promises Priyanka announced if Congress comes to power was increasing the per day wage of tea garden workers to Rs 365. The announcement came on the heels of a continuous political rhetoric by leaders of both the BJP and the Congress regarding Assam tea and tea garden workers, their quality of life and their wages.

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Who are the tea garden workers in Assam?

Assam accounts for over half of India’s total tea production. Tea garden workers were brought by the British from states like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal afterwards of 1860. Till today it is marked by exploitation, economic backwardness, poor health conditions and low literacy rates.

At a public event in Assam on February 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that no one could appreciate the special taste of Assam tea more than him. He said he always considered the development of Assam and Assam’s tea garden workers together and that there was an international “conspiracy” against Assam tea.

The “conspiracy” that he mentioned is assumed to be a veiled reference to a ‘toolkit’ shared by environmental activist Greta Thunberg wherein it was said that India’s ‘yoga and chai’ image should be disrupted as one of the steps taken against the contentious farm laws.

What is their political significance?

The tea tribe community — comprising 17 per cent of the state’s population — is a deciding factor in almost 40 Assam assembly seats out of the 126. The community is spread over 800 tea gardens plus several unorganised small gardens of Assam — living mostly in residential quarters adjacent to gardens.

The community is one of most marginalised in Assam but is also a large vote bank. The BJP has a strong voter base in the community now, overcoming an earlier Congress stronghold. Both organisational penetration within the community and reaping the benefits of welfare schemes have benefitted the saffron party. In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won the two seats — Rameshwar Teli from the Dibrugarh seat and Pallab Lochan Das from Tezpur — wherein the tea garden workers are a dominant electoral force. Both Teli and Das belong to the garden workers’ community. Teli is an MoS in the Centre now.

Senior politicians of the community that The Indian Express spoke to say that its voter turnout is high, that it votes en masse and that the day of poll day is a paid leave.

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What is the issue of the per day wage of tea garden workers?

Increasing wages of tea garden workers has been a major demand of the community and poll plank. Although the tea garden managements pay the wages, the government fixes it.

In 2017, the Assam government formed an advisory board to fix minimum wages of tea workers — the board recommended an amount of Rs 351. The next year, as an interim measure, the Assam government hiked daily wages Rs 137 to Rs 167.

Last month, in what was seen as a step taken keeping in view the elections, the Assam government increased the wages of tea garden workers from Rs 167 to Rs 217. Tea gardens workers’ bodies have already expressed their dissatisfaction with the hike, which they consider inadequate.

Paban Singh Ghatowar, a most influential tea tribe leader, five time Congress MP from Dibrugarh and former Union minister, told The Indian Express in February, “During 2016 elections, the BJP had promised to increase the wages to Rs 351. Now they are increasing by Rs 50 only because of the elections. They think they can dole out money and buy votes from the garden community. Are one time financial benefit schemes enough for the welfare of a community?”

How has the Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government focused on the community in the last five years?

The electorally important community has been the focus of several welfare schemes launched by the Sonowal-led government.

Reacting to Priyanka’s charges against the BJP for not doing enough for the tea garden workers, influential Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told reporters on Tuesday, “Our government has increased wages to Rs 217. Our government gave free rice to them. Our government built roads for them. …Narendra Modi government gave gas to them. Where rice was cooked [when Priyanka was visiting] is on a gas given by Modiji.”

Sarma added that the only reason why garden workers could host a guest like Priyanka was because of the developmental work done in the last five years.

Recently, while delivering his Vote on Account speech Sarma told the Assam Assembly, “Today 7.3 lakh bank accounts of tea garden workers have been opened through our initiatives. Further, to ensure that these accounts do not go dormant, we have introduced the Assam Chah Bagicha Dhan Puraskar Yojana using Direct Benefit Transfer.”

He explained that through direct route of reaching the beneficiaries, and with the support of banks, the government has released around Rs 400 crores to all eligible tea tribe community members — around 7.5 lakh beneficiaries — in two instalments of Rs.2500 each. have received these amounts into their accounts. In the third tranche, over Rs 230 crores has been transferred, Rs.3000 each to the individual bank accounts.

The schemes implemented by the Sonowal government include providing medicines, including 142 essential drugs, free of cost to the hospitals in the tea gardens; providing rice, currently provided at Rs 3 per kg under the National Food Security Act, for free to 4 lakh tea garden families, and provide 2kg of sugar per tea garden family per month free of cost, in an attempt to counter the practice of consuming salt with tea — started in the colonial era to battle dehydration in workers — which has led to health problems like hypertension and heart attacks.

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