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A 700 million kg industry, a Rs 351 promise: In Assam’s tea gardens, BJP gathers steam

Assam elections: Houses, toilets, electricity, money in accounts: the list of Sarbananda Sonowal government’s measures for tea tribes, which matter in 35 seats, helping party.

Written by Abhishek Saha | Dibrugarh, Tinsukia |
Updated: March 26, 2021 11:46:42 am
Kumari, who had lunch with Rahul, says BJP built homes, toilets. (Express photo by Abhishek Saha)

On March 19, Basanti Kumari, a 38-year-old tea garden worker, was part of the small group that had lunch with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Rahul, she said, asked the workers about their issues over the meal at a garden in Chabua, a small town in Dibrugarh district which is lined with large tea gardens.

Kumari, mother of two (son, 8; daughter, 2), plucks tea leaves at the Chabua tea estate (one of India’s oldest, set up in 1836) for Rs 167 a day. Her husband unwell, she is the sole breadwinner. “I run the family with borrowed money — Rs 167 is not enough,” she says.

Later that day, addressing a rally in Tinsukia, Rahul reiterated the Congress’s promise to increase wages of tea workers to Rs 365.

Most of the tea garden workers were brought to Assam by the British from other states in the 19th century, and now are its most marginalised community, economically and socially.

Tea belt goes to polls on March 27

But, every election, for a brief time, they are among the state’s most important groups. Comprising around 17% of Assam’s population with influence in at least 35 Assembly seats, they are flooded with campaigns and promises by all parties. A majority of the constituencies where tea workers hold sway go to polls on March 27. Asked about such poll promises, Manoj Karmakar, a 25-year-old worker at Rangagora tea estate in Tinsukia, says, “Politicians have been saying about increasing our wages forever.”

In the past five years though, the BJP government has introduced financial, educational and health schemes for the tea tribes. In 2018, the Sarbananda Sonowal government hiked daily wages from Rs 137 to Rs 167 and, last month, to Rs 217 (the BJP’s 2016 poll promise was Rs 351). But the Gauhati High Court stayed the order on a petition by garden owners. Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropped in for a rally in Chabua, where he reassured tea workers a BJP government would work for their welfare.

Women workers line up at a tea garden in Dibrugarh district to weigh their plucks of the day. Their names are noted, and a photo taken. (Express Photo: Abhishek Saha)

The BJP’s measures have earned it goodwill. Raju Mura, Karmakar’s co-worker, says that under the party, they have received LPG cylinders and electricity connections.

This time the BJP is promising ST status to the tea tribes, apart from high school in every garden and a college every 10 gardens.

Paban Singh Ghatowar, an influential tea tribe leader, five-time Congress MP and former Union minister, claims it is the failed wage promise though that will sink the BJP and vastly improve the Congress’s tally from five out of 35 seats where the tea workers have influence. “They could not even provide the Rs 351 they had promised.” The Congress has said it will support the garden management to ensure a wage increase.

Traditionally, the wages were fixed mutually by the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh, the largest tea garden trade union in the state, and managements. But, starting 2016 and the BJP’s promise of Rs 351, politics is part of the issue.

Hariprasad Tassa at his store at the Nudwa tea garden. (Express Photo: Abhishek Saha)

Rajan Lohia, the owner of Manohari tea estate in Dibrugarh, says while a wage increase is needed, the ailing tea garden economy can’t afford it. “If a garden is closed, hundreds will lose jobs. So the government should increase wages but also compensate the management.”

With 700 million kg of tea annually, Assam accounts for over half of India’s total production. However, the industry is estimated to have suffered over Rs 1,000 crore losses during the pandemic.

The Congress’s assurance to take the management along isn’t helping it overcome the mistrust for it in the gardens. Kumari, who had the meal with Rahul, says, “For decades, our parents voted for the Congress. But they did not make homes for us or build toilets. There were no roads in our line (worker colonies at the gardens).”

Kumari has been a beneficiary of the BJP government’s scheme under which it claims to have transferred Rs 8,000 each to around 7.5 lakh tea garden workers since 2017-2018 (it has promised to raise this to Rs 12,000).

The BJP made one of its two winners from the community in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections (Rameshwar Teli from Dibrugarh) a Minister of State at the Centre.

Amit Kumar Das, who lives in the workers’ colony of the Dikom tea estate and manages a highway dhaba, went to the Modi rally. He says he wanted to see the BJP leader once, even if from afar — “It was like seeing a film star!… The BJP has done so much for us.”

Sarai Kumar, a trade union leader at Chabua garden, says, “In its time, the Congress too did some work, but the BJP’s is more visible. It has made roads, brought in schemes, built houses and toilets.”

Appu Garaik and his mother Hasina, who is a worker at the Nudwa tea garden Dibrugarh district, pose for a photograph (Express Photo: Abhishek Saha)

Appu Garaik, 23, a graduate in political science, hopes the BJP will now fufill other promises for workers like his mother, who got the Rs 8,000 in her account. “We need patta (rights) for the company land on which our huts have stood historically. We want ST status. We want wage of Rs 351.”

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