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India Matters: The despair and hope of Assam tea garden workers this election

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Konapather, Assam:  It is election time and political parties are vying for the attention of tea garden workers in the Dibrugarh constituency in Assam. There are nearly 3.6 lakh voters from tea gardens in the constituency comprising 30 per cent of the electorate. These workers play a decisive role in at least four parliamentary constituencies - Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Koliabor and Tezpur.

So why did no politician make the journey to Konapather tea estate which was rocked by the brutal killings of its owner MK Bhatacharjee and his wife 15 months ago? Fear and uncertainty threatened the future of over 800 tea garden workers and their families, apart from other staff on the estate.

Konapather is close to the Assam-Arunachal border in Tinsukhia district, once a stronghold of ULFA. To access it is a difficult, bumpy drive through forests, stretching on for kilometres.

On December 26, 2012, the Bhattacharjees' bungalow was surrounded by a mob of angry tea garden workers. The couple were hacked to death and the building set on fire.

Police investigations have so far made no headway and the motive behind the planter's killing is unclear. The role of Maoists is also being suspected.

When we revisit Konapather, we find that for the 800 workers and their families, who live and work on the tea estate, there is still no sense of closure.

Ten people who were arrested are out on bail. There is fear among tea garden executives across the state. A conclusive investigation would lead to punishment of the guilty and prevent recurrence of such incidents. But this is not the first incident of violence in the tea gardens.

The killings were followed by a lockout in the tea garden. But there was no one - no MP or MLA or trade union leader - to provide assistance to the poor tea garden labour.

Bhupen Chettri, Assistant Manager, Konapather Tea Estate, recalls writing numerous letters to the secretary of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) in Margherita, seeking the union's help in resolving the issues in cooperation with the management and the labour. "But they did not come even once. They didn't care about how we survived, whether we ate or not."

It was only after three long months, that the tea estate was reopened by the owner's son, Rishi, and work resumed.

Konapather, set over 900 acres, is said to be Assam's biggest bio dynamic tea garden. But there's no visible sign of its success at the labour quarters. The families appear to live below the poverty line.

The houses are made of bamboo and plastered with mud, and are vulnerable to rain and wind. There are no toilets, no provision for electricity, school and hospital. Permanent workers are paid a subsistence level daily wage of Rs 100, said to be the highest in the state. So if they work 24 days a month they earn Rs 2400. A sizable number of workers are employed as casual labour and get only six months' employment in a year.

The tea garden labour present a picture of deprivation and want. A 10-year-old child says his family has put him to work, looking after cattle for local people. He has been denied schooling.

28-year-old Stephen inherited his job as a tea garden labour from his parents. What does he want from his political representative? "Schools, good roads. We need electricity in our homes," he says.

Bilal Khan, who is employed as a carpenter on the Konapather tea estate, says, "There's scarcity in so many things. The main problems are lack of electricity and proper roads. There should be some facilities for those who who are vulnerable and weak. Whether it's the Government or somebody else, some steps should be taken to protect them."

At the Garrha labour quarters, where all the ten accused in the killings live, there is open anger as they recall MK Bhattacharjee's feudal behavior towards them. Akash Mura said his family was given an eviction notice after his mother retired. Their house demolished. "Workers should be made permanent and not evicted from their homes. They take us off the rolls and ask us to leave. Our home was demolished. Where should we go? Should we live in the jungles like animals? They struck my mother off the rolls and filed an eviction notice against us in Margherita. How would my old mother fight the case? I was in Chennai on work and had to return. We think that this is our government too. Since the owner does not support us, the government should provide us some assistance."

He says though they pay a fee to become a member of ACMS, they did not get the help they required. "When we called the ACMS, they came a couple of times, said a few things, and left. We have to pay money to join ACMS. No MLA or MP has visited the labour quarters."

The stark reality is that the living conditions of tea garden labour are no different  across the state. There is insecurity, lack of sanitation and drinking water facility. The Plantation Labour Act of 1951 which is meant to provide for welfare for labour and to regulate conditions of work is being violated.
Every worker, new or old, receives the same wage, which is usually 94 rupees a day, lower than the minimum wage of Rs 150 in other sectors. They do not get a paid weekly off. A few benefits like living quarters and subsidised foodgrain are provided. This is the case even at hundred year old legacy gardens, where families of labour have been employed for over three to four generations.

At Mokulbari tea estate, Anita Majhi tells us she is the only earning member of a family of seven. Her husband has been unable to work for three years because of his illness. None of their five children attend school. While her 10-year-old son does odd jobs for the neighbours for a few rupees, her 14-year-old daughter joined the plantation as a plucker two days ago.

"We often eat only once a day. How much can I do by myself?" says Anita.

She says they are unable to afford treatment for her husband. The absence of proper health facilities and medical care is a major issue for all.

In the Hazelbank tea estate, we visit the dispensary set up by the company and find neglect apparent everywhere. Just a handful of medicines and instruments are available.

Mohendra Changmai, who is pharmacist at the Oakland Tea Estate, says if there is a need, they request for medicines from the hospital, 7 km away.

We ask him about the condition of the hospital. "The hospital's condition is better than the pharmacy. But there are no doctors there. There is just one pharmacist and two nurses."

Pharmacists like him are members of the Assam Cha Karmachari Sanghatan, and they say they are underpaid in the tea industry compared to their counterparts elsewhere.

28-year-old Lakhiram Rajgadh grew up in a labour's family on the Oakland Tea estate. He was the first among a population of 1000 to complete his graduation.

He says he owes it to the fact that both his parents were employed and also the fact that they were able to supplement their income by tilling a small piece of land.

Today he is a teacher at the company run primary school where he studied as a child. There are only two teachers for 172 students. Lakhiram remembers the teacher student ratio as being always high.

"Teachers' posts are vacant, but we cannot demand that they are filled because the company is waiting for the government to take over the school. There should be 6 teachers for the 6 classes, but we are just 2," he says. When the child is around 14 to 15 years old, the parents send these children to the plantations as child labour. The children are given the work of spraying pesticides in the tea gardens.

Parents send their children in desperation to get some extra money. As a result, children lose out on their education.

There are over 800 tea gardens in Assam and a million workers. None of the companies have provided them a middle school. Even the lower primary schools are in a appalling condition.

Teros Gowalla, President, Assam Cha Jonogusthi Jatiya Mahasabha, says, "In the tea gardens, there is no use of having any degree or diploma. The management does not care for it. They say you are the child of an unskilled labour, you have to work in place of your mother or father."

Most tea estate workers here are are tribals and scheduled castes from Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Their forefathers were brought to Assam by the British more than a century ago as indentured labour to clear forests and work on the plantations.

Unlike modern migrant workers in other parts of the country, these workers have lost all family connection with their homeland. Poverty did not allow their grandparents and parents to return and successive generations now no longer remember the name of either their village or state.

There was another factor that hampered their inclusive development and which has continued since colonial times. It was the system of confining the workers to enclaves in the plantations and not permitting the entry of outsiders.

In Assam, the tea garden labour are called tea tribes - a label that not only racially stigmatizes the community but points to its economically disadvantaged status.

The irony is Assam's tea industry continues to flourish and fetch good prices at home and abroad. Assam is the largest producer of tea and contributes more than half the country's tea production.

Teros Gowalla says, "Its been 67 years since we attained Independence. And since 1952, when the first general elections were held, the tea garden labour have been voting for the Congress. But in return, they have done nothing for the welfare of these labour. This is the third generation now but none of us have a single piece of land. We live in the company quarters."

Assam's tea belt has traditionally been a Congress stronghold. The trade union, Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh, which is affiliated to the Congress, enjoys a virtual monopoly with nearly 7 lakh tea garden labour registered with them. It has played a key role in wielding influence over the voters.

But on the ground there is skepticism as the trade union is not playing its role in monitoring the implementation of the Plantation Labour Act. It is perceived to be toeing the management line. Take for instance, the issue of increase of basic wage to  Rs 200 from Rs 94. In tea gardens in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the daily wage is 220 rupees.

Nabin Keot, Secretary of the Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh, Dibrugarh, says, "You can't satisfy everyone, because this is a big industry and there are so many problems. Tea industry is an agricultural based industry, which faces problems of weather. You cannot increase the wage up to the level of Coal India."

Tribal student organisations are demanding the granting of land rights to tea garden labour and the creation of a separate government department for tea.

Another important and long standing demand is to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the tea garden community as has been accorded in other states. It would enable them to benefit from reservations in colleges and government jobs.

Political parties have failed to respond. It is proving to be a challenge as five other ethnic communities in the state have also been demanding Scheduled Tribe status to protect their identities and ensure welfare.

Manoj Jalan, Director, Ethelwold Tea Estate, says, "Assam has a multi-ethnic society where many communities are living.  Many of them have their own aspirations and there is a limited legislative space that the system offers."

Pawan Singh Ghatowar, who is the Congress candidate, is a five-time MP from the Dibrugarh constituency. He is the Union Minister of State, Development of Northern Region and the president of the Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh. It is a matter of pride for the tea garden community that Ghatowar belongs to their community.

He says, "As part of the select committee, we have recommended that the people who were Scheduled Tribe in their place of origin should be recognized as the same as they are recognized in West Bengal and Tripura. That demand is going on and as you know that there are some social problems going on in Assam. I can tell you the condition of the tea garden workers are far better than tea workers of West Bengal and Tripura. Tamil Nadu and Kerala are better than Assa . At the same time I must admit that there are gardens where the minimum facility to the workers are not provided, but that is not the general case."

He says the government has given help to more than 200 hospitals from NRHM and is bringing all company run primary school under the government. A middle school will be set up every 3 km and a high school every 5 km. It could be too little too late.

The BJP candidate Rameshwar Teli, also a member of the tea garden labour community, makes similar promises. He says he wants to ensure ST status of the community, higher wages and to set up middle and high schools. He says, "The condition of tea gardens is really bad, including the 16 tea gardens under the Assam Government. If they have failed to improve these, how can they live up their promise of developing other tea gardens in the state."

The AGP candidate, Anup Phukan, is also linked to the tea gardens as his father was employed among the staff. His view is that the demand for ST status needs to be examined.

He says, "Not all the people are enjoying tribal status in the other states of the country. So there's a view that the status should not be given to them. The condition of the tea garden labour you see are not very improved then the British time."

The constituency will go to the polls on April 7.

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