Bablu Bhumiji, a 55-year-old labour sardar at the Halmira tea estate, is a worried man. As many as 47 of the 160 labourers killed in the February hooch tragedy used to work under him, and the upcoming elections looks set to bring truckloads of liquor to his doorstep again.
"After the recent tragedy, nobody in this village wants to touch local liquor. They swear that they will not drink it even if they get it for free. But political parties are still likely to distribute the brew because it is the cheapest way to win tea garden votes," says Bablu Bhimiji.
The labour sardar's fear is understandable. He was one of the 100 people to be hospitalised after drinking hooch in February, and with Halmira slated to vote on April 11, there is every reason to expect that liquor will start flowing through the tea gardens again.
If Assam was once a Congress stronghold, it was partly due to the wholehearted support of its tea garden workers. There are over 800 such plantations in the state with 60 lakh workers, accounting for 17% of the total population. They are politically savvy voters who decide the fate of at least four of Assam's 14 Lok Sabha seats.
This is the reason why politicians make a beeline to the tea gardens. BJP chief Amit Shah has already held a rally at Koliabor, a two-hour bus ride away from Bablu Bhimiji's tea garden, and Prime Narendra Modi is likely to fly in too.
Tea garden worker Balinder Ojha is more emphatic in his disapproval of pre-poll hooch distribution. "They will do anything for votes. The drinking habit in tea gardens is promoted by political parties," he says.
Making tea garden workers vulnerable to offers of free liquor is their wage of Rs 167 a day, a sum that's barely enough to keep their home fires burning. Their demand for Rs 350 a day remains unfulfilled despite PM Modi promising it in 2014. Seven lakh among them did receive Rs 2,500 through direct benefit transfer to their Jan Dhan accounts in January, but it did little to improve their standard of living.
Disillusionment is in the air. "Both the Congress and the BJP have let us down. The employee pay review has not taken place until now," tea garden official Pradip Goswami told NDTV.
This election season, the Sarbananda Sonowal government has invested Rs 1 crore in building all-weather roads for each of the over 800 tea gardens in the state. But it remains to be seen if it will go the extra mile to ensure the all-round development of its labourers.
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