This Article is From Sep 18, 2015

Assam's Tea Garden Workers Demand Tribal Status

There are over 50 lakh people who belong to the tea garden community.

Bokakhat, Assam: Thirty six year old Padma Maheli - a tea garden worker in Upper Assam's Bokakhat area - is not literate, but dreams big for her two sons.

"The government should make it easy for our children to get jobs. We are educating them undertaking immense hardship," said Padma Maheli as she heads to a digital weighing machine to weigh her basket full of plucked tea leaves.

Ms Maheli's wish is increasingly being articulated as a political demand: to recognise tea garden workers as Scheduled Tribes and higher share in government jobs for their children.

There are over 50 lakh people who belong to the tea garden community. And most of them trace their adivasi roots to the Chotta Nagpur region - present day areas of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand - but aren't recognised as Scheduled Tribe.

Being recognised as a Scheduled Tribe will give them better political representation and will have reserved constituencies for them. Of the 126 assembly seats in Assam, tea workers are a determining factor in as many as 30.

Tea garden workers also hope that their share in jobs will improve with Scheduled Tribe status. Though they are entitled to be a part of 27 per cent Other Backward Class (OBC) reservation pie, their share is negligible. Literacy level among them is quite low and they can't compete with more powerful OBC groups.

But the younger generation of tea community wants this to change as they seek a higher share in government jobs. Mukul Das, a 34-year-old leader of the BJP affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh is vocal about the demand for tribal status.

"The Centre must grant the status of scheduled tribe to the tea community," he said.

The Congress party, after losing the crucial tea vote in the last Lok Sabha elections, has strongly backed the demand for tribal status and has put the onus on the Modi government to deliver. "We hope that the BJP and Prime Minister remembers all their poll promise," said Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's son and Congress lawmaker Gaurav Gogoi.

Facing one of the toughest elections in the past 15 years, the party has now nominated Pawan Singh Ghatowar, former Congress lawmaker and a member of the tea community as the head of campaign for the next year's assembly polls.

"I think they will definitely come back and vote for Congress," Mr Ghatowar told NDTV.

The answer, perhaps, is six months away when Assam votes to elect a new government.