Tinsukia: The Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA) has called for a total shutdown of all tea estates across the poll-bound state on March 22 over the issue of daily wages of tea garden workers.

The development comes almost two weeks ahead of the assembly elections in Assam and has assumed significance as 47 seats of 126-seat assembly going to polls on March 27 are mostly from Upper Assam. The tea tribe community has a significant presence in several Upper Assam seats and assumes a significant role in the election outcome in these constituencies. 

In 2018, and in time for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the state government had announced an “interim” wage hike by ₹ 30, taking it to ₹ 167 a day. Now, just before assembly elections, the incumbent BJP-led alliance government announced another “interim” wage hike.

The Labour Welfare department, through a notification on February 23, enhanced the minimum wage of ₹ 167 per day by an “interim amount” of ₹ 50, taking it to ₹ 217 per day right before the imposition of the model code of conduct. The said hike was stayed by the Gauhati High Court earlier this week and the matter is due for hearing again on March 15.

“The state government machinery has totally failed in fixing the minimum wages of tea garden workers,” ATTSA central president Dhiraj Gowala told EastMojo.

Gowala said BJP’s pre-poll promise regarding wage hike and granting ST status to tea tribe community was nothing but a blatant lie. “It is crystal clear that the interim hikes are only to lure votes for the party,” he said.

Both the BJP and the Congress have been attempting to connect with the tea community, which forms over 20 per cent of Assam’s population, spread over at least 800 tea gardens. The tea tribe community has been asking for a wage hike of ₹ 351 per day.

Congress, in its election campaign, guaranteed that they will ensure ₹ 365 minimum daily wage to the tea workers if they are voted to power.

Gowala said the tea workers have understood BJP’s “ploy to deceit” in the name of wage hike, and the continuous “exploitation” of the workers by the tea garden management, who had booked windfall profit during the Coronavirus pandemic but still cannot afford to pay daily wages of Rs 217.

“It is not that they cannot pay, they want us to remain economically weak and dependent on them,” Gowala said.

“But this time the tea workers are more aware and we are not going to stop unless our demand of wage hike of Rs 351 are met. If needed, we will teach a lesson to those who have cheated us for our votes, by voting,” added Gowala. 

Once considered loyal to the Congress, the tea workers shifted allegiance to the BJP in 2014 when Narendra Modi came to power. Nearly 1.1. million tea workers are employed in over 800 tea estates in the state. 

While the BJP has dolled out cash transfers and other benefits to the tea workers after coming to power in the state in 2016, the community’s biggest demand for a decent minimum wage may still be a distant reality. By raising the issue just ahead of elections, the tea tribes’ student body may have fanned the political fire.

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