Chabua (Assam): On March 19, when Rahul Gandhi visited the small tea town of Chabua in Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh, Basanti Kumari was one of the workers who had lunch with him. Days later, however, she seems unconvinced by the party’s outreach.
“The present government has governed well,” Kumari, who works as a permanent worker at the Chubwa Tea Estate, where the British first successfully planted tea in 1836. “During lockdown, they gave us money. We got rice at our homes,” she said.
Tea garden workers constitute roughly 17 percent of Assam’s population. This largely marginalised community, which first came to Assam as indentured labourers in the 19th century, are said to be influential in as many as 40 Assembly constituencies. Many of these, like Chabua, will vote in the first phase of elections on March 27.
The Congress has launched a massive outreach to regain its hold among the community, which, like many other sections of voters in Assam, chose the BJP in 2016 and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The party has promised to hike the wages to Rs 365 per day, up from Rs 167 that the tea garden workers are getting at present.
Both Priyanka Gandhi and brother Rahul Gandhi, senior leaders of the party, visited and interacted with tea garden workers during their election campaign in Assam.
Workers like 38-year-old Kumari say they have to struggle to survive. “It is difficult to survive with Rs 167 a day,” said Kumari, a mother of two, and the sole breadwinner for the family after her husband had to stop working because of health issues.
“We told Rahul Gandhi about our problems. We told him about the house, about the electricity bill, about the LPG cylinder. He didn’t say anything if he will help us. Just patiently heard,” she said, recalling the lunch with the Congress leader.
Kumari had been a Congress supporter like her parents, who were also tea garden workers.
“When my father and mother were around, they voted for the Congress. The party did not do anything,” she complained. “We voted for the Congress so many times. But they didn’t give us a house, didn’t give us a toilet. They did not make roads. We had to wade through knee-deep slush to get to the tea garden to pluck,” Kumari said.
While the BJP did not hike the wages to Rs 351 as per the demand of the workers, many like Kumari say they have been beneficiaries of the government schemes. For example the state government started a Direct Benefit Transfer under the Chah Bagicha Dhan Puraskar Mela (CBDPM) scheme where workers have received Rs 8,000 since the scheme started in 2017-2018 to facilitate financial inclusion after demonetisation.
“They gave us Rs 3,000 during lockdown,” said Kumari referring to the latest installment of the CBDPM. “BJP has made houses. What if I haven’t got one yet, but others have. They have made roads,” Kumari said at her one-room house in the residential quarters of the tea estate.
Asked if she will vote for the Congress this time, Kumari is unsure. “Modi Sarkar has made roads in the line (residential areas of workers). It has made houses for workers. If Congress also does these things we will vote for them,” she said.
In 2019, Chabua was the epicentre of the anti-CAA protests, when many government offices were attacked and burnt down by protestors.
In 2016, it was BJP’s Binod Hazarika who won from Chabua. Hazarika has been shifted to neighbouring Lahowal. The BJP has left the seat for its alliance partner the AGP, who has fielded Punakon Baruah. While the Congress has fielded Ajoy Phukan, the Raijor Dal has Bhaben Baruah as their candidate.
A tea garden worker said the only reason why many from the community may choose the Congress candidate in Chabua is not because they are convinced by the party, but because the BJP has not fielded its candidate. “There will be no lotus symbol on the EVM to press on,” the worker said.
Meanwhile, the Indian Tea Association on Monday hiked the minimum per day wage of workers by an interim amount of Rs 26. This was after the Gauhati High Court put the onus on raising wages on tea plantation owners.
“It has been decided that an interim enhancement of Rs 26 per day will be granted to Daily Rated Workers in Brahmaputra Valley and Barak Valley, over the existing level of wages, with effect from February 22 till the issue is finally decided by the Gauhati High Court,” a statement signed by the Indian Tea Association (ITA) Secretary General Arijit Raha said.
The ITA and 17 tea plantation owners and companies had filed a petition to withdraw a February 23 notification from the Labour Welfare Department that enhanced the minimum wage of workers from Rs 167 per day to Rs 217 per day, by adding an “interim amount” of Rs 50.