Guwahati: Assam’s tea garden workers are being wooed by political parties of all shades with promises of sops galore, as they comprise a hefty share of the state’s electorate.
In the ongoing assembly polls leaders from the ruling BJP as well as challenger Congress besides the regional outfits- the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the newly floated Assam Jatiya Parishad – have been fanning out to the constituencies in the tea-belt areas spread across eight districts of Upper Assam.
Out of the 47 constituencies going to polls in the first phase on March 27, 38 of them fall in the tea districts of Jorhat, Golaghat, Sibsagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Bishwanath and Sonitpur.
The eight lakh workforce in 850 gardens of the state is, is seen as a formidable vote bank whose unstinted support, the Congress had enjoyed for decades since independence.
However, in the 2014 Parliamentary elections, the BJP, with the support of the RSS and its allied organizations, made winning four of its seven Lok Sabha seats from Assam in the tea-belt areas.
The saffron party followed it up by winning 22 seats in the 2016 assembly polls with its ally the AGP picking up four more. Subsequently, the saffron party increased its tally in the 2019 parliamentary polls to nine Lok Sabha constituencies, retaining all the seats it had won in the earlier elections.
The Congress is now making an all-out effort to regain lost ground with its election campaign focusing on increasing the daily wages of tea garden workers to Rs 365 from an existing Rs 167, which appears to have caught the ruling BJP on the wrong foot placing them on the defensive.
To counter, it has been highlighting the various measures taken by the party during the last five years of its rule for the tea garden belt.
Both Congress and the BJP have pulled all stops to counter each other’s claims on their respective contribution to the tea industry.
Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra made particular efforts to woo the community by both visiting tea gardens and enjoying cups of tea and lunch with tea garden workers. The BJP fielded its national leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and party President J P Nadda, all of whom addressed several election rallies in tea-rich constituencies.
Priyanka made a popular connect in the tea garden areas as she sat on the garden grounds, chatted with workers, sipped a cuppa, visited the home of a labourer’s family and even tied the wicker basket to her head to go plucking tea leaves in a garden in Biswanath district which the BJP ridiculed as a “photo op session during the off-season when leaves are not plucked”.
“The BJP may make fun but it is clear that they have cheated the tea garden workers by not fulfilling any of the promises made by the party in the 2016 polls. The Congress has reached out to the workers and promised that all their long-pending issues will be addressed,” Assam Congress President Ripun Bora said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in all his five election rallies so far in the state has alleged that the Congress, which ruled the state for decades, had failed to provide them with basic facilities and it was the BJP during the last five years of its rule that ensured an increase in wages twice.
He also underlined that the state government had sought another increase before the announcement of polls but the matter is currently in Court. Once the BJP manages to retain the state, it would try to resolve the issue amicably at the earliest.
The BJP government has also opened 7.5 lakh bank accounts for tea garden workers, given a fillip to education by opening new schools, come up with health facilities with mobile medical units, besides providing financial aid giving to pregnant women, and addressing their nutritional needs.
The Prime Minister also pointed out the NDA government at the Centre has allocated Rs 1000 crore exclusively for the assistance of tea gardens and the workers in the Union budget.
The BJP in its manifesto has also promised to increase the amount under the Assam Chah Bagichar Dhan Puraskar Mela scheme to Rs 12,000 from the present grant of Rs 3,000 in a phased manner.
The party has also promised a high school in every tea garden and a college for every ten tea gardens in the state, the appointment of ‘Bagicha Mitras’ in all tea gardens to act as the single point of contact to ensure complete penetration and reach of government schemes in these areas, improvement of all roads in tea garden areas, among other promises.
The Congress, on its part, has promised free electricity to workers, land rights and housing to landless and homeless persons from the tea tribes’ community and the formation of a separate Tea Ministry, the party’s Manifesto Committee Chairman Gaurav Gogoi said.
The ruling BJP’s ally AGP has also stepped up its campaign for the tea garden workers and assured that the NDA government will continue with its initiatives to improve their standard of living.
The newly floated Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) has also promised that tea garden workers will be given Scheduled Tribe status in the state and provided constitutional safeguards.
The tea garden workers are, however, not very forthcoming about their preferences with the young, particularly, claiming that both the national parties have made promises in the past which they have failed to fulfil and this time “we will decide as our heart and mind guides us when the time comes”.
A 22-year old college student and a first-time voter from the Golaghat district said that the political parties have “always taken us for granted and give us importance only during elections. This time we will take specific commitments from the candidates and also ask for a fixed time-frame in which they will fulfil their promises”.
The Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) is also not happy with the government for not raising the daily wages of the tea garden workers with an office-bearer claiming that contrary to claims, the benefits have not reached all and “it is difficult to say in whose favour the workers will exercise their votes”.
The brew seems to be steaming for the candidates with none too sure of who gets to sip the final cup!
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