“Subah ka shuruwat achha hota hain Sahib (This kickstarts your day better, Sir),” a smiling 52-year-old Yogesh Kumar said, looking at me, as I sipped on the tiny glass of milk tea offered by him. I nodded and smiled back. Kumar has been selling tea in his makeshift shanty at the Guwahati Railway Station for over two decades now.
A steaming hot cup of tea is indeed how a billion of us here in India, and a lot of other people in various other countries around the world, start our days with. And for any outsider from India, or even someone from abroad, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the name Assam, is “tea”. The tiny black granules of fine tea that comes from the stunning lush green tea estates dotted across the landscape of Assam is synonymous with its very essence and identity, and not till long ago, the industry was among the highest foreign exchange earners for the country.
But things have changed over the years. People within the industry, the government, and even the ordinary public are now increasingly aware that things are “bad”, and it is rapidly fumbling downhill from bad to worse, especially for the large scale organised sector tea estates which directly accommodate millions of workers.
There has been lengthy debates, discussions and deliberations as to how things got this far, and of the several momentous and trivial issues raised, there is consensus that the factors contributing to this downward spiral are primarily haphazard and unplanned intensification of the the unorganized sector that has led to flooding of poor quality teas, saturation in market due to stagnant domestic demand, stretched balance sheets and huge losses for most of the organised sector tea companies due to unfair competition from the unorganised sector, ignorance and apathy on part of the government, a mostly illiterate and semi literate workforce, huge dependence on labour, unfavourable climatic conditions, a largely hostile media that loves to vilify the industry, etc, all of which have warped a maze of quandary that seems pretty much impossible to breakthrough.
But, all is certainly not doom and gloom. For a flag-bearing industry that has over 180 years of glorious history, and one that is still responsible for the livelihood of several million people, failure is simply not an option. And fate forbid, if it does; the collapse of the tea industry will render millions of vulnerable workers without income or any sort of social security, which will not only be an immense human tragedy but it might very well catapult into chaos and fuel civil unrest throughout the state.
So what can be done? The answer is not that simple, but the first, yet the most crucial step towards the revival of the tea industry of Assam, would be to setup a dedicated ministry for tea at the state level. Let us be clear that, this is an absolute inevitability, and there cannot be conciliation with this. There has to be a ministry of tea at the state level, and all parties concerned should begin lobbying to get this done as soon as possible.
Bearing in mind the miscellany and enormity of problems that has engulfed the industry, the government has to step in, and thankfully it has, but in order to have any sort of tangible and meaningful impact, a dedicated ministry for tea, pioneering and leading the way is a must. Until then there cannot be assurance of any calculated and coordinated efforts from the government, as random acts of kindness, or handing out doles during elections is not going to have any positive long-standing outcome.
The establishment of a dedicated ministry of tea will ensure that there can be committed studies and fishbone analyses into the different issues plaguing the industry, and more importantly it can ensure ample co-operation and collaboration within the various government departments that are directly or indirectly involved with the tea industry.
If we look at the broader picture, there was a growing demand within the industry that the government should take over the different free welfare obligations (e.g. dwelling and sanitation, healthcare, ration, firewood, etc) that is provided to its workforce by the organised sector industry in addition to the statutory wages and allowances; which is a major cause of additional expenditure. And luckily, there has been growing involvement of the government into the industry through a range of infrastructure and welfare centric activities, which currently aim to lessen, and in near future might completely relieve this burden from the industry.
But, then again, the scope of the government is limited due to lack of coordination between its various departments and agencies, and also due to bindings of law, such as the PLA (Plantation Labour Act of 1951), which restricts government participation in plantations. It will be impossible to discuss the nuances of this act here, but we can safely conclude that it today’s scenario, it is in urgent need of amendment. In fact, Pallab Lochan Das, an MP from Assam (Tezpur Lok Sabha constituency) made a passionate plea in the floor of the national parliament while addressing “Matters of Urgent Public Interest” on July 2, 2019, emphasising on the need to amend these acts. But there has not been much headway into it. These are exactly the type of issues that will require steadfast persistence, and it would be unfair to expect that from lone wolfs and current government bodies with specialised areas of interest (their usefulness and effectiveness can be a different account altogether), unless there is a separate tea ministry.
the DONER ministry has acted as a facilitator between various ministries and government departments and has had tremendous impact on the development of the region, approving and implementing developmental projects relating to infrastructure (including roads, railways, airports, waterways, trans-state highways), power and tourism worth billions of dollars
Finally, as a case of reference, we can look at the DONER ministry (ministry of development of Northeastern region) of the Central government, which was established in the year 2001, and granted full-fledged status in May 2004. Prior to its formation, there was huge chaos and confusion when it came to formulation and implementation of various government projects and policies for the Northeastern region. But after its formation, the DONER ministry has acted as a facilitator between various ministries and government departments and has had tremendous impact on the development of the region, approving and implementing developmental projects relating to infrastructure (including roads, railways, airports, waterways, trans-state highways), power and tourism worth billions of dollars.
It is actually a matter of yawning regret that it has taken us so long to demand for a separate ministry of tea, considering the impact and importance of the industry in the state. But all is well that ends well. There is time, and all the well-wishers of the tea industry for the sake of its survival, need to get united and demand for the formation of a separate ministry of tea at the state level. It can coalesce and act as a unifying mechanism for the various government departments operating within the tea industry and also safeguard the interests of the numerous tea companies and its people within. Only that will ensure that there is in-depth analysis into the problems, and there is methodical development of the entire industry, including the millions of people depending upon it.
(The author is a 31-year-old tea planter from Assam, and has penned several articles in web and print media related to the tea industry of Assam, including the very popular The Beginning o the End for Tea in Assam. He is also a foodie and a passionate biker)