Tea Garden Workers during a human chain protest at Negheriting Tea Estate

“I have been working in this tea estate since the last three years. I got the job after my mother-in-law passed away. Till today there has not been a single day when I have not worried about how to feed my drunkard husband, his father, and my sons,” says Mangri, a worker in the Negheriting Tea Estate to EastMojo.

She laments the fact that this is how her entire life is going to remain. For women belonging to Adivasi community in tea estates of Assam, choice has become an alien word and discrimination, injustice and violence, a daily living reality.

On September 30, nearly 300 workers formed a human chain in Negheriting Chariali of Golaghat District, demanding increment in their wages and land rights. While addressing the assemblage, Rustom Ali, Advisor to the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) of the unit spoke, “Time and again, our people have been tortured. Before the elections, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government promised us Rs 351 as our daily wage. However, our conditions have not changed at all, and next year too the scenario won’t change; political leaders make false promises before the elections.”

The protest was so intense that even the scorching heat followed with a little rain could not affect the numbers.

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A Tea Plantation Worker while talking to EastMojo

The current daily wage of workers in tea estate under Assam Tea Corporation Limited (ATCL) is only Rs 167. With prices of daily essentials and vegetables towering every other day, livelihood for them has become difficult.

“We are worried everyday regarding our children. We do not get any rations from the tea estate too; all that they provide us is tea leaves. It has become very difficult to run the family with this little wage,” says Manju Nagbonshi, a tea plantation worker.

In addition to this abysmal wage, workers in most plantations do not have access to adequate ration, water or sanitation facilities on a regular basis. Problems of anaemia and malnutrition are also highly prevalent. And to add to their trouble, the COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the situation. McLuhan coined the advent of this digital world as a global village but just like any other village in the country, even the “global village” seems to be not free of different households with every possible difference, intense enough to create gaps in the standards of life.

On EastMojo carrying out further enquiry if they have received any good signs of increment after the protest, none of the workers nodded their head and a few of them smiled, rhetorical enough to convey the hopelessness and pity, their lives are characterized with. “Even potato is priced at more than Rs 40 per kg. Until we get Rs 351 as our daily wage, the situations will not change at all. We do not even have any land rights,” said another worker while carrying on her work.

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The Workers assemble outside the garden office every fortnight to receive their wage.

“The government has provided us shelters recently. But how can humans live in a 16 ft home? They are more suitable for cows and goats. In other private tea estates they at least get firewood but here, situations are contrary. We need to send our children to schools too. In regards to tuition, we cannot even think of that. The government has only offered us cylinders but to fill gas, it will cost Rs 700. What we receive is only Rs 1500 in fifteen days! They had even removed names of many permanent employees and offered them retirement. However as replacement when their wards come to work, the jobs remain casual and never get permanent. Even our liabilities are unpaid,” explained another worker. She adds that they were given raincoats, sandals, water and firewood. But now they don’t get anything else except an umbrella. She has been working in this tea estate in the rain and heat for the past 30 years.

With most labour laws being violated, the workers in Barak Valley are further deprived as they get only Rs 145 as their daily wage. Assam accounts for one-sixth of world tea production and 52% of total tea produced in India.

While speaking to EastMojo, Dayaram Rabidas from Assam Tea Tribe Students’ Association (ATTSA) said, “We are just a vote bank for any political parties. ATTSA will stick to its demand of minimum wage of Rs 351 and land rights for the people of the community.” ATTSA’s central executive member Uma Shankar Kurmi too spoke about different issues and added that apart from a fair wage rate and land rights, all the 109 sub-ethnic communities of the tea tribe community should be included in the scheduled tribes list, which they have been fighting for.”

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Posters highlighting two major issues the Tea Community of Assam demands to be resolved.

“The garden administration should provide employment to our children. Once we retire, they will just make them work in our place. But our situations would not improve until our children also become Babus (referring to people working in managerial and clerical posts),” said an old woman with tea plucking experience of twenty years.

On asking her in regard to effects post COVID-19, she tells that they maintain distancing while working and even wore masks during the protest. But when they go to their small houses in the lines (labour lines consist of houses or quarters of the workers), they cannot follow any distancing measures.

Tea workers in Kerala are paid a minimum daily wage of Rs 310. This minimum wage is Rs 263 in Karnataka and Rs 241 in Tamil Nadu. In a recent Facebook Post by Sanjoy Kishan, minister of state for labour welfare department, he announced a 20% bonus to the tea workers before Durga Puja.

The ATCL workers and the ATTSA had demanded the same. The ATCL workers have been given a house to live. Also, there are scholarships for the students of the community. While talking to people working in tea garden office, we got to know that the finance minister of the state Dr Himanta Biswa Sharma had promised a sum of Rs 3000 to the bank account of every worker. However, it will be noteworthy to see if the most essential demands of the people i.e. land rights and minimum wage of Rs 351 will be met or remain a mere demand, in near future.

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