Guwahati: The second flush of tea harvesting is almost over. One of the major exports from India, Assam tea was exposed to drought-like weather earlier in April that reduced the yield drastically. Around the same time, the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic had already killed 15 workers in the state – as compared to three from the first wave in 2020. In 2020, tea gardens were closed down for 10 days after the Union Government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 23. This year, the rules were different. 

Until May 19, 229 tea gardens of Assam had 1,851 active cases with COVID infections steadily rising every day, which was about 3.8 percent of the total active cases in Assam recorded on that day. On Wednesday, Gauhati High Court took cognizance of the rising number of cases in tea gardens of Assam and ordered the Assam government to file a detailed report by May 31.  

Covid care centre at the Numaligarh tea estate | Umesh Luhar, ATTSA

Often seen as a “large votebank” by political parties of various hues, Adivasi leaders say that state government and tea garden owners have put in very little effort to safeguard a community that makes up to about 17 percent of Assam’s population. The decision to keep the gardens operational, the leaders said, is only making it difficult for raising awareness against this second wave of infections. 

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Second wave in times of second flush

For the 800-odd tea estates spread across Assam, shutting down operations would increase the losses already faced by these gardens due to lack of rainfall. A decrease of 45 percent of rainfall during the first flush in April led to drought-like scenarios, which led to a crop deficit of 60 million kilograms. 

“The year 2021 has been an unusual year so far for the Assam tea industry as far as tea production is concerned. As per our study, the crop deficit from January to May in 2021 will be about 60 million kilograms as compared with the same period in the year 2019. We have not compared crop figures with the year 2020 because last year the crop deficit from January to May was 78 million kilogrammes due to COVID lockdown. In percentage terms, the crop deficit from January to May, 2021 will be about 40% compared to the same period in 2019,” Bidyananda Barkakoty, Adviser, North Eastern Tea Association (NETA) told Eastmojo

Covid care centre in Numaligarh | Umesh Luhar, ATTSA

Barkakoty added the Government of India faced a revenue loss of ₹ 1218 crores from the tea sector in 2020 due to lockdown as opposed to ₹ 900 crores in 2021.   

Curiously, the shortages caused by drought have led to an increase in the auction prices at Assam Tea Auction Centre by 30.28 percent between March and April – when the COVID-19 second wave started its virulent spread across the country. However, Barkakoty demonstrated that between April 2020 and April 2021, average auction price dropped by 28.9 percent even as there was an overall increase of 32 percent in average auction price between April 2019 and April 2021 – a comparison that shows a significant increase in the auction price between a non-pandemic year and pandemic year full of uncertainties. 

Assam may be showing a decreasing trend in the number of cases on a daily basis, yet a large section of the Adivasi community involved in tea production wants the State Government to intervene and formulate a policy to contain the spread of COVID 19 infections.  

Laboured congestion

Zaloni, one of the worst impacted tea gardens in Assam, near Duliajan in Dibrugarh, still has 200-odd COVID positive cases of workers and employees, which started to peak from May 6. 

According to Manuj Urang of All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA), Dibrugarh district, work was suspended in Zaloni and Maijan after they were declared as containment zones. 

The tea garden workers | File

“However, across several tea gardens, work is happening in full steam, with scant regard for COVID protocols. Most people think this second wave is not as intense as the previous one in 2020,” said Urang, who is the AASAA secretary for Dibrugarh district with 177 tea estates – highest in Assam. 

Longsowal, a tea estate in Doomdooma of Tinsukia district, has been recording 10 to 12 positive cases every day over the last fortnight. According to Dr B.K. Phukan, a physician at Longsowal Central Hospital run by Apeejay Group, a tea manufacturer, COVID positive people with complications are directly referred to the Tinsukia Civil Hospital 30 kilometres away or to Dibrugarh Medical College, 80 kilometres from the tea gardens. 

The doctor recalled a COVID positive patient with burn injuries who was immediately referred to Dibrugarh Medical College. The first COVID related death was recorded in the hospital after a garden worker with severe anaemia succumbed to complications. 

“The anaemic patient was not COVID positive when he was hospitalized. We suspect that repeated visits by his attendant gave him the infection in the hospital,” Dr Phukan told Eastmojo.     

“All the positive cases, asymptomatic or with mild symptoms are transferred to COVID care centres or quarantine centres, which have come up in 10 tea estates around our hospital. We keep them for seven days in these centres and then home quarantine for another 10 days till they show up COVID negative,” said Dr Phukan. 

The physician ascribed congested living conditions in the homes of the workers where five to six people live in one room and lack of awareness as the main reasons for the increasing number of cases in the tea gardens.

“Besides congested living conditions, people in the community put their masks on when they enter the hospital, imagining that the virus is inside the hospital. They still do not show up for vaccinations despite repeated calls and awareness programmes,” the doctor added. 

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Caught unaware

Of the 800-odd tea gardens spread across Assam with more than 1 million workers, almost all are functioning with some areas within these gardens declared as containment zones. A notification dated April 26 issued by the Assam government in the wake of growing number of COVID-19 infections across the country allows all the tea gardens to remain operational despite COVID-19 restrictions across the state. 

Deben Urang, AASAA’s state secretary who hails from Moran, a town in Dibrugarh district, told Eastmojo that the infection is spreading in 12 tea gardens close to his town with 117 active cases. Of the 12 estates, Sepon Tea Estate bordering Sibsagar district recorded 82 cases. 

Urang found that most of the infections in his area started spreading in the community from cooks who worked in the colonial mansions of the managers. He, along with other AASAA volunteers, hired a megaphone and moved around the neighbouring tea estates distributing masks and spreading awareness among the community. 

Covid care centre at the Numaligarh tea estate | Umesh Luhar, ATTSA

“They are only conducting Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT), which also happens after 12 days. People have been showing COVID symptoms for a while but it was only known after tests. Before that they were roaming around without masks, meeting others and working, and the infection spread,” said Urang, who had been demanding separate standard operating procedures (SOPs) for tea gardens across Assam. 

“Tea gardens may function subject to observance of COVID appropriate behaviour. Head of the tea garden shall be responsible for ensuring social distancing, mask wearing by workers and staff, sanitization of industrial premises, thermal scanning etc,” the notification states. 

Ghanshyam Barhoi, President of Assam Chah Majdoor Sangha (ACMS), has been in talks with the Assam government since the first few cases were reported from Dibrugarh. 

“We demanded that there should be quarantine centers with adequate testing facilities in each of the tea gardens in Assam as home quarantine is not feasible. People living under home quarantine may end up being careless, leading to the spread of the virus. Government has urged all the tea estates to start the process and a new SOP is already in place for these COVID care centres (CCC) in each of the tea estates. Besides, several tea gardens are provided with rations,” Barhoi told Eastmojo

Assam tea industry: Stuck in time

Women working with masks on at the Bokakhat tea estate | Emmanuel Barla

Barhoi said the Assam Government and Tea Growers’ Association have agreed to pay at least 15-day wages to COVID positive workers during their recovery phase. 

“The tea garden management would see that all the workers and employees are paid their wages and salaries during this period. The Assam government has also assured us that this will be monitored,” added Barhoi. 

However, AASAA’s state secretary Urang said that across various estates, the wages for those who were tested COVID positive are yet to be paid. 

“The recovery period might extend beyond 15 days. There might be post-Covid complications too. We need the government to consider these aspects too,” said Urang. 

The Adivasi leader added that mass testing in tea estates is yet to start while several CCCs are not even equipped with oxygen cylinders. 

“The numbers would double if they start testing properly using RT-PCR testing kits. As of now, it’s only when there are more people in a tea garden with symptoms that testing is being done – that too after 12 to 15 day intervals for those showing symptoms of COVID 19. Besides, CCCs in our area are not equipped to handle any emergency,” Urang added. 

Even Barhoi, who has been advocating separate quarantine facilities in all tea gardens, said that a large number of COVID positive people are asymptomatic or with mild symptoms among the tea community. 

“They keep stepping out and infecting others when they should stay in home quarantine,” Barhoi added.

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Letekujaan tea estate near Titabor. This is the main source of water in these gardens | Sonia Tanti

Amarjyoti Surin, a senior Adivasi leader from Mazbat in Udalguri, said that even during this global pandemic, tea gardens are stuck in a time warp. 

“There is no awareness because tea gardens are caught in time. There is British Raj prevalent in these gardens. The state government is happy earning the revenue from these estates. Tea is among the top three exports in India and a powerful lobby controls its production. So even when it comes down to raising awareness in the tea gardens, the government would leave it to the management,” Surin told Eastmojo

The adivasi leader said that despite Udalguri district having more than 300 active COVID 19 cases, tea gardens along with several rural areas were left out from mass testing. 

“As per Assam government’s SOP after the second wave of COVID-19 infections hit the state, the management is supposed to conduct awareness programs. At Betali, the tea garden near my home, the garden management conducted its first awareness meeting when the factory reported the first case,” he added. 

Surin blamed the lack of awareness about the second wave squarely on tea garden managements and the district administration. 

“We had been demanding through various memorandums to the state government to implement curfew times like other parts of the state. Town markets shut down by 1 PM or 2 PM in some places but work goes on in the tea gardens till 4 PM. People return from these markets but continue to hang around in tea gardens without maintaining any safety protocols. Young teenagers are showing COVID like symptoms, yet they are playing football matches in our areas till evening, because there is no one here to enforce any protocols,” said Surin. 

Assam’s tea industry: Chaos in waiting

Women from Letekujan tea estate near Titabor, Jorhat district, protesting against lack of drinking water and sanitation recently | Sonia Tanti

Barhoi, the ACMS president, maintains that work has to go on as it would directly impact the tea garden and their workers. 

“We understand that there is a lack of awareness, but the work has to go on. We also need to think about the tea industry. The SOPs are clear about maintaining social distancing in the fields and taking precautions like masks and washing hands repeatedly. Workers’ living conditions remain unhygienic while the worker lines, the areas where the community mostly resides, are congested and unhygienic,” said Barhoi. 

In practice, however, Surin called the SOPs dysfunctional. “When they enter the tea garden, they put their mask on, when they step out, they take off their masks. Close to 100 to 150 workers assemble in tea gardens every day, bringing their tea leaves for weighing. Sometimes, with just one weighing scale, the entire process can become chaotic,” Surin said.  

Sonia Tanti, Jorhat District Secretary of the All Adivasi Women’s Association of Assam (AAWAA) maintained that it is only by some luck that people in her hometown, Letekujan near Titabor, are yet to see a rise in COVID infections. Tanti cited the lack of proper drinking water supply, which exacerbated the unhygienic conditions in the garden. She pointed to a recent report by The Third Pole, which talks about poor drinking water quality in the tea gardens with no sanitation or running water to explain the enormity of the problem. She wrote several letters to Jorhat district administration, apprising the authorities about a water supply project that failed to deliver drinking water to the worker’ residences. 

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The main source of water at the Letekujaan tea estate near Titabor | Sonia Tanti

“Even during this pandemic, people do not have access to clean drinking water in Letekujan. They rely on a dirty pond to meet their daily water needs. Women workers especially do not get time to even treat the water from the ponds because they have to work from 7 AM till 4 PM. They return home by dusk when it’s too late to care about clean water with families to feed,” Tanti told Eastmojo.  

As for preparedness, Surin’s observations echoed at Borsapori, an estate in Golaghat district which was among the first ones to be turned into a containment zone. 

Sontush Rajuwar, 35, a security guard at a tea processing factory in Borsapori district was tested negative on Monday. He complained of mild fever, after which the factory staff asked him to visit Borsapori Club on May 6, where he was tested positive. Rajuwar stayed at home along with his wife and two children. 

“I was given paracetamol [an analgesic] and I stayed quarantined at home for more than 15 days,” Rajuwar told Eastmojo. “It was only on Tuesday [May 15] that a lower primary school in the area was converted into a quarantine centre. However, the garden authorities provided me with rations,” he added. 

At the Bokakhat tea estate | PC: Emmanuel Barla

By the time he was tested negative, 35 others from the tea garden had tested positive out of a population of 4,000. “I was among the first ones to be infected in the tea garden after the manager fell sick, as my duty was to man the factory gates,” Rajuwar added, saying that the infection started with the administrative staff of the garden.

In the neighbouring Numaligarh tea estate, the local All Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (ATTSA) volunteer, Umesh Lohar had been coordinating with various local organizations and Village Defence Parties, figuring out rations for the people in the containment zones. “In the last four days, there have been only three new positive cases added to the total number of 72 cases among 4000 workers in Numaligarh Tea Estate,” said Lohar. 

Apart from two critical cases, Lohar said that most of the workers who contracted the infection were asymptomatic. “I am worried that there are 25 beds in the new Covid care centre housed inside the local primary school. What if there is another wave of infection?” asked the alarmed student leader to EastMojo. 

At Murphuloni tea estate in Golaghat, AASAA District Secretary Simson Orang said that 16 new cases have been detected while the numbers are going up in Rongagora Estate, close to the Golaghat. 

“We have been asking the district administration, the tea gardens to reduce the number of hours of work as people are not taking this new wave seriously,” Orang told Eastmojo

“People showing symptoms are yet to be tested, while many of them have been consuming analgesics and going to work,” Orang said. 

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Covid care centre in Numaligarh | Umesh Luhar, ATTSA

Due to the spread of COVID infections in the tea gardens, even concerned citizens from the state have come forward, especially in the plantation areas. “State government should grant wage relief to all the affected workers and their families and pay minimum wage for at least two months and give them complete rest to recover. A proper training of volunteers from the community to monitor and spread awareness,” stated a letter by activists, Pranab Doley, Soneshwar Narah, Immanuel Barla, Biju Chautal, Sonia Munda and others from Bokakhat in Golaghat, in support of the tea workers. The activists have urged in their memorandum to carry out relief measures under Assam State Disaster Management Authority’s guidelines.

These memorandums have had local impacts with Golaghat district administration ensuring the availability of vaccines for the workers in Numaligarh and Borsapori. Lohar, the ATTSA volunteer, said that walk-in vaccinations are taking place for people above 45 years. “We are yet to see vaccines for people 18 and 45 years in our area,” Lohar added. Bahroi from ACMS feels that most of the people in the tea gardens would not be able to book their vaccines. “We have requested them for walk-in vaccination based on their IDs,” Bahroi said. Although Surin agrees with Bahroi, he said that mobile connectivity is the main issue in the gardens as well as rural areas of Assam. “People in urban areas book the vaccines available slots because of high connectivity so people with bad or erratic network will not be able to get those. That is why it is important to have walk-in vaccination,” Surin said. 

For a community that is seen largely as a vote bank according to Surin and several adivasi representatives of the community, the pandemic is an opportunity for the newly elected government to change the vote bank perception. “During elections, leaders make a beeline to our areas as they know that we are 17 percent of the state’s population. If they don’t want us to think so, this would be the time to stand with us,” Surin added.

Tea garden workers with masks on at the Bokakhat tea estate | PC: Emmanuel Barla

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