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OPINION

Make the clarion call, now!

The recent hooch tragedy in the two upper Assam districts of Jorhat and Golaghat has once again reflected the pitiable living conditions of tea workers in the state

The recent hooch tragedy, considered one of the worst-ever, in the two upper Assam districts of Jorhat and Golaghat, where over 160 people died due to consumption of spurious liquor, has once again reflected the pitiable living conditions of tea garden workers in the state.

First of all, this is not the first time that tea garden workers have been at the receiving end of this age-old social and public health problem. Even though the issue at hand is spurious liquor, time and again, over 10 lakh tea workers working in over 850 tea gardens of the state have been struggling to do away with several evils being faced by the community.

Before the issue dies down once again, it’s time to make that clarion call -- to think and do something concrete about the genuine problems being faced by the tea garden workers of Assam for decades.

Tea garden workers were immigrated into Assam in several phases from the mid-19th century to mid-20th century from the tribal heartland of central-eastern India.

The rising anti-British movements across the tribal and backward caste-dominated Chota Nagpur region (present-day southern Jharkhand and northern Odisha) and scarcity of cheap labourers to work in the expanding tea industry of Assam led the British authorities to forcibly recruit tribals and backward-caste Hindus as indentured labourers to work in the tea gardens of the state. Thousands of those people recruited as labourers died of diseases during the journey to Assam, and hundreds were killed by the British authorities who tried to flee as punishment for breaching their contracts.

In 1841, the first attempt was made by the Assam Company to recruit labourers. In this attempt, 652 people were forcibly recruited but due to outbreak of cholera most of them died. Those who survived fled. In 1859, Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act was passed. It rescued the tea planters from scarcity of labour by recruiting people from outside Assam through contracts.

Medical care facilities inside the tea gardens of the state are really pathetic. Thousands of labourers die annually due to non-availability of proper medical care in their areas.

Even though a lot of initiatives are being taken as per government records, but the ground reality is abnormally different. There are public health centres (PHCs) inside some of the tea estates, albeit proper infrastructure. In absence of doctors, casual staff members allegedly prescribe medicines to these workers. In some cases, there are doctors and nurses, but some of them have even taken retirement without even visiting their respective workplaces. Getting medicines and other necessary goods is still a distant dream in majority of the medical centres of the tea gardens of the state.

The gardens didn’t appoint any doctor. The colonial government tried to pressure the tea gardens to appoint doctors. European medical officers used to send health reports to the government regularly but tea gardens refused to accept it. Most of the gardens didn’t have hospitals to treat labourers. Even after the elapsing of so many decades, the condition continues to remain the same.

Apart from the health conditions, the level of infrastructure relating to education is beyond imagination. The tea planters never encouraged education to garden labourers as it would prevent them from physical labour or may protest against exploitation. Even after independence, the amount spent for tea garden workers’ education in the first five-year plan was just Rs 0.26 million (Rs 2.6 lakh) -- not even 10 paise per tea garden labourer.

Tea garden workers are facing lots of problems due to the negligence of the authorities concerned for ages.
Tea garden workers are facing lots of problems due to the negligence of the authorities concerned for ages.
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Unhygienic living condition forces these workers to fall easy prey to diseases like malaria, diarrhoea, TB, meningitis and skin lesions, etc. Every year, lots of workers from these tea garden areas die due to malaria and diarrhoea. Some of such cases even die down without getting reported.
Various government schemes are yet to solve some of the basic problems of Assam tea garden workers
Various government schemes are yet to solve some of the basic problems of Assam tea garden workers
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A combination of dismal living conditions and low wages has kept tea workers and their families malnourished and in poor health. Unhygienic living condition forces these workers to suffer from diseases like malaria, diarrhoea, TB, meningitis and skin lesions etc. Every year, lots of workers from these tea garden areas die due to malaria and diarrhoea. Some of such cases even die down without getting reported.

Regarding the recent hooch tragedy, consumption of spurious liquor in Assam gardens is nothing new. Over the years precious human lives have been lost in large numbers due to consumption of spurious liquor. As usual, the government has ordered an inquiry but such interventions that come more as a knee-jerk reaction than with any serious intent is unlikely to address the issue.

The law enforcement agencies should also take adequate measures to protect the interests of the tea garden workers of the state. The state government has ordered for an inquiry into the causes leading to the death of over 160 people in tea gardens in Assam. But what happened to the numerous inquiry reports that have already been submitted on various issues?

Have the state governments, both present and the past, taken any lesson from the recommendations given in such reports for the welfare of the workers working in the tea gardens of Assam? So, going by previous experiences, one can easily imagine that the state government’s decision to institute an inquiry commission to ascertain the causes leading to the death of huge number of workers is nothing but eyewash.

Following the liquor tragedy in Assam, the state government has imposed a ban on ‘lali gur’ (red molasses), a substance used to make illicit liquor. But it’s an open secret that such goods are being sold in open markets to prepare liquor for tea garden workers. This practice is being carried out under the nose of the respective district administrations.

Now, after the disaster, everyone in the district administration is busy destroying spurious liquor stocks. It’s good, but where were those officers in the district administration under whose nose the ‘lali gur’ was being openly sold in market to prepare such liquor? This is nothing but the reflection of step-motherly approach from the state government towards the tea garden workers.

It seems that the political parties in the country are also using this huge chunk of tea garden labourers as their vote banks. Be it the Congress, BJP, AGP or even the Left parties, nobody is serious about improving the standard of living of these tea garden labourers. Every time these people need something, be it high wages or improving infrastructure in PHCs, history reveals that they always have to shed blood.

Lots of kids have lost their parents due to the consumption of spurious liquor recently. Who will take their responsibility now?
Lots of kids have lost their parents due to the consumption of spurious liquor recently. Who will take their responsibility now?
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Politically speaking, every political party in Assam has their representation from the tea garden community. They have their representatives as MP, MLA and even ministers in every government. Despite this, the actual condition of the tea garden workers in Assam is beyond improvement.

Politically speaking, every political party in Assam has their representation from the tea garden community. They have their representatives as MP, MLA and even ministers in every government. Despite this, the actual condition of the tea garden workers in Assam is beyond improvement.

Now, time has arrived for social organisations, governments and people’s representatives of the state to sit together and implement the policies keeping the greater interest of the development of this section of people in mind. Otherwise, if situation goes beyond control, this section of people shouldn’t be blamed at any cost. Is there anyone listening?

(The author is an assistant editor at EastMojo. Views expressed are his own)