This election season, there's a storm brewing in Assam's tea gardens
Assam's tea tribes, the backbone of the world-class industry, are crucial vote banks in every election. But they remain the most backward community in the state
Six years ago, when Thomas Kerketta visited Garih Jharia Maria, his ancestral village in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district, everyone treated him as an outsider. The 30-year-old Orang Adivasi, who grew up around the Tinkharia tea estate near Dhekiajuli town in Assam’s Sonitpur district, where his parents worked as labourers, says he didn’t feel at home with his own people.
“They kept saying, ‘see an Assamese has arrived’,” says Kerketta, seated in the verandah of the Bijaypur Basti house his grandfather built before he was born, a short drive from the Tinkharia estate. “Over there, everyone spoke in the Oraon bhasha but I can’t speak in my native tongue,” he says.
Kerketta’s great-grandfather was among the hundreds of thousands of labourers that the British East India Company took from the Chotanagpur region in the 1800s to work in Assam’s tea gardens. The indentured labourers met the booming demand for tea grown in Assam, an experiment that succeeded initially with Chinese labourers.
Post independence, most of the elite caste Assamese took over the gardens, where they had worked as managers or in administration. The tribes and lower-caste workers continued to work in the gardens, ghettoised in the labour lines running adjacent to the estates. Generations changed but their wages changed little.
In 2015, Kerketta’s wife, Rasaliya , now 28, took over her mother-in-law’s permanent job as a labourer on the Tinkharia estate, earning ₹167 a day. In most tea gardens, a permanent job is only offered to the next of kin (or their spouse). “When the workers can’t take the physical load any more, the younger ones in the family take over,” she says.
Kerketta replaced his father, who was a temporary—known locally, and pejoratively, as “faltoo” or useless—worker at the estate, when the elder was ready to hang up his boots. Earlier, Kerketta had been a caretaker for the estate manager’s bungalow. On days he’s not being faltoo, he works as a carpenter, which fetches him ₹300 a day, ₹133 more than what he or his wife earn working eight hours in the garden.
His family is among 750,000 tea-garden workers in the state who received a one-time transfer of ₹3,000 when Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited in February, campaigning for the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The Centre allocated ₹1,000 crore in the 2021 Union budget for tea-garden workers in Assam and West Bengal, both of which are in the midst of state elections.
At his campaign rally in Dhekiajuli in the first week of February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of his government’s goodwill measures for tea-garden workers, even cautioning them against an “international conspiracy” to malign the Indian tea industry, but did not touch upon the workers’ wage demand of ₹351 a day, a promise the BJP made during the last election in 2016. The Congress, in the opposition now, has upped the ante, trying to woo them with a promise of ₹365 a day.
Among the poorest paid workers in Assam, the tea tribes, or Adivasis, have consistently remained the most backward community, whether it is nutrition or literacy. In 2019, the international non-profit Oxfam found that most of the men (34%) had only studied up to class V, while a majority of the women (58%) were illiterate.
On 20 February, three years after the government last hiked tea-worker wages by ₹30, an order was passed to increase them by another ₹50. The new wages totalled ₹318 a day (with ₹101 to be paid “in kind”) for plantation workers in the Brahmaputra valley, where they influence up to 35 seats in a 126-member assembly.
Until this order, the “in kind” component of ₹26.5 was accounted for under expenses incurred for the workers’ ration, electricity, fuel, firewood, tea, medical facilities, housing and children’s schooling. J.B. Ekka, the principal secretary of the Assam government’s labour welfare department, told Nikkei Asia that employers would have to produce a pay slip for these expenses under the new order.
Also Read: The legend of Darjeeling teas
The Indian Tea Association and 17 tea companies, however, managed to get a stay order from the Gauhati high court on the grounds that no committee/sub-committee had been formed, as required under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. The court allowed the petitioners to pay the “workmen any interim enhancement of their wages as they deem proper” until the issue was resolved.
The tea planters Lounge spoke to oppose the government hike, saying it doesn’t take into account the “in-kind costs” they are obliged to cover under the Plantations Labour Act, 1951.
The workers have a different story to tell. Kostan Khesh, the line in charge or village head of the Tinkharia Tea Estate, which sprawls over several acres, says the quality of the rations is often poor. “The dal is of such poor quality that we get dysentery from it,” he says. While the owners deduct medical expenses from wages, Khesh says there are no medical facilities on the estate, except for an ambulance to take them to a government hospital. “Even the medicines (which the estate is supposed to provide) now come from the National Health Mission,” he says, adding that even the promised wages would be insufficient to run their households.
Abhijit Sarma, president of the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association (ABITA), declined to comment, saying the case was still in court. Days later, the association announced an interim hike of ₹26 a day until the matter is resolved.
Despite this, Kerketta says they haven’t been paid the revised wages. The family of six continues to survive on ₹167 a day along with 2.5kg of rice, wheat flour and 200g of tea provided every week.
Calculation of wages is far more complicated than election promises.
Until 2015, plantation wages were decided through agreements between tea associations representing over 800 gardens, with Abita taking the lead, and the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), the labour union representing the 750,000 tea-garden workers.
A source in the Assam government tells Lounge that the associations and the union would agree on a minimal hike of ₹3-4 a day each year instead of a cumulative sum, which is mandated under the Minimum Wages Act. “With the tea-tribe student unions getting more vocal in their demands for fair wages,” the source says, “the Congress government in 2015 sensed an opportunity to set up the Minimum Wages Advisory Board to institutionalise the process.” This debate over whether to apply the Minimum Wages Act or the plantations Act, which does not mention wages and leaves planters to use a 1948, or Wallace Aykroyd formula, for wages, continues. Aykroyd was the first director of the department of nutrition at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
In 2017, a state labour department committee headed by then additional chief secretary M.G.V.K. Bhanu suggested a daily minimum wage of ₹351.33. It was based on Aykroyd’s formula. The committee relied on the recommendations of the 15th Indian Labour Conference in 1957 and the 1991 Supreme Court judgement (Reptakos Brett v. Workmen) that set the stipulations on minimum wages and expenses for plantation workers in accordance with the 1957 conference.
Several planters say that given the rising costs of production and the absence of government control over tea prices, the hike in wages that the government is trying to push could spell doom for the gardens.
Ranjit Chaliha, a former tea planter from Sivasagar district and the owner of Korangani tea, says he was forced to sell his garden in 2018 after revamping the estate, which included replanting tea bushes and renovating labourers’ quarters. He had inherited the estate from his father, the late Jadav Prasad Chaliha, who set up the garden in 1926, 28 years after his grandfather, Kali Prasad Chaliha, first bought the “grant” land (forest area) from the British government to grow tea. “We ran into losses for three years because we over-invested in the facilities—roads, water supply, hospital—but could not get the remunerative price for our tea,” he says. Chaliha now handles the packaging for Korangani tea, not its bulk sales. “We can only recover the costs from the sale price but we have no hand in deciding that.”
While sale prices have increased over the decades, the highest average sale price on tea has plateaued in the past decade. Although the auction centre determines price, experts and industry sources say the big estates sell up to 70% of their produce directly to private buyers at prices over and above the auction rates. According to officials of the Tea Board of India, big estates are mandated to sell at least 50% of their produce at the auctions.
An industry source tells Lounge that many producers reserve the best quality of tea for private buyers to earn higher profits and send the inferior tea for auctions, affecting the overall sale price.
Rajdeep Singha, an assistant professor for labour studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati, says estate owners are prone to manipulating production figures. “They get a much better price from the private buyers,” he says, adding that there’s no clarity on how much they earn from auction centres and private buyers.
Dipankar Mukherjee, executive director at the Guwahati office of the Tea Board, says producers are not obliged to share their private-buyer sale prices.
Former and serving officials in the labour department say tea planters have been claiming risk to their business for several years to dodge the issue of underpaid workers. “Minimum wages are decided by what the employee needs to sustain his life, not what the employer can afford to pay,” a labour department official says, on condition of anonymity.
Nayanjyoti, an independent researcher and trade unionist who only uses his first name, had argued against the calculation by which ₹351 was suggested in 2017. “By our calculation, it came to ₹557.56 per day. We insisted that the Minimum Wages Act should be applied before calculating the wages,” he says. Plantation wages in Assam are much lower than the state’s unskilled wages ( ₹240 a day), which themselves are lower than the national average, which starts at ₹427 a day.
Singha, however, advocated for wages under the plantations Act, since many of the estates are in remote areas, where access to amenities is difficult. “We need to stick to the plantations Act,” he says. “Perhaps, upgrade some provisions. The accountability should ultimately be on the employers.”
CYCLE OF POVERTY
While planters complain of the high costs of production, including the overhead costs of taking care of plantation workers, tea tribes fare the worst on human development indexes.
A 2019 study by Hazarika and Arakeri V. of a tea-garden sample in Dibrugarh district, which has the highest number of gardens in the state, found the human development index value to be lower (0.25) than the state (0.56) and national average (0.64).
Oxfam said women bore the “heaviest burden of systemic inequality, as they are concentrated in the lowest paid plucking roles” while shouldering unpaid domestic work. The highest incidence of maternal mortality rate in India can be found among the highly anaemic women working in tea gardens.
The co-morbidity of domestic violence and alcohol abuse too is widespread among men and women. Given their access to cheap country liquor, locally known as sulai, hooch-related tragedies are common. In 2019, over a hundred tea- garden workers in Golaghat district died after taking spurious drinks.
Singha, who was one of the lead researchers on the Oxfam study, says the high incidence of alcoholism can be seen as a symptom of the cycle of debt and poverty the workers are caught in. “They don’t see a future. With their poor working conditions, alcohol becomes a way for them to escape reality,” he says.
Although recognised as Scheduled Tribes in central Indian states, the tea tribes/Adivasis working in Assam are classified as one among 28 communities (which includes the Ahoms, descendants of the erstwhile dynasty) under OBC, or Other Backward Classes. The National Commission for Backward Classes, however, accounts for 96 backward tribes and lower-caste communities that make up the composite “tea tribes” in present-day Assam. In 2016, the BJP promised to grant them ST status along with five other communities in Assam.
Like most other workers on the estate, Kerketta and his family voted for the BJP on this promise. But five years on, the government has delivered on neither the wages nor the promise of ST status.
Assam BJP spokesperson Rupam Goswami says the ST status is “under process”. “The issue is still live in Rajya Sabha. So we will definitely do it,” he says.
Khesh says ST categorisation is crucial to help them secure government jobs and move out of jobs in tea. He estimates that less than 2% of the tea tribes currently make it to reserved jobs. “The tea tribes in Darjeeling have been given ST status but it hasn’t happened in Assam as yet,” he says. “It feels like the government wants to resign us to a life where we keep working in the plantations.”
Makepeace Sitlhou is a Guwahati-based journalist covering the North-East.
FIRST PUBLISHED05.04.2021 | 07:00 AM IST