Assam Election 2021: The story of Assam’s tea workers and broken election promises

Three-phase assembly polls begin in Assam today. During the last polls, tea labourers, who make up 17 per cent of the state population, were promised Rs 351 a day. They continue to earn less than Rs 200. This time around, the promise is of Rs 365. Will their wages increase this time around?

Simanta Barman
| Updated: March 27th, 2021

Marsha Dhanwar plucking tea leaves in a tea garden in Tezpur, Assam. She earns Rs 167 a day. Pic: Simanta Barman

Tezpur, Assam

A hurried meal of rice with mashed potatoes is what Marsha Dhanwar, a tea-leaf plucker in Tezpur, usually eats before rushing to work by 7 in the morning. Sometimes, she manages to cook a watery curry to sustain her through the seven hours of work at the Sonabheel Tea Estate in Sonitpur district. 

Dhanwar, who is in her mid-30s,  works till four in the evening, with a two-hour break in between, for six days a week. For this back-breaking work of plucking tea leaves, she earns Rs 167 a day, lower than the government-mandated minimum daily wage of Rs  176. She used to receive Rs 137 till March 2018.

The scene is similar across the 800-odd tea gardens in Assam that produce more than half of the country’s tea. 

Will this state election — it began today and goes on till April 6 in three phases — where poll promises include increasing the daily wage to Rs 365, bring about a difference in the lives of 750,000 people like Dhanwar? Will the voices of those working in tea estates be heard by the two parties mainly fighting it out — the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, which is seeking to reclaim lost ground? 

“The wage of three hundred and fifteen rupees that we are fighting for is not a vague construct, it is based on and proposed by government-formed advisory committees,” Dhiraj Gowala, president of the Assam Tea Tribes Students Association, told Gaon Connection

Also Read: In Bengal’s tea estates, workers co-exist with leopards, but they don’t always see eye to eye

Dhanwar and others working in tea gardens — called ‘tea-tribes’ and ‘ex-tea-tribes’ — make up 17 per cent of the population of Assam, and 35 per cent of its electorate. Of the total 126 constituencies, around 40 have a strong tea-workers’ base in districts such as Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Sonitpur, Biswanath, Nagaon, Golaghat, Jorhat, Sivasagar, Charaideo, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia.

‘Tea-tribes’ and ‘ex-tea-tribes’ make up 17 per cent of the population of Assam. Pic: Simanta Barman

The history of tea tribes

People living in tea gardens are descendants of indigenous labourers the British brought to Assam in the 1800s from parts of present-day Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. There are more than 100 tea-tribes or adivasi communities in Assam, including the Munda, Teli, Koiri, Kurmi, Ghatowar, Gowala and Bania. 

Tea-tribes are those currently working in tea-gardens, while ex-tea-tribes are people who have since left for other employment opportunities and no longer reside in company-provided quarters. 

Of the 750,000 tea people in Assam, only 20 per cent of them own land. The others have not been provided any land pattas even after so many years of hard labour. Due to geographical diversity and socio-political factors, the tea-garden communities face serious threats to health, hygiene and overall development. 

Also Read: The perfect brew: The all-women Tea Studio in the Nilgiris is a perfect example of the local going global

Alcoholism, a high rate of illiteracy and economic backwardness continue to plague the communities. Their living arrangements are also short on hygiene and basic amenities.

“Fifteen years ago, when babies were born, women were provided care-takers to look after the babies and were also supplied with milk packets,” Bibiana Topno, a tea worker at Sonabheel Tea Estate, told Gaon Connection. That does not happen anymore, she said. 

Women tea workers gather at the end of the day. They have been demanding a fair wage. Pic: Simanta Barman

Fight for fair wages

Interestingly, in Assam, there is also geographical inequality in daily wages. The Brahmaputra valley workers get paid Rs 167 a day while the Barak valley workers get only Rs 145. 

For a long time now, tea estate workers have been demanding a daily wage of Rs 351, which the BJP had promised before coming to power in 2016. Now, the Congress has promised Rs 365, Rs 14 more than what is being demanded. In comparison, tea estate labourers in the southern state of Kerala earn as much as Rs 380 a day, plus statutory benefits that add up to Rs 600 a day. 

Also Read: COVID-19 lockdown, erratic rainfall: Small tea growers of Assam suffer major losses

Poll bait 

While the ruling BJP government could not fulfil its wage promise of 2016, it increased it to Rs 217 as interim relief, with an additional Rs 101 for statutory benefits. But, on March 10 this year, the Gauhati High Court stayed the proposal to increase wages on a petition filed by the Indian Tea Association and 17 tea gardens. 

Eleven days later, on March 21, the Indian Tea Association decided to increase the interim wage with retrospective effect from February 22 this year by Rs 26 (from Rs 167 to Rs 193 for the Brahmaputra valley and from Rs 145 to Rs 171 for the Barak valley) until the final hearing. 

Meanwhile, political parties have been trying to woo the tea workers in the election year. Last month on February 1, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman presided over an event where Rs 3,000 each was disbursed to all bank accounts holding tea workers. This disbursement is part of the Assam Chah Bagicha Dhan Puraskar Scheme, 2018, under which nearly 750,000 beneficiaries received Rs 2,500 each in two installments for 2017-18 and 2018-19. Sitharaman also announced a package of Rs 1,000 crore for the welfare of tea workers in Assam and West Bengal. 

For a long time now, tea estate workers have been demanding a daily wage of Rs 351. Pic: Simanta Barman

Also Read: Gud Tidings: Migrant families from Bihar add the sweetness of jaggery to Bhogali Bihu in Assam

Organised protests for wage hike

Tea community organisations such as the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha and Assam Tea Tribes Students Association have been staging protests across the state demanding the wage hike for years. 

“The tea garden owners should not have filed the petition in court. It is wrong. We have filed a writ petition in the high court and are awaiting judgement soon,” Gowala added. 

The student body has also launched “awareness drives” in the run-up to the state assembly polls, reminding tea communities about political parties who failed to keep their promises and to vote cautiously.

Leading the protests are women tea garden labourers. “We stage dharnas before we start our shift,” Junika Surin, a supervisor of the women tea pluckers at Sonabheel Tea Estate, told Gaon Connection

Earlier this month on International Women’s Day, March 8, hundreds of women labourers gathered to protest against meagre wages in Dhekiajuli, approximately 145 kilometres from state capital Dispur. 

For while they add flavour and cheer to people’s mornings, their cup of discontent is overflowing.