ASSAM TEA LABOUR PROBLEM
The Assam tea industry, which accounts for more than 50 per cent of India's total tea production, is witnessing a churning that will have far-reaching consequences. Assam's biggest contribution to the world is its tea. Assam produces some of the finest teas in the world. Assam tea is grown at elevations near sea level, giving it a malty sweetness and an earthy flavor, as opposed to the more floral aroma of highland (e.g. Darjeeling, Taiwanese) teas. The tea industry developed by the British planters brought in labor from Bihar and Orissa and their descendents form a significant demographic group in the state. The tea plantations are mainly concentrated in upper Assam, Barak valley and central Assam.
All the garden labors are from the ‘adivashi’
community, which is the lifeline of tea gardens.
There is a need to discuss the greater debate on inclusive development of the
tea plantation economy in Assam. Demographically, tea garden labour community of
Assam represents around 20 per cent of the total population of the state
accounting more than 45 lakhs tea garden labour population in the state and is
one of the biggest contributors to the organised workforce as well as to the
economy of Assam. About 17 per cent of workers in Assam are engaged in tea
industry and around 50 per cent of the total tea plantation workforce in Assam
is women. In 1997, the State had 2470 tea gardens spread over 230 thousand
hectares. Between 2005 and 2006, the state produced 476 million kgs of tea.
Presently, the state has 39,139 tea estates in 507 thousand hectares of land. It
shows that the state has increased tea production as well as tea cultivation
substantially over a period of time. Tea industry has contributed substantially
to the economy of Assam by providing employment to nearly half a million
population, contributing revenues and support to develop other infrastructure
and service sector over the years.
The working class in the tea plantations of Assam is perhaps the most exploited in the organised sector of the economy. Low wages, poor housing and lack of avenues for social mobility have been a recurring theme since the inception of the plantation complex in North East India in the early 19th century. The tea garden coolie lines in Assam have unique identity. It is neither an urban nor industrial nor a rural area. Among the total tea garden working labour in each tea garden, only 30–40 per cent of them are permanent employees. During the peak season, each garden employs casual workers at wages much lower than the actual minimum wage. There are no maternity benefit schemes for the tea garden workers. It has been observed that during pregnancy and post natal period, women continue to engage in hard jobs. Most allegations of child labour in the tea industry involve the functions of plucking, weeding, hoeing, and nursery work. And poor socio-economic conditions, ignorance due to illiteracy, over-crowded and unhygienic living conditions in the residential colonies make tea garden population helpless to various communicable diseases and underfeeding. There may be some also specific health problems, which may be related to their occupation.
The tea economy is an integral part of Assam’s economy and it is the second largest after oil and gas industry in the state, but not a single nodal institution is managing this industry during the last 150 years. The state government in Assam has also not looked at the tea industry as a part of Assam’s economy.
The tea industry in
Barak Valley is passing through hard days. Labour problem, including less number
of tea labourers for NREGA scheme, inadequate communication system, power
crisis, increased revenue tax for Barak tea garden, cess on green leaf,
increased pollution fee, less transport subsidy etc. have put Barak tea industry
in a hopeless condition.
There is a need to discuss the greater debate on inclusive development of the tea plantation economy in Assam. One cannot forget the larger debate over making the tea garden labour still fall under the category of “indentured” in the twenty-first century. It also raises the issue of larger questions of identity politics. In the last 150 years, the tea community in Assam never received adequate attention in the so called development process witnessed by the state. If the tea garden community has been raising their voice under the banner of Adivasi tribes in Assam for last decade or so by changing their approach, it is not due to only “lack of place” among the greater Assamese nationalization process but also their own understanding of the idea of development.
Under the Plantation Labour Act 1951, each tea garden should have a health centre with adequate facilities. Most tea gardens are remotely located and do not have proper connectivity to the nearest town areas. In Assam, there is a need to set up a department exclusively for tea. Under this department, both welfare of tea garden labourer (both ex and present) and regulation, management and coordination of tea business need to look much more effectively. The department needs to provide facilities under the Plantation Labour Act (with new amendment) to implement central and the state government welfare schemes at the coolie lines in the tea garden. Tea labours are the back bone of the tea industry, so the management of all the tea garden should follow the Labor Act 1951.