Ahead of assembly polls, trouble brews for Assam BJP in tea gardens

Labourers protest across Assam demanding wage hike, ST status and land pattas

The ruling BJP had made several tall promises to the electorally influential Tea Tribe ahead of the 2016 assembly elections.

Tea labourers held protests in tea gardens across Assam on Wednesday to press for their 11-point demands including a wage hike, Scheduled Tribe status, land pattas, among others.

The disquiet brewing in the tea gardens is an ominous sign for the state’s ruling BJP. To dethrone the then Congress government in the state, the BJP had made several tall promises to the electorally influential group ahead of the 2016 assembly elections.

The party now stands accused of going back on its promises. “None other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally had promised in 2016 that the minimum gross daily wage of a tea garden worker will be fixed at Rs 351. The same promise was also made in the BJP’s election manifesto,” said Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) vice president Nabin Keot over phone.

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He said the BJP had then also promised providing land pattas and granting ST status to the Tea Tribe community.

Tea workers in Assam are the descendants of indentured labourers brought to the state in 19th century by the East India Company mostly from present-day Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Telangana and West Bengal.

They have been working in the tea gardens for over a century now and form a distinct community called the Tea Tribe. The community is recognized as Other Backward Classes (OBC) in Assam, but for long people of the community have been demanding ST status as in the states of their origin, they are recognized as Adivasis and enjoy the ST status.

The tribe has a population of around 65 lakh, which is 18 per cent of the state’s total population. The community is a deciding factor in at least 40 out of 126 assembly seats in Assam. The BJP had last time bagged more than 30 Tea-Tribe dominated seats.

To repeat the performance, the saffron party needs to quell the growing unrest in the community.

To douse the tea fire, the state’s BJP-led government on Tuesday (February 23) issued a notification hiking the wage by “an interim amount” of Rs 50 per day. The hike has increased the daily wage of tea garden workers from Rs 167 to Rs 217.

Not satisfied with the hike, the apex body of tea garden workers in Assam, the ACMS has decided to continue its agitation.

“This hike is not adequate. After five years of dillydallying, the BJP government has now come up with this meager hike keeping an eye on elections. We are steadfast in our Rs 351 daily wage demand,” Keot said.

Moreover, he said, the other demands of the workers and the Tea Tribe community in general too were not yet addressed.

Assam Industry Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said the workers would also be given additional Rs 101 as cash component of wages in kind such as ration and compensatory benefits, taking the total daily wage to Rs 318.

Keot said the two components should not be mixed up as the government-appointed committee had recommended the minimum daily wage of Rs 351 excluding wage-in-kind and compensatory benefits.

The ACMS also expressed dissatisfaction over non-regularization of wages in small unorganized tea gardens.

There are about 2,500 small tea gardens in addition to over 900 major recognized gardens in Assam. The small gardens employ at least four lakh workers. But they don’t get any fixed wage and other benefits.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman earlier this month launched the third phase of ‘Chah Bagicha Dhan Puraskar Mela’ programme to distributed the third tranche of financial assistance of Rs 3,000 each to 7,46,667 tea garden workers of the state.

Two days after the disbursal of financial assistance, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal handed over land ownership document (patta) to 471 small tea growers.

Organisations representing the community, however say these largesse are too little and too late and that their core demands should be addressed first.

“Most people from the Tea Tribe community do not possess any document for the land where they are settled for decades. We have been asking the government to allot them land pattas to fulfill a long-pending demand of the community,” Keot added.

Echoing the ACMS views, another influential civil organization of the community, the All Assam Tea Student Association (AATSA), too, is gearing up for agitation over the key demands of the community.

“This wage hike is a lollipop from the BJP government ahead of the elections. We have waited enough for the ST status, land rights, a decent wage for garden workers. Now we are planning to launch a statewide agitation for our genuine rights,” said AATSA leader Lakhindra Kurmi.

Also read: Resentment in Assam tea gardens after PM’s ‘conspiracy’ claim

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