Resentment is brewing in Assam’s tea gardens a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to whip up emotion claiming a conspiracy was afloat to malign Indian tea, but remained silent on core issues confronting the tea workers.
Addressing a meeting at Dhekiajuli town in Assam’s Sonitpur district on Sunday, Modi claimed an “international conspiracy” had been hatched to “defame” Indian tea. He, however, did not reveal the identity of the alleged conspirators.
“Documents have emerged to show that a conspiracy has been hatched outside the country to defame Indian tea. I am sure the tea workers from Assam will give a befitting reply. No tea garden worker in Assam can tolerate this attack and I am sure they will win this fight against these conspirators as they are stronger than these forces with vested interest,” Modi claimed launching a scathing attack on unnamed conspirators.
Apparently, he was trying to link the tweets by foreign celebrities extending support to the ongoing farmers’ protest, with tea pride in a bid to make emotional connect with the state’s around 70 lakh-strong tea tribe community that constitutes 20 per cent of the state’s 3.5 crore population. More importantly, the community plays decisive role in 35 of the state’s 126 assembly seats.
The community has multi-ethnic groups of tea garden workers who are descendants of people brought by the British colonial planters as indentured labourers from the regions of present-day Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh to work in the tea gardens of Assam.
The community has been demanding Scheduled Tribe status that the BJP promised them in successive elections since 2014.
The prime minister, however, did not mention anything about the ST demand of the community at Dhekiajuli. Modi was also silent on increasing the minimum wage of the plantation workers as was promised by the BJP in its election manifesto for the 2016 assembly elections.
Tea garden workers said they were disappointed over the prime minister’s speech and are now planning to launch an agitation.
“In the 2016 BJP manifesto, it was promised that the minimum wage of tea garden workers will be hiked to ₹351.33 from ₹167. But nothing has been done,” said Nabin Chandra Keot, vice president of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS).
ACMS had planned a protest on Monday (February 8) outside the Dispur Capital complex, Guwahati, over the “unfair treatment”, but permission was denied for the demonstration.
“From February 10 onwards, ACMS will start garden-wise protest across Assam, and we will question the representatives and leaders of the political parties to make their stand clear regarding minimum wage,” Keot said.
Assam is the highest tea producing state in the country with an annual production of about 630-700 million kgs, which is more than half of India’s total tea production.
But the Tea Tribe that mainly comprises tea garden workers is one of the most backward communities of the state.
A study carried out by Oxfam in the tea gardens in Assam in 2019 found the tea garden workers had poor access to drinking water. It mentioned that the water is carried in rusted tankers, drinking water is often yellow or even brown in colour due to its high iron content.
“There is a staggeringly high number of cases of Jaundice, Typhoid and Cholera due to unsafe drinking water for the workers,” the report mentioned.
Almost 75 per cent workers suffer from a monthly wage gap after written and unwritten deductions, according to the Oxfam report.
“Eighty seven per cent workers get cash in hand ranging from INR 3500 – 4500 per month, and over 50 per cent workers do not even get a pay slip,” it said.
The report had also brought out the lack of safety environment and working conditions for the workers, and stated the failure to provide protective gear, leading to heavy exposure to harmful pesticides. Factory workers do not have access to safety gear even while operating heavy machinery in the high risk zones of factories, according to it.
“Less than 1 per cent workers reported to use all work-related safety measures. Safety gear is provided only at the time of audits,” it said.
The prime minister in his speech, however, claimed that special attentions were given by his government for the welfare of the community and referred to the ₹3,000 disbursed to each of the 7.47 lakh tea garden workers of the state by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Saturday.
Financial assistance of ₹224 crore was provided to tea workers under the third tranche of the Assam Chah Bagicha Dhan Puraskar Mela Scheme.
On Modi’s conspiracy theory, the state Congress said the prime minister’s statement was a “riddle.” “Who is attacking the tea industry? Tea is our pride. The prime minister should clear the air,” said Assam PCC media department chairperson Bobbeeta Sharma.
Even the BJP leaders were not quite sure what the prime minister was referring to. “When the prime minister has said something, he must have some information which we are not privy to,” said Bhagirath karan, a senior Assam BJP leader from the tea tribe community.