‘Two Leaves and a Bud’

Plight of Barak Valley Tea Workers
Arup Baisya

Plight of the tea workers of Assam has drawn media attention following the report of the recent starvation death in Bhuvon Valley tea estate of Cachar District of Barak Valley (erstwhile Surma Valley in British India), and consequently various forces are agog with activism to gain a brownie point, but this is of course the positive result of sustained serious efforts from some quarters.

In the month of Sept ’03, report of starvation death in Gambhira Tea Estate in the Karimganj District of Barak Valley came out in the local dailies due to sudden abnormal increase of death rate, and the question was also raised in the assembly. Ghambhira Tea Estate with three divisions namely Oliviacherra, Kekragool and Gambhira is situated at Ratabari constituency of Karimganj District and few kilometres away from Dullavcharra Railway station. Its boundary is marked by reserve forest in the east, Singla river in the west, Phanaicherra in the north and Bhuturpool in the south. In the year 1969-70, due to the property division within the family of the owner J M Agarwal of Kalimpang Tea Company Ltd, Sri Kagesh Mol became the owner and from that time onward the condition of the tea Estate started deteriorating. Initially there were 1200 permanent workers with additional casual workers. But Kagesh Mol lacked any business management acumen and he treated it not as an industry but as a landed property. He started leasing out land on payment for the settlement of non-worker families. In 1984, the total number of permanent workers were around 975 and the quantity of production of made tea was 2 lac 90 thousand kg/year (approx).

In the year 1984, the garden was handed over to Rangajaan Tea Plantation Ltd on lease with an agreement with S P Singhania of the company. This owner led the garden to doom by squeezing money allegedly through corrupt means, sacking the workers on flimsy ground, curtailing workers rights and statutory benefits. From around the year 2000, the management started leaving the garden frequently without notice keeping it closed, and in this way almost all the provisions as per plantation labour act were shattered. Health facilities, rationing, repairing of quarters etc gradually stopped altogether; wages and number of workers drastically got reduced.

Tea garden labour community of Assam represents around 20% of total population of the state accounting more than 45 lakh tea garden labour population in the state. About 17% of workers in Assam are engaged in tea industry and around 50% of the total tea plantation workforce in Assam is women. In 1997, the state had 2470 tea gardens spread over 230 thousand hectares. Between 2006 and 2007, the state produced 476 million kgs of tea. Presently, the state has large number of tea estates and 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. Only 30-40% are permanent workers. There are no maternity benefit schemes for the female workers. It has been observed that during pregnancy and post natal period, women continue to engage in hard jobs. Most allegations of child labour (Lerka Dopha) in the tea industry involve the function of plucking, weeding, hoeing, and nursery work. Assam is the second commercial tea production region after southern China. The tea plantation in the Barak Valley (or Surma Valley) was taken up after the annexation of Cachar in 1932. It is reported that for the first time tea gardens in Barak Valley were started in 1855 at Bursangaon and Gungurpar. Subsequently it was developed in Kathal, Silicoorie and Arcattipore and in many other places near Silchar. By the first quarter of the 20th century as many as 100 gardens were established in Barak Valley. During the nineteenth century, Cachar tea was holding the top position in production among the districts of Assam but since then the balance dramatically reversed. According to the recent statistics, this valley has 112 tea gardens, out of which 6 are sick and the remaining are producing green leafs and instant tea. A Sen of Assam Unjversky in his Ph. D thesis studied on sick industries of Barak Valley and described 'mismanagement' and 'less investment' as the two principal factors behind the sickness of the tea gardens in Barak Valley.

The Government machinery and the local administration are not sensitized to take appropriate measures in the event of the closure or abandonment of the garden by the owner to take measures on the basis of the Supreme Court guideline and punitive action against the defaulting owner on the basis of the existing provisions of the various acts. Taking the advantage of this lax on the part of Government, the planters psychologically pressurize the workers to curtail the bargaining capacity of the workers with the threat of closure/desertion or temporarily resorting to stoppage of work. The established union bosses in tow with the management and the political masters continuously instill a fear-psychosis in the minds of the workers about impending situation of extreme form of abject penury in the event of closure or desertion of the garden by the management. The guaranteed livelihood for the workers and ensured punitive action against the owners resorting to the means of closure as pressure-tactics from the Government would have led the workers out of this compelling mindset to submit to the injustice meted out to them. The parallel existence of on-going NREGA-programme could have also boosted up the morale of the workers. But the planters on the ground of shortage of casual-labourers who will prefer NREG-work to the tea-garden-work for getting higher wage, and the administrative machinery being involved in corrupt practices are averse to implement NREGA properly. So there is a nexus of the management, Union bosses who are engaged in various types supply/contract works in the tea-gardens, the political masters of the union or section of administrators who are either insensitive or busy earning easy money.

To describe such situation and to expose the administrative lax, few glaring examples can be cited. The Hathikhira tea estate is situated few km away from Patherkandi town having four sub-divisions viz. Hathikhira, Solgoi, 8 no. & 20no. line. The owner of the garden is Kanoria brothers of Hanuman Texnit & Industries Ltd, Kolkata. Total production of tea leaf in the year of 1996 was around 10.5 lakh kg and at the end of 2007, quantity was around 14 lakh kg. On the other hand the total number of permanent workers declined drastically. At the end of 2007, there were only 550 & 240 permanent workers in Hathikhira & Solgoi division respectively. There were rampant violation, of plantation labour act in respect of health, sanitation, drinking water, housing facility etc and minimum wages act and before the year 2004 the cash wage was only Rs. 38, though as per tripartite agreement it should be Rs. 46.25. In the month of April 2004, workers of this garden went to strike with a demand to increase their wages and the management fled away. After 42 days of intense negotiation, the garden was reopened with an agreement to increase the wage to Rs. 44 with an increase of plucking task from 18kg to 21kg. This increase of wage was very much marginal considering the increase of workload system of round in the tea-bush. Moreover, the management immediately after the opening of the garden started backtracking from implementing the other agreed commitments.

Derby Tea Estate under Derby Plantation Pvt Ltd declared lock-out on 5th August 2007 on the plea that the Union and the Bagan Panchayat members had not withdrawn the FIR filed against alleged perpetrators who were responsible for the murder of Sri Deo Chand Muda, a permanent worker of Derby Tea Estate through unprovoked firing on 19 July 2007 by the security Guard of the Superintendent and other managerial staff in their presence and under direct instruction from them.

The honourable Supreme Court declared the right to food & work as the statutory right of the Indian People through an interim order on the writ petition of PUCL (no. 196/2001) and issued a directive to make the following facilities available for the workers and staff of closed tea garden : (1) the work of at least 15 days per month with daily wage of Rs 62.00 both in cash and in kind for each worker under SGRY scheme, (2) 21 kg of food grains for each family under Antodoy Anno Yojona, (3) monthly allowance of Rs 500.00 for each worker, (4) weekly health camp in the garden, (5) provision of good drinking water etc during the period of lockout.

Reverse Migration
Workers' plight in the Assam tea gardens was best revealed by a news item titled 'the reverse migration—a worrying trend for Assam tea industry' appeared in 7 August, 2011 issue of The Hindu. The news stated that about 300 tea garden workers of an estate in Assam left their jobs and went back, along with their families, to their ancestral places in Telanagana in search of greener pastures. Captains of the 180-year-old tea industry in the state are worried that such reverse migration is likely to aggravate the problem of shortage of labour, which the industry has already started experiencing. Chairman of North Eastern Tea Association (NETA) Bidyananda Barkakoty revealed this trend during his speech at the biennial General meeting of the association held in the upper Assam of Golaghat. This reminds one the historical incident of 'Chorgola Exodus". Amalendu Guha in his "Planter-Raj to Swaraj : Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam, 1826-1947" writes: The Chargola exodus, though a well known historical episode, awaits further analysis as a social phenomenon.... An economic struggle culminated into mass political action in the form of a collective escape from the bonded labour system. The exodus was an open revolt, a primitive action against the legitimised conditions of serfdom. It was the product of an interaction between the Gandhian impact on primitive minds and the incipient class militancy. To cut expenses and avoid depression on the eve of a severity of depression in the tea industry during the early post-war years, many planters retrenched their labour force and introduced short workings for those retained especially in Surma Valley (present Barak Valley). The disappointment of the worker was great, and specially so when he saw what was happening to the local railway employees who had obtained a wage rise after successful strike action. Strikes and other industrial actions were not unknown to the tea workers of Assam. After the war these protest movements were more carefully organised. In the post-war period, Assam was no longer a remote region; there was much movement of workers from Assam to other parts of India, and many of them were becoming aware of opportunities elsewhere. These developments, favourable to a worker's movement, can be taken as sufficient explanation of the 'exodus' from the Chorgola Valley. (Coolie Exodus from Assam's Chorgola Valley, 1921 —An analytical Study, Kalyan K Sircar, EPW, January 31, 1987).

Disinformation Campaign
There is a disinformation campaign making round among the urban middle class as well as among all the stake-holders of tea-industry. This campaign of the 'industry-running-in-loss' is meticulously orchestrated by the captains of industry in league with the established unions. But the reality is revealed in the fact-sheet of the Tea Board and the year book of Guwahati Tea Auction Committee. In 1997, the state had 2470 tea gardens spread over 230 thousand hectares. Between 2006 and 2007, the state produced 476 million kgs of tea. Presently, the state has 507 thousand hectares of land under tea industry. It shows that the state has incresed tea production as well as tea cultivation substantially over a period of time. Guwahati Tea Auction Committee (GTAC) yearbook (2006-07) report shows that total quantity sold in mkg and average price in Rs of tea in auction market has gradually increased from 98 mkg and Rs 27.25 respectively in 1984-85 to 149 mkg and Rs 68.06 in 2006-07. There was steep rise in price to Rs 100.18 in 2007-08 from previous year price of Rs 68.06. Steep rise in both quantity and price were recorded in the 1999-2000 and gradual marginal fall up to 2002-03. Otherwise, the record shows exponential growth and increase in both quantity and price. Record also shows that there are few brokers and regjstered buyers who monopolistically control the auction market.

Tea industry has recently called upon the Assam Government to reduce the land revenue rates and cess on leaf. This explains the mindset of the captains of the industry to run the industry with the support from public money to earn super-profit, instead of making necessary investment for new plantation, and managing the garden with business ethics. It is worth-mentioning here that in the tea gardens, the land revenue rate in the Brahmaputra valley is Rs 22 per bigha and it is Rs 16 in the Barak valley. A recent PIL-petition filed in the Supreme Court claimed that the Centre's Rs 4,000-crore revival package was only enriching the owners.

Union Movement
The Asom Mojuri Srameek Union, an outfit of unorganised, rural, tea and other industrial workers, and affiliated to ‘New Trade Union Initiative’, added a new dimension to the tea workers' union movement. On the one hand this Union is supporting the identity and linguistic rights of tea community, struggling for the implementation of NREGA and facilities of PRl and pressurising the Government authority to discharge their responsibility in case of closure of the garden and to take action against the defaulting planters in making their due payment of PF, wage, bonus etc and the Union, on the other hand, is striving hard to build the workers' movement for enhancement of wage, for minimum wage and for the implementation of the provisions of plantation labour act 1951 (with new amendment).

The incident of the death in Bhuvon Valley tea estate reveals the tip of the iceberg of prevailing abject poverty and malnutrition among the tea workers of Barak Valley vis-a-vis Assam. The whole gamut of this industry is in doldrums due to the attitude of the planters to extract super-profit through extraneous means and depriving the workers of their legitimate dues, and the skewed vision of the Government policy makers as well as the laxity of administrative inspection regime. An all out effort need to be organised to ensure smooth functioning of the industry as well as to establish the rights of the workers and to build a wide struggle with a future vision of just society. Tea garden workers being the largest section of total workforce in Assam, will decide the fate of the working class and democratic movement in Assam in the future.

Vol. 45, No. 50, June 23 -29, 2013

Your Comment if any