Workers in the news Recently, Assam's tea garden workers seem to have found their own place in the news. On the positive side, there has been recognition of high-performing workers. The Apeejay group, which controls several tea gardens in Assam, has decided to award those labourers who show a high attendance and who are regularly able to pluck a good quantity of good quality tea leaves. 13 workers, including 8 'champions' will be awarded a certificate and a prize of Rs. 5000.
On the negative side, there was the recent hooch tragedy, which claimed the lives of almost 180 workers. Methyl alcohol mixed in the locally brewed intoxicating drink called 'chulai' claimed those lives, although illegal suppliers of hooch as well as the State Government should be the ones who should be blamed. Over the course of a few days, several families were destroyed. Poverty-stricken workers were pushed deeper into poverty.
These two items of news are perhaps a reflection of the lives of Assam's tea workers: the poor miners of Assam's green gold. They live in hunger and ignorance. They are the victims of the greed of the tea companies, who, in their hunger for profit, do not provide even the basic health and education facilities to their workers. Most of all, they are the victims of the state's apathy. Apart from using them as convenient vote banks, they are often ignored by the political leadership. Although, occasionally, they will also be given rewards like the one mentioned at the beginning of the article. These rewards are only a momentary distraction from the torturous lives which they lead.
Perhaps I have generalized the issue far too much. Maybe all tea companies are not equally heartless in their dealings with the workers. But it is an established fact that if the tea garden worker's communities are the poorest communities in the region, then a major part of the discredit has to be given to the owners of the tea gardens.
From the Raj to an incomplete Independence The workers in these tea gardens were brought to the region during the British era. Since the slightly better off Assamese people were unwilling to do the back-breaking labour of the tea gardens, the British turned to the poor Adivasis of Central and Eastern India. In these plantations, they were treated only slightly better than animals. They were isolated from the mainstream Assamese society. Their health and education or their right to a minimum remuneration were completely ignored by the plantation owners and the government. For the slightest mistake, they would be beaten up.
India became independent in 1947. The Plantation Labour Act was passed in 1951. And even today, the provisions of the act are neither followed in the letter nor in the spirit, in large parts of the state. For example, the act lays down that there should be a school within a distance of 1.5 kilometres of the worker's living quarters. However, that has not been done in most of the tea gardens. Consequently, the lives of these workers are one without the light of education. Education for girls has especially suffered.
A life without a hospital The condition of the health infrastructure that workers have access to is far from being adequate. As of 2017, only 343 out of 800 tea gardens have a full-time medical practitioner. The apathy of the state government is also worth noting. The sheer number of posts of Labour Inspectors, as well as Medical Inspectors which are vacant, would prove that even in the second decade of the 21st century, the tea garden labourers are at the sole mercy of the management.
The results are out for all to see. The hooch tragedy is only one example. In early 2018, several deaths were reported in the Doyang tea estate. The people who died would all show a common pattern: they would experience dizziness due to low blood pressure. Between 24th and 27th February, 7 people died. Without conducting any post-mortem, the management declared that alcoholism was the cause of the deaths. What they couldn't explain was the death of a two-year-old and the deaths of workers who were known to be teetotalers.
Flickers of Light In the meantime, some positive signs have started to emerge. Some groups of workers are now taking to cultivation and are trying to end their social isolation. These recent entrants into farming are also more conscious about the education of their children as compared to their brethren in the plantations. The state has also begun schemes like Mobile Medical Units (MMUs). These vehicles carry medical services to the plantations and are perhaps compensation for the state's inability to provide permanent hospitals for these workers.
However, an improvement in the lives of these communities will be seen only through a concentrated effort from the tea garden owners, the state and perhaps most importantly, from the workers themselves.