Long-term approach, need of the hour

People who live in Assam’s tea estates present heterogeneity within homogeneity. This, I say because of two different ground realities. Firstly, there is no single tribe which constitutes what we have, in my opinion, erroneously labelled as ‘tea tribe’. This ‘tea tribe’ is a mixture of various tribes of erstwhile Bihar and Odisha and other bordering states. These communities still have their individual culture and identity, though modified. Secondly, there are administrators of the tea estates — the management. The management has its own understanding of things and there cannot be any denying of the fact that their motive is business. And what happens in a tea estate is, simplistically speaking, the result of the interplay between the homogeneity and the heterogeneity. There are other contributory factors which determine this interplay – politics and religion.

Trust deficit

And these need to be redressed. There is a trust deficit among various players whose action or inaction have a direct impact on the lives of tea estate inhabitants. At the same time, there is a lack of a long-term approach for the tea business and this has a direct as well as indirect effect on the lives of tea estate inhabitants.

At this point, it is pertinent to mention that all inhabitants of a tea estate are not under the care and control of the tea estate management. Suppose there are 2,000 people living in a tea estate, nearly 50% are workers and their dependents. The rest may be related to the workers but are not their dependents. In other words, as per the prevailing law, the estate takes responsibility of approximately 1,000 individuals.

Over a period of time, the workers’ family members have increased. But jobs in the estates have not increased. These unemployed individuals, though they reside in someone’s homestead within the estate, are not the estate’s responsibility. The others who reside in extended sheds are not the responsibility of the tea estate management. So whose responsibility are they? Can the state reach out to these people bypassing the management of the tea estate? Though there are other issues and areas of concern, these are, more or less, offshoots of these two broad and critical issues.

The common language which these tea estate inhabitants speak is Sadri. It is a type of lingua franca among all the ‘tribes’ in the different tea estates of Assam. The challenge is when children who communicate in Sadri with their family members and in the community have to study in another language (either Assamese or in Bengali), even in the lower primary classes. How do they cope up with this difference? This language stress appears to be the cause of poor academic performance and school drop outs. Not to speak of the quality of the teachers appointed by a large number of estates. The resultant knowledge and skill deficiency is enormous.

There is also a growing distrust among workers about the management. So workers tend to ignore or neglect or even suspect any suggestion which the management may offer, even if these are sincere counsels.

The distrust is primarily because of the stressed master-worker relationship for a long period. Either or both players are many a time instigated by external players.

Child labour, child marriage, malnutrition, gambling and alcoholism have taken a heavy toll on the lives of these people who were brought to Assam a couple of centuries ago. Assimilation into the mainstream has been taking place but there are challenges. The challenges are enormous and there cannot be short cuts and adhesive approaches to address these.

(The author is director of North East Society for the Promotion of Youth and Masses, an Assam-based NGO and consultant, hospitals and health management)

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Long-term approach, need of the hour

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