British-era salt challenge in Assam tea gardens

British-era salt challenge in Assam tea gardens

A women worker plucking tea in a garden in Assam's Dibrugarh district. (Photo by Manash Das)

Having nimokh sah or salt tea at least four-times daily is a habit Deben Murmu inculcated since childhood.

Parents of the 49-year-old tea garden worker in eastern Assam’s Dibrugarh district had passed on the habit taught during the British, who had brought them from central India to grow tea in Assam.

More than 70-years after the British left India, many among the state’s 80 lakh tea garden workers continue to grapple with the ill-effects of a colonial-era habit of excessive salt consumption.

“The practice of consuming salt with tea, initiated during the British era to help combat dehydration, continues even today. This has led to a number of medical complications such as hypertension, heart ailments and eclampsia adding to high mortality rates among the community. The health department is constantly trying to reduce consumption of salt but many continue the habit as they can’t afford sugar,” Assam finance and health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said in the Assembly on Wednesday.

Chiranjeeb Kakoty, a physician, who worked with tea garden workers in the tea hub Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts told DH on Thursday that excessive intake of salt tea was one of the causes of high prevalence of hypertension among them. “Earlier the garden management used to serve salt tea to those engaged in plucking or other works in the gardens but the practice has come down drastically now. But consuming a little salt with tea, even at home is by and large a norm even today among the garden workers,” he said.

Having more than 800 big tea gardens, Assam produces 56% of the country’s total tea and the garden workers, belonging to the Adivasi community comprise nearly 17% of the state’s total population.

The large tea garden voters have also remained a target for political parties every election. The party in power has also tried various sops in their budget to woo them. The Assam state budget (2019-20), tabled in the Assembly by Sarma on Wednesday proposed to provide 2-kg sugar per garden worker family every month free of cost, in order to fight the ill-effects of salt consumption.

“It is a cruel irony that many tea-garden workers can’t taste the same sweetness in a cup of Assam tea that millions world over rejoice from the tea leaves hand-picked by them,” Sarma said in his budget speech.

Kakoty, however, said it is very difficult to change the habit. “This nimokh cha (salt tea) has been in vogue for long. To replace this with sugar tea will not be so easy.”