Toxic hooch, not the only killer of Assam’s tea workers

Workers in Halmira tea estate in Golaghat district in eastern Assam on February 7.

A kilogram of Orthodox tea plucked in Manohari estate in Dibrugarh district fetched a record price of Rs 39,001 last year, cheering many in the beleaguered Assam tea industry.

That, however, made no difference to the tea workers in the region. Bison Rajput, a tea plucker at Halmira tea estate in the neighbouring Golaghat district, says her daily wage has remained at Rs 167 since January 2018, and that she has to struggle every day due to irregular power supply and a lack of access to potable water.

The evening of February 21 brought the most disastrous news for her—her husband, Ashok, had died after consuming toxic country liquor in the neighbouring Jugibari labour colony. Two of their neighbours also died in the incident.

“There were deaths in almost all colonies,” a devastated Bison told DH. With the government compensation yet to be paid, Bison, aged about 35 years, looked clueless about the future of her four-member family. The death toll of the hooch tragedy rose to 158, of whom 90 were from Golaghat (48 from Halmira tea estate) and 68 from the neighbouring Jorhat district.

The hooch is generally supplied from outside the estates by traders, many of whom are either tea estate workers or those who do not find jobs in the estates. “Some are doing this business as the daily wage of Rs 167 is not enough to run a family of six to 10,” said Bison’s neighbour, Binon Pujor. “Until the wage is hiked and the basic facilities are improved, incidents like this are bound to happen,” he said.

The deaths have put a focus on the impoverished conditions of nearly 60 lakh tea estate workers and their dependents living in the congested labour colonies inside tea estates and their neighbourhoods. They constitute about 20% of Assam’s total population (3.12 crore). Assam, having nearly 850 big tea estates, produces 52% of the country’s tea and nearly 15% of the global production. Liquor addiction and low wages, however, are not the only major problems confronting them.

At least 16 newborns of tea workers died in November last year due to malnutrition in their mothers, many children have become victims of trafficking, child labour and nearly 50% are still illiterate. They don’t get land rights and have often become soft targets of militant groups, ethnic clashes or frequent conflicts over land.

A few years after the British set up the first tea estate in Assam in 1837, they faced labour shortage as local residents were more interested in agriculture. The anti-colonial uprising in the central Indian states was another reason for the British to bring labourers from undivided Bihar including the present Jharkhand and Odisha.

British-era legacy

The first batch of tea estate labourers was hired from the Chotanagpur division of Bihar by the Assam Company in 1841. The industry continued to bring in labourers until 1960. Many of them were brought in boats as indentured labourers and were kept in congested colonies inside the tea estates. The living condition of those who planted, grew and plucked tea leaves was the last priority of the British.

“This exploitation continued after Independence and even today, the wage is low, there is no hospital in some estates, water supply system is not proper, the condition of the primary schools is bad and many drop out after primary school as the upper primary schools are situated far away. Most can’t afford to send their children to private schools,” said Deben Orang, general secretary of the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam.

“Conditions of the casual workers is worse as they don’t get provident fund money and other facilities. Half of the workers in most tea estates are casual workers,” he said.

The condition of workers in small tea estates, plantations that have an area of up to 11.5 hectares, is not better, too, as there is no wage fixed by the government. Nearly 40% of the state’s tea is now produced by more than 1.5 lakh small tea estates. The big estates are also feeling the heat as the demand for special tea produced at the small estates has increased over the years.

All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) has been demanding that the daily wage is hiked from Rs 167 to Rs 350, like in Kerala, which would help improve the living condition of workers. AASAA states the present wage violates the minimum daily wage of Rs 290 fixed by the Assam government for workers in the organised sector. “Low wage is forcing many to send their children to work,” he said. Most estates, however, have now stopped offering work to children 
below 14 years.

Apart from wage, they are provided with 8 kg of rice every fortnight and 1.2 kg tea three months as ration. The estate workers are allotted a plot to construct their houses, provided electricity connection but they can’t claim rights over their land. Tea estate land is leased by the government to private tea planters and so the estate owners can’t allot permanent land to their workers. “Power cuts are frequent but our electricity bills are deducted regularly from our wage amount,” 55-year-old Bina Karmakar of Halmira said. Bina’s husband, Mangna, was also a victim of the recent hooch tragedy.

As the tea estates can’t provide employment to all, many of their relatives left the tea estates and settled in forests and government land. Many have become victims of elephant depredation and are often evicted by the state forest department.

Health and education

Halmira, housing 3,700 population, has a hospital run by the tea estate management and the state government but many estates lack such healthcare facilities. “They depend on government hospitals outside the estate, situated far away. Many newborns and their mothers die during delivery, which happens at home,” Orang said.

According to Pranjal Sarma, a doctor in the Halmira tea estate hospital, poor hygiene and food habits cause gastrointestinal disorders among workers. “Tuberculosis is also a problem inside tea estates,” he said.

When DH visited Halmira Garden lower primary school, Suneswar Baruah, the headmaster, had assembled with 155 students for the morning prayers. “As most parents are illiterate, they don’t care about their children’s education. Every morning, we have to clean the school as they keep the cattle and goats here every night. Most girls drop out after completing Class 5, many are even married off at 14 years,” he said.

The industry players have opposed giving Rs 350 as daily wage citing an increase in the cost of production and low auction price for Assam tea. “Over 65% is the labour cost and there is no production for three months every year,” a tea industry official said.

The BJP-led state government says, it has decided to provide free rice and sugar to tea estate workers. “We have set up a committee to revise the wage further. We are waiting for the committee’s report,” Pallab Lochan Das, minister, tea tribes welfare, Assam, said recently.

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Toxic hooch, not the only killer of Assam’s tea workers

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