The oft quoted remark of Late D.K. Barua , the President All India Congress during ” emergency” that the assured support of ” Ali and cooly” meaning Muslims and the Tea Labor community would always ensure Congress victory in Elections in Assam is now being recalled by political observers after the Congress forged an alliance with AUDF, a political platform of Muslims of Assam. However, the role of the Tea Labour community is not being mentioned in the same vein presumably because the community has maintained a somewhat low profile in recent elections and offered ” issue based support to party in power” limiting their interest largely to issues pertaining to their livelihoods and general well being. This doesn’t mean however, that they will remain bystanders always as they are now faced with two new challenges: First the crisis in the Tea industry due to Pandemic as it has suffered already an estimated loss of Rs 1000 crores and thus stagnant wages for about a million strong Tea labor force when inflation is rising ; and second, the aggressive posturing of other ethnic groups like the Bodos, Karbis and Dimasas in the three Sixth Schedule Areas, the OBCs and the Muslims under the AUDF led by Badruddin Ajmal for a larger political space.
The first situation has prompted both the BJP and Congress led coalitions to promise in their on going Election campaigns a hike in the cash component of the daily wage from current level of Rs 167 to Rs 365 and Rs 351 respectively to benefit all labor engaged in the organised Tea industry . The community’s response to the other issue is to wait for Implementation of the Centre’s decision to include the Tea Tribes in the list of Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution along with five other groups – Moran, Mottok, Tai- Ahom, Chutiya and Koch Rajbanshis who are presently in the OBC category. Given the huge population and the geographical distribution of these groups ,its impact on changing the” population pattern “of Assam will be great . And the Tea Tribes would be the most numerous among these groups as they now constitute 17% of Assam’s population and their votes “count in 35 of Assam Assembly’s 126 seats which might even be an understatement because the census data relate to the language returned, place of residence ,religion and not ethnicity.
It’s thus fascinating to look back how and under what circumstances they came to work in Assam to build the Tea industry producing presently about 700 million kg of Tea annually mainly at about 850Tea estates managing 2500 Tea gardens in the organised sector in Assam proper and Cachar covering about 21.16 lakh acres.( In 2019-20 Tea exports from Assam accounted for $ 312.46 million). In addition individual farmers grow Tea in about 1.16 lakh acres mostly in Upper Assam valley Districts like Tinsukia and Dibrugarh and supply roughly 25% of Tea leaves processed in the factories owned by the organised Tea industry . Presently 17% of Assam’s work force is engaged in Tea.
It’s also a fact that the” Adivasis” of east and central India who were brought to Assam as ” indentured contract labor” to develop Tea plantations by the British capital right after Burma ceded the Ahom kingdom to the British under terms of the Treaty of Yangdabo in1826 were quickly followed by their kinsmen – Santals and Mundas especially, in search of arable land in Assam as two decades of Burmese occupation and spread of the epidemic- Kala Azar- Black fever depopulated vast tracts of upper Assam. The number of such non Tea labor Adivasis is also significant particularly in Lower Assam. However as both these groups are not natives of Assam and are ” migrants” only, they are not included in the Schedule of Tribes notified in respect of Assam under the extant rules though they are notified Scheduled Tribes in their province of origin. It may be noted that the Scheduled castes and Tribes lists are State specific. Thus if all such Adivasis in Tea or outside Tea are notified as scheduled Tribes in Assam they might as well constitute well over 20% of the population causing thereby huge increase in the number of seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes in the Assam
Assembly. which is presently only 16 in the house of 126 members. This will cause a major shift in the state political power structure and might even turn Assam into a tribal dominated state.
A chance discovery of Tea plants growing wild in upper Assam in 1821 by Robert Bruce when it was under the Burmese rule and its scientific validation, prompt intervention of the colonial administration in carrying out experimental Tea plantations, import of foundational Tea seeds , Chinese machinery and expertise set the ball rolling and the first Tea garden was opened in 1835 in Lakhimpur. The first successful export of 12 chests of Tea to England took place in 1838. Similar chance finding of Tea plants growing wild in Cachar in 1855 led to its spread in the Barak valley Districts. Availability of cheap migrant Adivasi labor who were made to work under ” slave like conditions “led to rise of Tea industry much like the way the colonial mode of production driven Rubber plantations in Malaysia or Tea in Sri Lanka in the 19th century changed demography of these countries. . The “Bhumiputra” policy of Malaysia or Sri Lankan intransigence over the issue of Tamil minority reflect the political response of the “indigenous” to the demographic change and might be worth a serious study by the north east states.
However from the Tea Labor community perspective while prospects for political empowerment are huge if and when they’re listed as Scheduled Tribes, their economic status might even worsen from now on; and presently what matters most to them is wage increase and rights over the’ homestead’ land – a very basic need because in both cases the Tea industry own the plantations, and the ” the Lines” where the workers huts are located. The labor demand for “patta”, that is ownership rights in respect of this” homestead “land in the Lines has not been met as the land ownership rests with the company. And Tea industry being in the organised sector , the role of the state government is limited to laws covering Provident fund, wages and working conditions within the framework of the Companies Act under which the industry functions and the supervisory role of the Tea Board under the Union Commerce Ministry. Thus even raising the cash component of the wages which the political parties have promised in their Election campaigns entail legal difficulties as the government cannot direct a company to raise daily wages of workers which is the prerogative of its Board of Directors. Tea industry analysts have also pointed out that taking into account the statutory benefits payable to the Tea Labour by the industry over and above the current cash component of Rs 167 the daily wage paid in Assam works out at Rs 306.34 p which is well above Rs 183 , the average daily per capita income of workers in Assam . Further, the state owned Assam Tea Corporation gardens are reportedly paying even less – Rs 137 daily wage and hardly any in kind. The matter is complex. However the fact remains that for about a million of workers engaged in Tea and their families it’s a way of life but it needs change to meet the rising aspirations of the community’s young generation. While Tea wage increase has become an election issue it must be noted that it is the stated policy of the present government to give the industry a freer hand and the states are ranked in terms of” ease of doing business”. It’s therefore not quite clear to what extent the promise of wage increase could be kept unless the government decide to provide financial support to the industry to make their business viable.
A related issue is the spread of ” small Tea cultivation” outside the Company owned tea estates . Presently about 70000 farmers or farmers groups grow Tea in the small Tea sector supplying roughly 25% of Tea leaves processed by the industry and a good number of them have established direct links with the factories in the organised sector. This practice of” outsourcing bought Tea leaves ” has the potential to adversely affect the interest of Tea Labor and the government therefore has to formulate policies to incentivise the industry to raise wages of workers, improvement in their working conditions and especially grant of pattas in respect of company land they put to use for housing and improved education and health facilities. The state transfer of Rs 8000 to each of 7.5 lakh Tea workers in 2017-18 has raised high hopes for a New deal for the Tea industry and among the Tea Labour Community in Assam and Tripura. This calls for a comprehensive Tea Development strategy which only the Centre could put in place.