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Stay hungry: The story behind Assam tea

Arijit Sen senarijit

Updated: February 21, 2012, 12:51 PM IST
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In the Bhuvan Valley Tea estate in Assam, temporary plantation workers get paid forty rupees a day. The permanent lot is a little better off. Their wages are fixed at Rs 50 a day along with a princely bonus (in the range of Rs 1,000-1,500) during Durga Puja, depending on union-management negotiations. There are other benefits as well, at least on paper. These include provident fund money, provision of umbrellas, slippers and subsidised ration - three kilos of rice every week on the basis that they should be given 500 grams daily. If a worker is absent for a day, two kilos of rice gets deducted from his weekly quota of ration. According to the standard rules of tea associations, for every extra kilo of tealeaves plucked, 24 paise will be given as extra payment to the successful worker after verification.

There are a couple of small nondescript buildings, which serve as a sort of basic hospital set up. There are no qualified doctors there, though. If a labourer falls sick, the best course of treatment, therefore, might be to get a medicine from the pharmacist at the hospital. That is, the labourers allege, if you are extremely lucky, since pharmacists are not available all the time either. Or else, in the absence of qualified medical help, the alternative cheap medicine of choice is to try and sleep.

In October 2011, the garden shut down. The workers had not been paid 9 weeks' wages and the owners couldn't care less. They did, however, write a letter that probably absolved them in the legal framework. It said that the workers were on strike. In October last year, the owners also paid some bonus money. But that wasn't enough to write off the complete absence of essential wage-related benefits meant for the workers according to the Plantation Act. When the dispute went on, despite several summons by the Labour Commissioner, the owners never came (maintained the Union) to resolve a stalemate that was pushing lives to brink of poverty.

On February 8 this year, the tea garden reopened. Work has resumed. And the demands for unpaid wages, provident fund benefits and ration have all apparently been resolved in meetings and negotiations. At least that is what the workers have been led to believe by the Union, the District Administration, the Sramik Panchayat and the one sole accountant ( from the Kolkata office) employed by the garden owners. Only half of the promised amount of money has been given to the district administration.

But much before all these resolutions, and before the gardens reopened, there were at least ten deaths in this tea estate. The plantation workers who died were mostly ones who did not have money to buy food or medicines. The State administration claims that none of these deaths were starvation deaths. The Barak Human Rights Protection Committee has come out with their detailed field report. These are hunger deaths, they insist. The Trade Union says there have been four hunger deaths. The Tea Association of India says that none of these deaths were due to starvation. At the labour lines, the area where most workers reside, all these deaths appear to be a direct consequence of acute poverty.

In one division of the labour lines, we met Sabitri Goala. She insisted that we visit her hut and take a look at how she lives. "Look at me. Can't you see that I am half-dead?"
In a neighbouring hut, Ratna Goala died a few weeks back.
"How old was Ratna?"
"How old was she?" Sabitri asks her husband. He is not sure. "30-35?" They come to the conclusion that Ratna must have been 35.
"Do you have a photograph of Ratna?"
"There is one inside her hut. But her husband has gone to collect wood sticks from the forest. But there might be one inside. Wait."
Ratna Goala looks much younger in her photograph. Ironically her photo is pasted on the Below Poverty Line card. These lines or economic markers lose their relevance in the absence of policy implementation. At least in certain tea gardens it does. Sabitri also pulls out an Assam State Government food security brochure for us. She believes that the card and the brochure should always be kept together, as if the card's validity depends on the brochure.

(WATCH our reports from the Tea garden)
Hunger deaths haunt tea gardens of Assam
Assam: Medical help eludes starving workers

There are 480 permanent workers in Bhuvan Valley and a casual labour force that varies between 500 to 1,000. In this tea garden, protests over workers rights happen regularly almost in a cyclical interval. The garden has shut down many times, workers have fallen sick, not received payments on time and gone on protests. The gardens reopen and the protests stop. Promises are made, assurances are given and the tea factory roars back to life.

In 2002, there was one such big protest. Workers who protested were charge-sheeted. Those who actively collaborated with them were also charge-sheeted. The Management vowed to sentence them to disciplinary proceedings. The tea garden owners believed that these workers and the people with them had indulged in illegal, unlawful and terrorising acts culminating in the abandoning of work in the garden. All of this was typed out in a Memorandum of Understanding. Sentences were italicised and marked in bold for emphasis. The management and the workers' representative signed it. The MoU said that the workers will not be entitled for their wages and ration for the period of suspension of work. It pointed out that the Management will run this garden if the workers come up to their expectations. Workers also fall sick without rhyme or reason during pruning, it complained, and they have a misconceived idea that sickness allowance is a birth-right that must be exhausted before the year ends. This must be understood and stopped with immediate effect, the MoU said. And pluckers must pluck leaves with both hands. Any deviation will lead to disciplinary action by management. This mindset hasn't changed much in 2012. The master-servant relation plays out to perfection in tea gardens.

(Watch the CNN-IBN discussion)
How serious is the starvation problem in tea gardens?

"Whenever there is an industrial dispute, a labour dispute, each and everybody suffers," the Tea Association of India's Assistant Secretary tells us in a perfectly brewed sentence. In between preparations for a Tea Convention that will have the Governor as the Chief Guest, he says, "In disputes everybody suffers, the management suffers, workers suffer, the staff concerned suffer and persons dependent on the industry suffer."

There are 106 tea gardens in Barak Valley. Last year, the tea industry appealed to the Commerce Ministry to allow sick tea gardens in Barak Valley and Cachar region in Lower Assam to get the benefits of the Special Purpose Tea Fund (SPTF). It is used for rejuvenation and replantation of old tea bushes. The SPTF fund amount is a staggering Rs 4,761 crore. Yet, despite all this support, it is alleged that high-handed attitude of tea garden owners interested in making quick money is actually destroying the tea gardens in this region.

The labour intensive tea industry has, in fact, just come out of a long slump. In 2010, the workers received their first salary hike in six years. And what was the hike? They would be given a hike of Rs 18 per day on their daily wage, but that hike will be divided over 45 months in three instalments. At that time, we had interviewed Dhiraj Kakati of the Assam Branch of the India Tea Association, who admitted that the tea gardens have witnessed several instances of starvation in the last decade.
( Watch our 2010 Report)
Assam tea workers complain of low hike in daily wage
(WATCH our 2009 Report)
BJP, Cong woo tea belt voters in Assam
At a time when the tea industry is supposedly doing well, sudden reports of alleged starvation deaths are bound to spoil the party. In Silchar, Dinanath Baroi of the Barak Cha Sramik Union accused the management of Bhuvan Valley of criminal offence. "Taking money from the workers in the name of provident fund and not depositing it in the trust is a crime."

But, in the tea industry, such crimes have carried on unabated and unpunished for years. The Assistant Labour Commissioner is supposed to visit the gardens and keep a watch on wages being paid on time, wage-related benefits is being given out to the labourers properly. But tea officials tell us that these visits are a joke. If you walk into a tea garden, poverty never stares you in the face. It's only in the workers' quarters that the poverty and helplessness starts showing. But since poverty is a norm in these areas, the idea of what can be demanded and what constitutes a worker's rights have gotten lost in the unreal, insincere negotiations here. As night closes in the labourers can only hope that the next day will be better.
First Published: February 21, 2012, 12:51 PM IST

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