Guwahati: In February, the tea gardens of Assam drew global attention. Not for its world-famed tea but for Assam's biggest hooch tragedy, in which at least 159 people perished in Golaghat and Jorhat districts.
The incident not only exposed the dismal and unhygienic state-of-the-living conditions of these tea workers but also the government’s alleged perennial apathy in making their situation any better. Over the last one month, the community which otherwise live in poor conditions with one of the lowest human indices, is back on focus as Lok Sabha elections approach.
With some 850 tea gardens spread across the seven upper Assam districts of Jorhat, Golaghat, Sivasagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji, the tea tribes add up to over 33 lakh of the total population. They consist the largest chunk of ‘decisive’ votes in the majority of the Lok Sabha seats in these areas which are going to polls on April 11.
In 2014, BJP managed to win seven of the 14 parliamentary seats in Assam primarily because the tea tribe voted for the saffron camp. The 2011 Census said that the community constituted around 20 per cent of the state’s population residing across the entire state.
All Adivasi Students' Association of Assam (AASAA) general secretary Joseph Minz said, “After the community was betrayed and duped by all previous governments, a large section of the tea tribes went with the BJP during last Lok Sabha polls, swept along by the Modi wave and the promise of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. Five years have passed by but a little has changed on the ground and no ST status has been granted as of yet. Now people from our community have realised that no political party is serious to address our issues. Our people have been cheated, deprived and used by all the political parties. So this time we have decided to teach them (political parties) a lesson.” The student group along with 12 other tea tribe groups of the state have planned to sit together in April first week and take a stand on who to lend support in this poll.
Brought to Assam by the British from central India’s Chotanagpur plateau for tea cultivation during the early 19th Century, the Adivasi community has been the backbone of Assam’s reputed tea industry. Despite the community living in other parts of the country enjoying ST status, the same has been deprived in Assam on the ground that the list of STs is accorded to each state or Union Territory is valid only within that particular jurisdiction. Usually, the list of ST communities is state-specific and a community declared as ST in one state, does not necessarily receive the same recognition in other states.
Promises of granting ST status to the tea tribe community was tossed recently when Union home minister Rajnath Singh announced in January that the Union Cabinet has approved the proposal and a bill to this effect will be brought soon.
“During 2014 poll campaign, Modi had said that if BJP wins elections and gets to power, his government would grant ST status to the six communities in Assam within six months. And now when his term is finishing, the same rhetoric is sounded again,” alleged Adivasi women activists Laxmi Orang for whom the promise of granting ST status to her community has been a ‘tried-and-tested poll issue’. In 2007, Laxmi was disrobed, thrashed and paraded naked by an unruly mob while she was participating in a rally demanding the ST status in Guwahati.
The frustration amongst the community has gone up so extreme that this time, some community leaders have decided to fight the Lok Sabha polls on their own, instead of supporting any other party. In January, several other community leaders even floated a new political party, the Adivasi National Party Assam (ANPA).
“Enough is enough! The community has been betrayed by all political parties who have treated us only as a vote bank. Therefore, we have now decided not to take their hollow promises anymore and will fight for our own rights. This political party will be the voice of the community and take this fight for our legitimate right to the next level,” said Christopher Dhanwar, secretary of ANPA.
In the ensuing Lok Sabha polls, the ANPA even fielded its own candidate from Tezpur parliamentary seat and announced to back three other independent contestants in Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Lakhimpur. “ANPA candidate Bijoy Kumar Tiru is fighting from Tezpur while the party is supporting Nandita Nag in Jorhat, Israil Nanda in Dibrugarh and Prabhu Lal Vaishnava in Lakhimpur. In rest of the constituency, we have urged our people to cast ‘conscious’ votes,” Dhanwar added.
The prime issue that the ANPA has been campaigning in the four seats is the government’s failure in giving the minimum daily wage of Rs 350 as proposed by the advisory board for tea workers. Despite producing more than half of all tea grown in India, and with more than a million workers being employed, tea garden workers in Assam get a meagre daily wage of Rs 167 only.
“Modi who often refers himself as a ‘Chaiwala’ has failed to address the plight of tea workers. The BJP government while coming to power in Assam in 2016 had promised to hike the daily wage but nothing has been done so far,” alleged Rupesh Gowala, secretary of Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS).
He informed that the tea garden workers in Kerala get a minimum daily wage of Rs 310 while in Karnataka it is Rs 263 and Rs 241 in Tamil Nadu, he informed.
Traditionally considered to be supporters of the Congress, the tea worker votes swung in favour of BJP in 2014 making a dent in the Congress bastion. The BJP even had gone ahead to make history when it won the Dibrugarh seat for the first time with Rameswar Teli, a young trade tribe leader, shocking the Congress as its five-time MP Paban Singh Ghatowar had to concede defeat.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned at Teli in Moran, Dibrugarh. He also addressed a rally in Gohpur in Tezpur for the party candidate Pallab Lochan Das. While Teli is seeking a mandate for a second term, state labour minister Das has been fielded from Tezpur, replacing seating MP Ram Prasad Sarmah. Both Teli and Das hail from the tea tribe community.