Jorhat: An abiding image of the Assam Assembly election campaign is the footage of Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, sporting a traditional gamosa around her shoulders, doing the Jhumur dance with tea plantation workers in Lakhimpur district. The video set Twitter aflutter — and so did one of her plucking tea leaves at the Sadharu tea estate in neighbouring Biswanath district, clad in a mekhela sador.
These gestures were carefully choreographed to win the hearts of the electorally significant tea plantation workers, known locally as the ‘tea tribes’, who owe their presence in Assam to the British colonial policy of sourcing labour from present-day Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.
Adding up to 17 per cent of the state’s population and 35 per cent of its electorate, the tea tribes will be critical to the outcomes in about 40 out of 47 constituencies that go to vote Saturday, 27 March. That is a little less than a third of the 126 seats that are up for grabs in the state election, where the BJP, which is running for a second term in office, has pulled out all the stops to prevent the Congress from regaining the ground it has lost over the years.
Of the 47 seats, 42 are in the 11 districts of Upper Assam and North Assam, and five in Central Assam’s Nagaon district. In 2016, the BJP and its ally, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), had swept the elections by winning 35 of the 47 seats. The BJP alone bagged 27 seats with a vote share of 36 per cent. Congress had notched up nearly the same vote percentage, but it got just nine seats. The Grand Old Party’s current ally, Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), got two and the remaining one went to an Independent.
Before 2016, Upper Assam was considered a Congress stronghold. The party had won 38 seats there in 2011 and 27 in 2006, with a vote share of 46 per cent and 39 per cent respectively. In the early 1990s, the Congress performed much better in areas dominated by non-Assamese people, its biggest gains coming from the tea-growing areas. Its traditional base, however, was gnawed away by regional forces, mainly the AGP, which rode the groundswell against the Congress in the wake of the Assam Agitation.
The AGP eventually fell out with the major tea houses on the issue of allegedly harbouring extremists, paving the way for the BJP to fill up the resultant political vacuum. But the ground had been prepared by the RSS-run Ekal Vidyalayas, or weekend classes, where children of the tea tribes are indoctrinated.
Also read: Only BJP has a plan for Assam’s tea workers. But 5 yrs showed Sonowal didn’t have the will
Parties leaving nothing to chance
During the six-year-long Assam Agitation, which started in 1979, the BJP scented an opportunity in Assam and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then one of the two MPs representing the party in the Lok Sabha, even visited Titabor town in Jorhat district around 1984-1985.
This time round, the BJP is leaving nothing to chance in its quest to return to power. On 6 February, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman distributed Rs 3,000 each to 7.47 lakh tea garden workers, who had earlier received Rs 5,000 each in two phases under the ‘Chah Bagicha Dhan Puraskar Scheme’ introduced in 2017-18.
Two days later, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal handed over land ownership to 471 small tea growers in Dibrugarh district. And the party’s manifesto promises to increase the Dhan Puraskar amount from Rs 3,000 to Rs 12,000 per worker.
There are 1.5 lakh small tea growers in Assam, 7 lakh permanent tea workers, another 7 lakh temporary workers including those used by small tea growers.
The tea tribes are fighting for adequate wages, improvements in their working and living conditions, pattas to secure land ownership, and Scheduled Tribe (ST) status as well as reserved constituencies to ensure better political representation for them.
A mere 30-40 per cent of the workers are permanent employees. In the peak season, each of the 900-or-so gardens employs casual labourers, giving them the same wages but denying many of the benefits extended to the labourers on the permanent payroll.
Their anguish was expressed by Durga Bawri, 60, when she complained: “We didn’t get anything that the government had promised, except for a little amount of rice. No good roads, no houses, no drinking water. Elections will be over soon, but who knows if our problems will ever be solved.” She was on her way to the rally that Priyanka addressed at Jorhat.
The Upper Assam district of Jorhat, incidentally, produces 50-60 million kilos out of Assam’s total tea production of 700 million kilos. The state has about 700,000 permanent tea garden workers and Jorhat accounts for about 70-80 per cent of them, according to Prabhat Bezboruah, Chairman, Tea Research Association.
Unsurprisingly, the two parties are jostling for the support of the tea workers by making new promises. Senior leaders of both the BJP and the Congress have made several visits to the tea garden areas of Upper and Northern Assam. On 14 March, Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressed two rallies at Margherita in Tinsukia district and at Nazira in Upper Assam’s Sibsagar district.
At the Margherita rally, Shah touched upon the October 2018 wage compensation scheme, which enabled 47,000 pregnant women in tea gardens, whether they were permanent or temporary, or even non-workers, to receive a sum of Rs 12,000 each. Earlier, no maternity benefit scheme was in place for tea garden workers and they were engaged in hard labour during pregnancy and after childbirth.
“Congress leaders remember the tea garden community only during elections,” thundered Shah. “They had their government for the 15 years before us, but what did they do?”
Around the same time, BJP president J.P. Nadda addressed three election rallies in the Sonitpur district and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan campaigned for the party’s candidates in Naharkatia, Duliajan and Dibrugarh constituencies, which go to vote on Friday.
During her tea garden visits, Priyanka promised that her party would hike the daily wage of the workers from the existing Rs 167 to Rs 365 per day.
She also tweeted that she would never forget the love she got from the workers. “The life of tea garden workers is full of truth and simplicity and their labour is valuable for the country,” Priyanka said. “Today, I talked to them about their work and the well-being of their families and realised the difficulties of their life.”
Also read: ‘Conspiracy to malign Indian tea’ — Modi takes dig at ‘Greta toolkit’ in Assam speech
Daily wages a lingering issue
The minimum daily wage issue underlines the extent of the unaddressed problems of the tea garden workers. In its 2016 vision document, the BJP had promised Rs 351 per day as the daily wage, but the rate of Rs 167, which was introduced by the then Tarun Gogoi government in 2015, has remained unchanged.
On 20 February, with an eye on the election, the Assam government raised the daily wage by Rs 50 to Rs 217, but the Indian Tea Association and 17 tea companies went to the High Court, which stayed the order as they had not been consulted. The matter is listed for the next hearing on 23 April.
Some days back, playing to the gallery, Assam Finance Minister and the BJP’s chief poll strategist, Himanta Biswa Sarma, warned tea estate owners to pay the revised minimum daily wage to their workers or face the consequences.
Addressing an election rally at Mahmora in eastern Assam, Sarma said, “When the Modi government came to power, the minimum daily wage for tea garden labourers was Rs 96. We increased it to Rs 217.” And he alleged: “The Congress got together with tea garden owners and moved the high court against this. I have told the owners to not collude with the Congress, or they will have to pay Rs 350 instead.”
After the high court’s interim order, three tea planters’ associations, which together account for more than 700 gardens in the state, have hiked the daily wages of workers by Rs 26. In the Brahmaputra Valley, for instance, the workers will now get a daily wage of Rs 193.
Tea garden owners have their own side of the story.
“In the last 20-30 years, workers have not been badly looked after in the tea gardens,” said Prabhat Bezbaruah. “They get practically everything, but it’s the ‘Mai-Baap’ culture they follow. The manager and management are their ‘Mai-Baap’. They never come out of the garden. They are born there, they work there, they die there and their children work there, but not by compulsion. The badli system is not slavery. They want badli — a permanent job in the tea garden community is greatly sought after.”
The badli system assures a job to at least one child in a worker’s family after the worker retires.
Critics are not impressed. Pointing out how difficult it is for the tea workers to make ends meet, Dhiraj Gowala, president, Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA), said: “The monthly salary of a worker on a daily wage of Rs 167 per day is below Rs 5,000. Can anyone run an entire family on such a meagre amount? A worker in West Bengal earns Rs 202 per day, though the quality of Assam tea is far superior to any other.”
The ATTSA, incidentally, has been the political nursery of several Assamese leaders, including Dibrugarh MP Rameshwar Teli, Tezpur MP Pallab Lochan Das, Rajya Sabha MP Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, Tea Tribe Welfare Minister Sanjay Kishan, BJP’s Tea Morcha president Prahlad Gowala, apart from first-phase BJP candidates Rupesh Gowala (Doomdooma) and Teras Gowala (Duliajan), and Jitu Kisan (Majbat), who will be contesting in the second phase.
The ATTSA president, though, did not pull his punches. He was particularly critical of the Congress MPs and MLAs of the past, but he did not spare the BJP leaders either. “If they (the Congress leaders) had done anything significant, would they have lost from their own constituencies? The MLAs or MPs from the tea community have made personal progress, but no one has emerged a true leader. No one has fixed wages, raised the ST status issue strongly, or ensured land pattas for the workers,” Dhiraj Gowala said.
Among the popular younger generation tea garden leaders contesting the elections from the Congress are MLAs Rupjyoti Kurmi (Mariani), Roselina Tirkey (Sarupathar) and Durga Bhumij (Doomdooma), new faces Manoj Dhanowar (Digboi) and Pranjal Ghatowar (Moran). Sushil Suri is contesting for the second time from Sonari.
Also read: Year after Nirmala’s ‘heartless SBI’ remark, nearly all Assam tea gardens get banking access
‘How will temporary benefits help?’
At Titabor town, about 17 km from Jorhat city, home to 45,000 tea garden workers, the sentiments are mixed. The late chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, incidentally, held the Titabor assembly seat from 2001 till his death in November 2020.
In 2016, Gogoi received 54.64 per cent of the votes, whereas his BJP rival, Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, notched up 39.23 per cent. To stave off any talk of dynastic politics, Gogoi’s son Gaurav, who’s the Lok Sabha MP from Kaliabor, has not been given a ticket by the Congress to contest his father’s seat. It has gone instead to a newbie, Bhaskar Jyoti Baruah.
At the Bokahola tea garden in Titabor, the workers say the present government has done enough for them, although the lack of safe drinking water remains an issue. In a population of about 1,600 in the tea garden labour lines, there are 485 permanent workers. The workers live in block houses known as lines, which together have about 900 voters, including 492 women.
Nirmali Goala, 35, a tea garden worker, has three children to look after in a family of six. Like many others, she has decided whom to vote for. “We are living in tough conditions, but I hope this government will do something for our children’s future,” he said. “I want my children to become doctors or engineers. We didn’t get anything from the Congress government. At least we have got LPG cylinders now,” Nirmali added, thanking the BJP-led government for also helping them during the lockdown.
But the women are not satisfied with the garden management and the government over the issues of drinking water and sanitation. “We face great difficulty because our toilets are so small — the entire family uses one toilet. We want safe drinking water. We now fetch water from a well, but it’s not clean. We suffer from a number of diseases because of unsafe drinking water,” complained Anju Mullick, 35.
Nagen Chandra Kurmi, Secretary, Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), Titabor, presented both sides of the tea worker story. “In 2014, when the Modi government came to power, it made many promises to the community — fixed daily wage of Rs 350, model high schools, employment for our children and Scheduled Tribe status for the community — but nothing was fulfilled. If daily wage doesn’t increase, how will temporary benefits help?” Kurmi asked. “We have 150 students in the school but only one teacher. The government announced that it would set up 119 model schools, but these have not been built yet,” he added. The ACMS, incidentally, is affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).
Gowala of the ATTSA said the Congress never paid attention to issues concerning tea garden workers in the 15 years that the party was in power.
“The Congress has neglected us since Independence,” he said. “The party only produced a few leaders such as Paban Singh Ghatowar and Silvius Condopan, who raised awareness levels within the community by joining politics and inspired the younger generation, but failed to work for our development,” he added.
Despite multiple views emerging from the community, political observers are convinced that the tea tribe will vote for the BJP this election, even though on-ground assessments suggest that the party may have to sweat it out. With the results in some battleground constituencies too close to call, both the BJP and Congress candidates are not slowing down. In fact, the energy on both sides of the divide is palpable.
Congress MLA Rupjyoti Kurmi, who’s seeking election for the fourth time from the Mariani constituency in Jorhat district, put his confidence in perspective when he said: “Whenever people feel their MLA should be with them in their times of need, whenever there have been issues regarding bonus payments or accidents, and even to resolve human-animal conflicts in the gardens, they call me. I am with the public and that’s why I have been a three-time MLA.”
The BJP candidate from Titabor, Hemanta Kalita, exuded similar confidence. “I have a mass base from before, though not sizeable, yet I hope to win because I fed 18,000 families during the lockdown. In Assam’s tea gardens, none but the BJP will win.”
Kalita’s confidence is shared by political analyst Shyamkanu Mahanta.
“The tea garden community is certainly voting for the BJP,” he said. “The RSS did substantial ground work by going deep inside the tea garden areas where they have been able to develop a strong connect with the people. The BJP has nurtured the tea garden people well. Earlier, it was the Congress, but they lost their grip in 2011-2012.”
Continuing with his analysis, Mahanta added: “The undecided ones will ultimately vote for the BJP. They may have their grievances, but they want a stable government. BJP has strong leaders, whereas the Congress is a fragmented house, although Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has made a positive impact in the past few days.”
Even if the tea garden vote goes the BJP way, the ruling party would do well to remember the fate of the Congress, which paid a high price for not delivering on its promises. The tea tribes know they have political muscle and they are ready to flex it to get their old demands met.
Also read: What is ‘land jihad’, and why BJP has promised a law against it in Assam election manifesto