Guwahati - As the vibrant festivities of Durga Puja draw near in Assam, it appears that tea workers in the region have received an early gift from the state government. In a recent announcement, the Assam Government has taken a step towards improving the lives of its tea plantation labor force by increasing their minimum wages by Rs 18. Additionally, the cabinet has approved a 20% bonus for Baganis (Tea Estate Workers) in celebration of the upcoming Puja season. While this news is undoubtedly heartening, questions linger about whether this wage hike is truly sufficient to sustain the livelihoods of these hardworking individuals.
During a cabinet meeting on October 2nd, the decision to increase wages for workers in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys was made. Chief Minister Hemanta Biswa Sharma briefed the media after the meeting, saying, "The cabinet has decided to raise the minimum daily wages of tea garden workers. In the Brahmaputra valley, the daily wage has been increased to Rs 250 from Rs 232, effective from October 1. In the Barak valley, workers will now receive Rs 228 instead of Rs 210." He further added, "The government has instructed garden managements to provide a 20% bonus for the upcoming Durga Puja."
Despite this positive news, many from the Tea Welfare Board are raising an important point about the hike not being sufficient for the livelihoods of the workers. A local media house quoted a source in the Assam Tea Employees Welfare Board as stating, "An increase of just Rs 18 is insufficient to support the livelihoods of tea laborers. Even though they are provided with housing, Rs 250 is inadequate." It's important to note that during elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party had promised to increase the daily wage of the Baganis to Rs 351 within a few months of coming into power. It remains to be seen if this promise will be fulfilled.
The Mooknayak spoke to Paban Singh Ghatowar, the president of Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha. Ghatowar pointed out that the decision, while seen in a positive light, is only interim relief. The president further claimed that the conclusions from the cabinet meeting have been informally communicated to the media, and an official circular has yet to be issued. Only after this has been done can the management committees work on implementation and provide the Baganis with a portion of what they deserve.
Pankaj Das, a member of the Helem Branch of Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha, explained that implementing any decision is not that simple. Speaking to The Mooknayak, he elaborated on the current situation of tea companies in Assam. Das said, "Ultimately, it is the companies that determine wages. However, they are unable to do so because profits in the tea market have been declining for the past three to four years. This is due to inadequate maintenance of the gardens and the brokers who test the tea leaves before buying usually do not consider the quality of the machines used, leading to the destruction of many of the plucked leaves in the process."
The member further substantiated his claims using a major estate in the state of Assam. Kepla Bagan is a tea garden in the Sonitpur district that is without a supervisor. The garden has gone to auction twice, but no bidder has come forward to purchase the plot. A third and final notification of Rs 7.5 Crore has been released, but according to him, the chances of bidders showing up are very low.
Speaking about the many aspirations of tea garden workers, Pankaj Das added, "Like everyone else, they deserve to have a good quality of life, including good housing, clean drinking water, and access to healthcare, which are basic amenities they should have." He mentioned that companies are supposed to provide these necessities. Governments only step in when they see companies are unable to fulfil their end of the bargain.
Governments have provided Baganis with medicines, isolation wards, and labor wards when companies haven't even been able to provide workers with maternity benefits. The Jal Jeevan Mission has brought clean drinking water to the estates, but there is still much more work to be done. Some of the major tea companies in the state of Assam include Gillanders Arbuthnot, Rosell India, Dhunseri, MK Shah Exports, Assam Company India Limited, Laxmi Tea Company, and Asian Tea and Exports Limited.