Why Assam’s Tea Garden Workers are Unhappy with Modi Government

Assam accounts for over half of India’s total tea production.
Why Assam’s Tea Garden Workers are Unhappy with Modi Government

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently wished Assam’s tea estates to become a tourist destination while visiting the state, but he chose not to speak a word about the issues faced by the tea farming community for the last few decades. The question that arises here is if the tea from the gardens is reaching globally, are the voices of those working here being able to reach the prime minister?

According to Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA) President Bimal Bagh, the workers are yet to receive even the bare minimum. “We have been demanding a minimum daily wage of Rs 351, but even that has not been provided yet,” he said.

“We have observed the BJP government for the last 10 years. The commitment Modi had given us before the formation of his government, turned out to be a farce. Nothing has become a reality till now,” he told The Mooknayak.

Talking about the other options available to them, Bagh asserted that there are other local parties as well that can be given a chance. Even the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has entered the game in the state.

Pradeep Nag, president of the All Adivasi Students Association of Assam, said, “Many Adivasi workers in tea gardens have been given the status of the Other Backward Class (OBC). We too demand Scheduled Tribes (ST) status.”

Adivasi groups from the Chotanagpur plateau, including Oraons, Santhals, Mundas, Kharias, Bhumij, Gonds and Sawras, migrated to Assam generations ago to work in tea estates established by the British in the mid-19th century.

These communities, now known as tea and ex-tea garden tribes, are officially classified as OBC by the government. Despite contributing significantly to Assam’s tea production, they face economic challenges and low levels of education.

Seeking official recognition as ST in Assam, they hope for increased support and opportunities to improve their livelihoods.

He further spoke about the long-standing demand for land ‘pattas’ (land lease) both in tea gardens and villages. Similar privileges are extended to other Adivasi communities. 

Tea garden workers have historically been deprived of land ownership rights, despite their integral role in the tea industry’s success. This discrepancy has led to disparities in socio-economic conditions between tea garden workers and other Adivasi groups who have been granted land ownership rights.

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Can AAP Make a Dent?

On being asked if the community as a whole might be looking into other electoral options due to the distrust with the current government, Bagh from the ATTSA responded by saying that everyone is free to vote for the person and the party they feel for. But the only suggestion he has is to think about the issues directly affecting one’s livelihood before pressing the button to vote.

Members of the ATTSA have been staging protests at the Bijulibari Tea Estate located in the Duliajan area of Dibrugarh district for months now. Management’s decision to sell off garden land to private entities triggered the agitation.

The AAP, looking forward to winning the confidence of the group, has nominated Manoj Dhanowar to contest from Dibrugarh constituency. The 48-year-old candidate hails from the tea garden community and hopes to win their support.

As the sole candidate with a background in the tea garden community contesting for the Dibrugarh seat, Dhanowar has been actively reaching out to voters in tea gardens across Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts, which fall under the Dibrugarh Lok Sabha constituency.

On March 17, the AAP leader visited several tea gardens in Dibrugarh district to engage with voters. Dhanowar, son of the late Rameswar Dhanowar, a former eight-time Congress MLA from Digboi, appealed to voters to support him, highlighting his father’s efforts to improve the lives of tea community members.

He also discussed his plans to address issues such as fair wages, adequate housing and access to healthcare and education for tea garden workers.

Among the 803 registered large tea gardens in Assam, Dibrugarh boasts the highest count with 177 gardens, while Tinsukia follows closely with 122 gardens, all falling within the Dibrugarh constituency.

Assam’s Tea Tribe — A Worthy Partner in Vote Bank Politics

The tea tribe community holds significant electoral sway in Assam, constituting approximately 17% of the state’s total population. Their influence is particularly pronounced in around 40 out of the 126 Assam assembly seats, making them a crucial demographic in the state’s political landscape.

This community is primarily concentrated within the vicinity of over 800 tea gardens across Assam, with additional presence in various unorganized small gardens scattered throughout the state. They predominantly reside in residential quarters adjacent to these tea gardens, forming tightly-knit communities deeply intertwined with the tea industry.

The tea tribe community’s electoral significance stems from several factors. First and foremost is their sizable population, which enables them to sway electoral outcomes in numerous constituencies across Assam. Additionally, their socio-economic status and geographical concentration within tea garden areas often make them a focal point for political parties seeking to secure votes in these regions.

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