Minimum wages, ST status, basic amenities and permanent employment avenues are some of the demands of Assam’s tea tribes, who form a considerable chunk of voters in Dibrugarh Lok Sabha constituency but are struggling to be heard above the din of political rhetoric.
This tea town, which goes to the polls on April 11, is home to around 4.5 lakh voters of the community, made up of scores of tribes who form the bulk of workers in the tea gardens of the state.
But things have not improved much for tea garden workers despite leaders from the community getting elected to Parliament several times. This time there are four contestants in the fray who hail from the community — Rameswar Teli (BJP), Paban Singh Ghatowar (Congress), Titus Bhengra (Bahujan Mukti Party) and Israil Nanda (Independent).
In 2017, the Assam government formed an advisory board to fix minimum wages of tea workers. The board recommended an amount of Rs 351 but a final decision is yet to be taken. At present, a tea garden labourer gets a daily wage of Rs 167.
According to Teli, who represents the constituency in the Lok Sabha, the government cannot raise wages and it is up to tea garden owners to take a decision.
“We cannot put pressure on the tea garden owners to raise wages. They will face problems. So what our government is doing is giving support to the tea garden community to improve their living conditions. We are giving free rice, monetary help to pregnant women, mobiles to line sardars (head of labourers) and scooters for girls,” Teli told PTI.
His political rival, former Union minister and Congress candidate Paban Singh Ghatowar, questions the BJP’s stand on the minimum wage issue saying it has been fooling the tea garden community.
“Perhaps they don’t want to displease the garden owners,” he said.
The Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), the largest tea workers’ body in Assam, is critical of the government’s attitude.
“Did we fix the amount for minimum wage at Rs 350? The BJP government said the Congress was exploiting tea garden workers and they would raise the minimum wage. But they did nothing. They are doing nothing but politics. Since they could not fulfil their promise, they are now rolling out roles to buy votes,” said ACMS general secretary Rupesh Gowala.
Titus Bhengra, a retired college professor who is fighting on a Bahujan Mukti Party ticket, claims the money being deposited by the government in the accounts of tea garden workers is their own PF money.
The Assam government last year announced it would deposit Rs 2,500 each to over seven lakh bank accounts of tea garden workers that were opened just after demonetisation. This amount is the second installment of the Rs 5,000 incentive announced in the budget for 2017-18.
“What people earn is not enough to make their ends meet, forget about education, medicines and other facilities. The ration given is not fit for human consumption. The government says a lot has changed in the tea gardens but I don’t see any change. People are in unliveable conditions,” Bhengra alleged.
Independent candidate Israil Nanda, who is supported by Adivasi National Party of Assam and other small parties, says ST status and minimum wages are a must for the tea garden community.
He said the community is suffering because of the wrong policies of the government.
Gowala also rued the fact that no work has been done for the overall development of the tea garden community.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls himself ‘chaiwala’ (tea seller) but he has done nothing for the development of tea workers who produce the ‘chai’,” he said.
Addressing a rally in Moran in Assam on March 30, Modi told tea tribe communities that only a ‘chaiwala’ could understand the pain of fellow ‘chaiwalas’.
Gowala dismissed the government’s plan to grant ST status to the tea tribe community as nothing but an attempt to divide the people.
“The government is only talking about 36 tribes but we have 112 tribes in total. So we demand that ST status be given to all these 112 tribes and not even one less,” he said.
The Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA) has also been demanding that Scheduled Tribe status should be granted to all the 112 tea tribes of the State. (PTI)