The plight of the tea-workers of Assam especially of Barak Valley has drawn media attention following the report of the recent starvation death in Bhuvon Valley tea estate of Cachar District of Barak Valley (erstwhile Surma Valley in British India), and consequently various forces are agog with activism to gain a brownie point, but this is of course the positive result of sustained serious efforts from some quarters. The culmination of prevailing low wages, poor housing, acute malnutrition, lack of food security and healthcare facilities for the tea workers, and lack of avenues for social mobility, into the starvation-death is not unexpected and new episodic phenomenon for these workers whose relation with their employers resembles master-slave structure where the workers are de facto bonded labour in an enclave.
Other Such Example
In the month of Sept `03, report of starvation death in Gambhira Tea Estate in the Karimganj District of Barak Valley came out in the local dailies due to sudden abnormal increase of death rate, and question was also raised in the assembly in this regard. Ghambhira Tea Estate with three divisions namely oliviacherra, Kekragool and Gambhira is situated at Ratabari constituency of Karimganj District and few kilometers away from Dullavcharra Railway station. Its boundary is marked by reserve forest in the east, Singla river in the west, Phanaicherra in the north and Bhuturpool in the south. In the year 1969-70, due to the property division within the family of the owner J.M.Agarwal of Kalimpang Tea Company Ltd., Sri Kagesh Mol became the owner and from that time onward the condition of the tea Estate started deteriorating. Initially there were 1200 permanent workers with additional casual workers. But Kagesh Mol lacked any business management acumen and he treated it not as an industry but as a landed property. He started leasing out land on payment for the settlement of non-worker families and these land later declared as ceiling-surplus land by the Govt. He took huge loan from Apex Bank and did not make any repayment. The condition of the workers alongwith the tea-garden started deteriorating, the numbers of workers started decreasing and the rights and benefit of workers started getting curtailed. In this situation, the Apex Bank took over the garden in the year 1983, and the then deputy commissioner of Karimganj District as receiver of the garden formed a committee, with himself being the Chairman of the committee, Dr. Sukumar Das, the doctor of garden hospital as vice president, Mr. Ramsankar Kamkar, a worker and Mr. Medhi, an employee, as secretary, Mr. Harsh Narain Baroi and others. This committee ran the garden for about 13/14 months during the period 1983-84, and as per the statement of various quarters including the workers, this committee ran the garden very well giving various benefits and facilities to the workers. In 1984, the total number of permanent workers are around 975 and the quantity of production of made tea was 2 lacs 90 thousand Kg/year(approx.). It is learnt that the committee had also made a good profit after meeting all expenditures, and this profit amount was handed over to the present owner.
In the year 1984, the garden was handed over to Rangajaan tea plantation ltd. on lease with an agreement with S.P.Singhania of the company. This owner led the garden to doom by squeezing money allegedly through corrupt means, sacking the workers on flimsy ground, curtailing workers rights & benefits. From around the year 2000, the management started leaving the garden frequently without notice keeping it closed, and in this way almost all the provisions as per plantation labour act was shattered. Health facilities, rationing, repairing of quarters etc have gradually stopped altogether, wages and number of workers drastically got reduced.
Tea industry and workforce
Tea garden labour community of Assam represents around 20% of total population of the state accounting more than 45 lakhs tea garden labour population in the state . About 17% of workers in Assam are engaged in tea industry and around 50% of the total tea plantation workforce in Assam is women. In 1997, the state had 2470 tea gardens spread over 230 thousand hectares. Between 2006 and 2007, the state produced 476 million Kgs of tea. Presently, the state has large number of tea estates and 507 thousand hectares of land. It shows that the state has increased tea production as well as tea cultivation substantially over a period of time. Only 30-40% are permanent workers. There are no maternity benefit schemes for the tea gardens workers. It has been observed that during pregnancy and post natal period, women continue to engage in hard jobs. Most allegation of child labour(Lerka Dopha) in the tea industry involve the function of plucking, weeding, hoeing, and nursery work. Assam is the second commercial tea production region after southern China. The tea plantation in the Barak Valley (earlier Surma Valley during British period) was taken up after the annexation of Cachar in 1932. It is reported that for the first time tea gardens in Barak Valley were started in 1855 at Bursangaon and Gungurpar. Subsequently it was developed in Kathal, Silicoorie and Arcattipore and in many other places near Silchar. By the first quarter of the 20th century as many as 100 gardens were established in Barak Valley. During the nineteenth century, Cachar tea was holding the top position in production among the districts of Assam but since then the balance dramatically reversed. According to the recent statistics, this valley has 112 tea gardens, out of which 6 are sick and remaining are producing green leafs and made tea. A. Sen of Assam University in his Ph. D thesis studied on sick industries of Barak Valley and reached to the conclusion that ‘mismanagement’ and ‘less investment’ as the two principal factors behind the sickness of the tea gardens in Barak Valley.
The closure of Garden and Government machinery
The Government machinery and the local administration are not sensitized to take appropriate measures in the event of the closure or abandonment of the garden by the owner to take measures on the basis of the Supreme Court guideline and punitive action against the defaulting owner on the basis of the existing provisions of the various acts. Taking the advantage of this lax on the part of Government, the planters psychologically pressurize the workers to curtail the bargaining capacity of the workers with the threat of closure/dissertation or temporarily resorting to impose these measures. The established union bosses in tow with the management and the political masters continuously instill a fear-psychosis in the minds of the workers about impending situation of extreme form of abject penury in the event of closure or dissertation of the garden by the management. The guaranteed livelihood for the workers and ensured punitive action against the owners resorting to the means of closure as pressure-tactics from the Government would have led the workers out of this compelling mindset to submit to the injustice meted out to them. The parallel existence of on-going NREGA-programme could have also boosted up the morale of the workers. But the planters on the ground of shortage of casual-labourers who will prefer NREG-work to the tea-garden-work for getting higher wage, and the administrative machinery being involved in corrupt practices are averse to implement NREGA properly. So there is a nexus of the management, Union bosses who are engaged in various types supply/contract works in the tea-gardens, the political masters of the union or section of administrators who are either insensitive or busy earning easy money. However, the workers are getting restless due to the dwindling livelihood-security with measly wage and becoming ready to strike back even with the possibility to bear the brunt of factory closure.
Few such examples
To describe such situation and to expose the administrative lax, few glaring examples can be cited. The Hathikhira tea estate is situated few kilometers away from Patherkandi town having four sub-division viz. Hathikhira, Solgoi, 8 no. & 20no. line. The owner of the garden is Kanoria brothers of Hanuman Texnit & Industries ltd., Kolkata. Total production of tea leaf in the year of 1996 was around 10.5 lakh kg and at the end of 2007, quantity was around 14 lakh kg. On the other hand the total number of permanent workers reduced drastically. At the end of 2007, there were only 550 & 240 numbers of permanent workers in Hathikhira & Solgoi division respectively. There were rampant violation of plantation labour act with regards to health, sanitation, drinking water, housing facility etc and minimum wage ac,t and before the year 2004 the cash wage was only Rs. 38, though as per tripartite agreement it should be Rs. 46.25. In the month of April 2004, workers of this garden went to strike with a demand to increase their wage and the management fled away. After 42 days of intense negotiation, the garden was reopened with an agreement to increase the wage to Rs. 44 with an increase of plucking task from 18kg to 21kg. This increase of wage is very much marginal considering the increase of task & system of round in the tea-bush. Moreover, the management immediately after the opening of the garden started of backtracking from implementing the other agreed commitments.
Derby Tea Estate under Derby Plantation Pvt. Ltd. was declared lock-out on 5th August 2007 on the plea that the Union and the Bagan Panchayat members had not withdrawn the FIR filed against alleged perpetrators who are responsible for the murder of Sri Deo Chand Muda, a permanent worker of Derby Tea Estate through unprovoked firing on 19th July 2007 by the security Guard of the Superintendent and other managerial staffs in their presence and under direct instruction from them.
It was mentioned in the lockout notice that lawlessness - assault on the managerial staffs - illegal confinement etc by the workers resulted in the collapse of the administrative structure of the garden. That these allegations were not the actual cause of the lockout revealed by the fact that the Derby tea industry was smoothly in operation for many days from the date of occurrence of incident of the murder of Sri Deo Cand Muda, a permanent worker till 5th August 2007. Moreover the Director, Derby Plantation private Ltd. categorically mentioned the main cause of declaration of lockout as the non-withdrawal of FIR by the factory unit of the union and Panchayat members. The management was solely responsible for deterioration of law and order situation through the murder of the said innocent worker. Actually, there was a spontaneous outburst of the angst and anger of the workers against the management. During the lockout period, the administration did not take immediate measures under Supreme Court guidelines. Similar phenomenon was noticed when the Arunabond Tea Estate of Udharbond block of Cachar Disrict was declared lockout in the month of march, 2007 to suppress the workers demand of their due payment. In all these cases, the administration procrastinates in imposing the Supreme guidelines for the closed gardens, and this gives ample time to the established garden-level union bosses to instill a defeatist sense in the minds of the agitating workers who under the pressure of the situation of livelihood-insecurity lean backward to accept a negotiated settlement with measly benefit extended by the owners, and thus the anger of the workers are pacified and absorbed by the nexus which remains in-tact to have a overwhelming control over the workers. If the Supreme Court guideline is imposed immediately after the closure or abandonment of the garden, the oft-repeated use of the weapon of the threat of closure dangling over the head of the workers gets blunted. The honourable Supreme Court has declared the right to food & work as the statutory right of the Indian People through an interim order on the writ petition of PUCL (no. 196/2001) and issued a directive to make the following facilities available for the workers and staffs of closed garden : (1) the work of atleast 15days per month with daily wage of Rs 62.00 both in cash and in kind for each worker under SGRY scheme. (2) 21 kg of food grains for each family under Antodoy Anno Yojona. (3) monthly allowance of Rs 500.00 for each worker. (4) weekly health camp in the garden (5) provision of good drinking water etc during the period of lockout.
The reverse migration
The workers’ plight in the Assam tea gardens is best revealed by a news titled ‘the reverse migration – a worrying trend for Assam tea industry’ appeared in 7th August, 2011 issue of The Hindu. The news states that about 300 tea garden workers of an estate in Assam have left their jobs and gone back, along with their families, to their ancestral places in Telanagana in search of greener pastures. Captains of the 180-year-old tea industry in the state are worried that such reverse migration is likely to aggravate the problem of shortage of labor, which the industry has started experiencing. Chairman of North Eastern Tea Association (NETA) Bidyananda Barkakoty revealed this trend during his speech at the biennial General meeting of the association held in the upper Assam of Golaghat. This reminds us the historical incident of ‘Chorgola Exodus’. Amalendu Guha in his “Planter-Raj to Swaraj : FreedomStruggle and Electoral Politics in Assam, 1826-1947 writes: The Chargola exodus, though a well known historical episode, awaits further analysis as a social phenomenon…. An economic struggle culminated into mass political action in the form of a collective escape from the bonded labour system. The exodus was an open revolt, a primitive action against the legitimised conditions of serfdom. It was the product of an interaction between the Gandhian impact on primitive minds and the incipient class militancy. To cut expenses and avoid depression on the eve of a severity of depression in the tea industry during the early post-war years, many planters retrenched their labour force and introduced short workings for those retained especially in Surma Valley (present Barak Valley). The disappointment of the worker was great, and specially so when he saw what was happening to the local railway employees who had obtained a wage rise after successful strike action. Strikes and other industrial action were not unknown to the tea workers of Assam. After the war these protest movement were more carefully organised. In the post-war period, Assam was no longer a remote region; there was much movement of workers from Assam to other parts of India, and many of them were becoming aware of opportunities elsewhere. These developments, favourable to a worker’s movement, can be taken as sufficient explanation of the ‘exodus’ from the Chorgola Valley’.(Coolie Exodus from Assam’s Chorgola Valley, 1921 – An analytical Study, Kalyan K Sircar, EPW, January 31, 1987). In the backdrop of an emerging countrywide working class struggle, and in the event of any partial success, this time around the tea-workers of Barak Valley vis-à-vis Assam will not resort to mass-migration but to revolt against the oppressive capitalist class and power-that-be.
Facts of tea-business and disinformation capaign
There is a disinformation campaign making round among the urban middle class as well as among all the stake-holders of tea-industry. This campaign of the ‘industry-running-in-loss’ is meticulously orchestrated by the captains of indutry in tow with the established union. But the reality is revealed in the fact-sheet of the Tea Board and the year book of Guwahati Tea Auction Committe. In 1997, the state had 2470 tea gardens spread over 230 thousand hectares. Between 2006 and 2007, the state produced 476 million Kgs of tea. Presently, the state has 507 thousand hectares of land under tea industry. It shows that the state has incresed tea production as well as tea cultivation substantially over a period of time. Guwahati tea auction committee (GTAC) yearbook (2006-07) report shows that total quantity sold in mkg and average price in Rs of tea in auction market has gradually increased from 98 mkg and Rs. 27.25 respectively in 1984-85 to 149 mkg and Rs. 68.06 in 2006-07. There was steep rise in price to Rs. 100.18 in 2007-08 from previous year price of Rs. 68.06. Steep rise in both quantity and price were recorded in the 1999-2000 and gradual marginal fall up to 2002-03. Otherwise, the record shows exponential growth and increase in both quantity and price. Record shows that there are few brokers and registered buyers who monopolistically control the auction market. They use to rag the price by way of some power in the auction centre. So the variations recorded in the period between 1999 to 2003 may be due to the manipulation of demand by certain big buyers. Moreover, the major quantity of orthodox tea is sold in the Kolkata auction market for better price. In the 5th annual report 2007-2008, the internal consumption of tea in the country has been estimated at 786 mkg in 2007 as against 771 mkg in 2006 showing an increase of 15 mkg over 2006. Few tea gardens in this locality also getting good price by directly selling packaged tea to the local consumer market. The quality of the CTC variety of tea in Barak valley is also good. It is one of the finest teas that are produced in Assam. Assam tea is grown at elevations near sea level, giving it a malty sweetness and an earthy flavour, as opposed to the more floral aroma of highland like Darjeeling. Cachar tea was holding the top position in production among the districts of Assam in the nineteenth century but since then the balance dramatically reversed due to mismanagement, less investment and the cuture of the planters to hush up easy money through extraneous means.
Hue and cry of the Planters and the dismal performance
Tea industry has recently called upon the Assam Government to reduce the land revenue rates and cess on leaf. This explains the mindset of the captain of the industry to run the industry with the support from public money to earn super-profit, instead of making necessary investment for new plantation, and managing the garden with business ethics. It is worth-mentioning here that in the tea gardens, the land revenue rate in the Brahmaputra valley is Rs. 22 per bigha and it is Rs. 16 in the Barak valley. A recent PIL-petition filed in the Supreme Court claimed that the Centre's Rs 4,000-crore revival package was only enriching the owners. Appearing for the petitioner, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves told a bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices P Sathasivam and J M Panchal that though the wage arrears in 55 sick tea gardens, of which 30 were in Assam and 14 in West Bengal, totalled a meagre Rs 300 crore, the owners were not paying the dues and were taking advantage of the revival package only to swell their coffers. Appearing for the Centre, Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramaniam assured the bench that the government was working in close coordination with the Tea Board to ensure basic amenities to tea garden workers through centrally-funded anti-poverty schemes. According to the chart supplied to the court by Gonsalves, Assam virtually conceded that there was a serious problem relating to payment of wage arrears in almost all the 30 sick tea gardens in the state. It also admitted death of 99 workers in tea gardens that lacked healthcare facilities. Gonsalves said, "These tea gardens are sick in every sense of the term — workers engaged for part of the week, not paid full wages, PF not deposited with the PF commissioner, gratuity not paid to workers even after working for more than 10 years." Gonsalves pleaded with the court to direct the Centre to at least start ration shops and give BPL cards to these workers who were starving and also to provide them the guaranteed 100 days work in a year under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).
New dimension in Union movement
The Asom Mojuri Srameek Union, an outfit of unorganised, rural, tea and other industrial workers, and affiliated to New Trade Union Initiative, added a new dimension to the tea workers’ union movement. On the one hand this Union is supporting the identity and linguistic rights of tea community, struggling for the implementation of NREGA and facilities of PRI and pressurising the Government authority to discharge their responsibility in case of closure of the garden and to take action against the defaulting planters in making their due payment of PF, wage, bonus etc and the Union, on the other hand, is striving hard to build the workers’ movement for enhancement of wage, for minimum wage and for the implementation of the provision of plantation labour act 1951 (with new amendment). The first cluster of issues will give the workers the necessary space for mobility to enable them to assert working class rights. That’s why, the planters, the established union bosses and the lower bureaucracy dipped in corruption are averse to NREGA-implementation in tea-gardens. Not only the casual workers, the family of the permanent workers are also entitled to get job-cards by which the family members other than the permanent workers can demand NREG-work. Though the tea-gardens areas have been brought under the jurisdiction of PRI (Panchayatiraj Institution), the tea-garden owners call the shot through NOC (No Objection Certificate) system which enable the garden owners to control the PRI schemes as well as the selection of beneficiaries. However, the stipulated rules of PRI provides the guideline to select the beneficiaries through Gramsabhas, but this provision of peoples’ empowerment is grossly restrained in the garden areas by the criteria of obtaining NOC from garden owners in implementing any scheme including IAY.
The Mojuri Srameek Union participating in the tea-wage negotiation expressed their viewpoint basing on which they are spearheading a wage struggle. According to the union spokesperson, (1) when a tea worker of Brahmaputra Valley is getting the wage of Rs.72 a day in cash in addition to the 3.25 Kg of cereals per week food-grains at 40 P a Kg and free wood for fuel that added up to an amount of not more than Rs.20 a day, a tea-worker of Barak Valley is getting a measly amount of around Rs.55 a day in cash. Moreover, during the every wage-increase on the basis of the stipulated slab-wise increment, the increase of real wage is offset and lowered cunningly by simultaneously increasing the task (Nirikh). This is gross violation of the principle of equal wages for equal work and these anomalies should be eradicated forthwith by maintaining parity in wages and by framing a broad framework on task (2) when the MGNREGA-workers who are considered as unskilled rural manual workers are getting the daily wage of Rs.130/worker, the present daily wage of tea-worker of Barak Valley vis-à-vis Assam is too meager to maintain the livelihood. So the daily wage of tea-workers should be enhanced from the existing Rs.55 to at least the level of MGNREGA-wage (3) the 15th Indian Labour Conference held in 1957 stipulated that the need based minimum wage for all industrial workers should be calculated covering the food and living requirements of three units consumption. Under this guideline and in view of the present consumer price index (CPI), the tea-worker’s wage will be much more than the double of the existing wage. The resistance of the employer’s associations to consider 1.5 units instead of 3 units in case of calculating the tea-worker’s wage on the ground that the engagement of both male & female workers implies two earners in the family is absolutely unfounded & baseless. There are ample evidences contrary to their claim. Moreover, as the existing wage is much less than the half of need based minimum wage that would have been determined by the Wage Board under the guideline enshrined in the declaration of Indian Labour Conference and the exiting CPI, the workers are extra-economically coerced to accept less than bare minimum wage that would have been the actual wage, if calculated on the basis of the ill-founded logic of the employer’s too.
Union further states that the rate of wages fixed in the recent tea-agreement of West Bengal may also be considered for the tea workers of Assam and a VDA component needs to be incorporated in wage-structure because rate of VDA varies with the variation of consumer price and thus the workers will get a price protection against the deteriorating food security to maintain their daily livelihood consumption.
The NTUI affiliated Asom Mojuri Srameek Union’s two-pronged strategy of building struggle for tea workers’ right will evidently usher in a new dimension to this important union movement which will open up the possibilities of taking the workers’ consciousness to a new height.
Starvation death in Bhuvon Valley and its implication
There are divergent views on the number of deaths in the Bhuvon valley tea estate among different unions and organizations. However, they are in agreement that these deaths are to be considered as starvation death and it’s the fall out of long deprivation and dehumanization that resulted in acute mal-nutrition in general, and subsequent closure of the garden and the negligence of the Government inspection regime have altogether stopped the supply line of all the livelihood support system. But owner with a defiant note claimed that this is not an incident of starvation death. So a magisterial enquiry has been set up by the district administration. But it is not clear how a magisterial enquiry can go into the details of the causes of starvation death.
The NTUI affiliated Asom Mojuri Srameek Union has stated in its memorandum submitted to all concerned that they are dismayed by the facts revealed by their own union source and the local vernacular media about the starvation deaths in the tea-gardens of Bhuvon Valley Tea Company in Lakhipur Sub-Division of Cachar District due to the complete failure of PDS and other facilities to be guaranteed to workers of the closed garden as per the Supreme Court guideline and the prevailing chronic abject malnutrition among tea-workers’ family members in all the tea-gardens in general. It is learnt that prior to the closure of the garden, workers were neither paid their cash daily wages nor provided their entitlements of ration as wage-in-kinds since long. Workers were also not provided with other facilities like healthcare etc since long. This is an extreme case of gross negligence and violation of rules within the overall prevailing situations of poor quality and less than the entitled quantity of ration provisions and poor healthcare facilities for the workers in most of the tea-gardens under the garden-management who are recalcitrant towards any change for the better. This PDS is important on two different counts – firstly, it is the part of the worker’s wage as wage-in-kinds, and secondly, it is also an overall societal issue as the public money is involved.
Union has, in its memorandum, elucidated this particular case of Bhuban Valley Tea Company, and these two issues of PDS and medical facilities in general point by point.
(1) The owner has dodged their obligation to deposit the workers PF to the PF-fund. It is surprising to note that the district administration has failed to nab the person against whom the license for the company was issued. The data obtained through RTI-petition also reveals that many tea gardens authorities of Barak Valley in addition to this particular tea estate failed to oblige the provisions of paying the contribution etc under Assam Tea Plantation Provident Fund Scheme Act, 1955 and thus attract clause 43 of this act for the punishment of the defaulting owners. (2) A long time has already been elapsed since when the garden management has not been providing the ration and the medical facilities to the workers. Though the management has acted ultra-vires by suspending the PDS and medical facilities under NRHM, the inspection/surveillance procedure under PDS and NRHM has utterly failed to warn them and bring them to book. These gross violations have gone unnoticed to the appropriate authorities that are responsible to ensure proper implementation. This gross failure of monitoring and surveillance, and the failure to compel the management to abide by the stipulated rules have caused the loss of nine lives of tea workers who embraced the consequence of starvation situation. This arrangement of NRHM is in addition to the obligations of the planters to provide medical facilities mentioned in the Chapter III, article 10 of the plantation labour act, 1951. This provision under the labour act is also being rampantly violated in most of the tea-gardens.
Moreover, in this particular case along with similar cases in many other tea-gardens, they attract the provisions of sub-clause (c) & (d) of clause 16B and sub-clause (b) of clause 16E of Tea Act for default in the payment of wages, provident fund etc, and for managing the industry in such a manner highly detrimental to tea industry and/or public interest, and in the event of the closure of the garden for more than 3(three) months respectively. (3) In almost all the tea-gardens, the quality and quantity of ration commodities provided to the workers are deplorable. Under the existing system (as the stay order has been issued by the honourable High Court against the new system to be introduced by the state Government to treat the manager as ration dealer), it is the tea industry which has taken upon itself the task of public distribution for its labourers. The allotments of rice and wheat are made in favour of tea industry associations centrally by the directorate of food and civil supplies, and thereafter, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) makes district wise allocation based on the government allotments. The agent of the association of the planters receive the allotted quantity of food grains entitled for the workers directly from the FCI on PDS prices and then issued to the workers by the garden authority who subsidized it further to charge 54 paisa per Kg from the workers. The difference of PDS price and the price acquired from the workers are treated as the workers’ wage in kind. But in actual practice, this wage-in-kinds is claimed to be much higher than actual,- and thus the workers are deprived in two-pronged manipulating technique. However, as the public money is involved in the tea-garden PDS over and above the technique of artificially lowering the real wage of workers, the failure of the inspection/surveillance needs to be thoroughly investigated. (4) Under the PPP-model of NRHM, the tea-garden owners who have reached to an agreement with the Government represented by respective Deputy Commissioner, the owner is receiving Rs.15 lakhs per annum to provide the medical facilities to the workers. Under the Plantation Labour Act, the planters are duty-bound to provide the medical facilities on their own. The tea-garden managements who are receiving additional amount of money earmarked against the NRHM project are not properly utilizing this amount and are resorting to unethical means to gobble up the money. Here also, it is a public issue of lack of surveillance and inspection by the appropriate authority. (5) The skewed policy decisions, severe deprivation and discrimination meted out to the workers by their employers and the failure of the administrative machinery to compel the planters to abide by the existing laws of the land have an immediate bearing on the overall community health and nutrition. The case study conducted by G. K. Medhi, N. C. Hazarika and J. Mahanta of Regional Medical Research Centre, N. E region (ICMR), Dibrugarh, Assam on nutritional status of adolescents in tea-gardens workers reveals that the almost half of the adolescent of tea workers are stunted and most of them are thin. Problems of overweight is seen in less than 0.5% of adolescent. Factors typical to underdeveloped society seems to contribute moderate to high prevalence of under nutrition among adolescents working in tea gardens. Another study conducted by G. K. Medhi, A. Barua, J. Mahanta of Reginal medical research Centre, N. E. Region, Indian Council of Medical Research and Community Medicine Department, Assam Medical College, reveals a high prevalence of malnutrition among the school age children in the tea garden workers of Assam and the nature of malnutrition indicates that causes of malnutrition are not only recent but also long term deprivation. This land us to the general conclusion that low wage vis-à-vis the overall low family income, lack of food security and healthcare facility and other civic amenities are heavily contributing to the dismal situation of nutrition and health. The only remedy in sight is to declare all of the tea-garden families as BPL to enable them to avail the Government beneficiary schemes.
The incident of the death in Bhuvon Valley tea estate reveals the tip of the iceberg of prevailing abject poverty and malnutrition among the tea workers of Barak Valley vis-à-vis Assam. The whole gamut of this industry is in doldrums due to the attitude of the planters to extract super-profit through extraneous means and depriving the workers, and the skewed vision of the Government policy makers as well as the laxity of administrative inspection regime. An all out effort need to be organized to ensure smooth functioning of the industry as well as to establish the rights of the workers and to build a wide struggle with a future vision of just society. This workers being the largest section of total workforce in Assam, will decide the fate of the working class and democratic movement in Assam.
Addendum on 23-08-2014
Addendum on 23-08-2014
(1) The minimum wage schedule officially announced by the state government reveals that the plantation workers are also included in the schedule which is effective up to 31st august, 2014 and accordingly the minimum wage circular being issued by the labour commissioner bi-annually considering the VDA component is also applicable for tea-workers of Assam. According to this schedule, the minimum wage for unskilled tea-workers is Rs.169 up to 31st August, 2014 and Rs. 184 w.e.f 1st September, 2014. The current wage settled through bipartite negotiation is of the tune of Rs. 94 for Brahmhaputra valley garden and Rs. 75 for Barak valley gardens for wage in cash. Many gardens pay less than this negotiated wage too. As per the information provided by the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association(ABITA) on the daily labour Cost in Assam from 1st April 2011 to 30the June 2012, the wage component in cash is Rs.74.50, wage component in kind is Rs. 22.40, Statutory expenditure under Plantation Labour Act is Rs.23.79 and under common statutory expenditure like Provident fund, Bonus, gratuity etc is Rs. 25.67 and total comes to Rs.146.36 per day per worker. ABITA calculation says that 16.25% of the total labour cost of Rs.146.36 as on June 2012 is on account of meeting the statutory provisions under the PLA (Plantation Labour Act) - housing facilities, medical facilities, welfare facilities, national (festival) holidays, sickness benefits, earned leave, educational facilities and maternity benefits. While for employers these are cost enhancing, for workers these are inadequate to raise their standard of living. This reckoning has increased marginally under the present wage structure. Against the writ-petition nos. WP(C) 5481 of 2011 and 70 others clubbed together on Tea Garden matter, the honourable Guwahati high court upheld the unanimous resolution of the employers, employee and the state representatives in the meeting held on 25.10.2010. In the said meeting, it was unanimously resolved and /or determined that the cash value of food-grains supplied at concessional rates to the workers is Rs.14.20 per day. It was pursuant to such resolution / consensus, the Govt. of Assam in the Labour and Employment department, issued the impugned notification dated 1.12.2010, exercising his power and jurisdiction under Section 3(i)(b) read with Section 5(ii) of the Minimum Wages Act. Section 2(h) of the ATPPF Scheme Act, 1955 defines ‘Wages’ as any amount capable of being expressed in terms of money for the time being payable to an employee by the employer for works and / or in connection with a plantation and includes DA, value of food concession, amount payable for plucking, whether calculated at time or basis rates or otherwise, and leave with wages and maternity allowance or benefits but does not include (a) bonus, or (b) commission. As per the meeting held on 25.10.2010 in which the representatives of the Government in the Labour and Employment Department and the representatives of employers and employees participated, the fixation of Rs. 14.20 per day as wage in lieu of concessional food grains is common to the Tea Estates of both the Valleys. So by the definition of wage as per this Section 2(h) mentioned above, the present wage, if calculated on the basis of ABITA’s reckoning, will not be more than Rs. 120 for Brahmaputra Valley workers and Rs 105 for Barak valley workers. This wage is far less than the wages declared by the state government in the minimum wage schedule. The other factors of statutory expenditure can only be taken into account for wage calculation only under living wage which will be far more than the minimum wage announced by the state government.
(2) Currently, tea gardens procure wheat and rice at subsidized rates – Rs 8.36 per Kg and Rs. 6.10 per Kg respectively from government quota. It is provided at 54 paise per Kg to workers. A garden worker, as per official norms, gets 3.2 Kg, half of which is rice and other half wheat, per week. An adult dependent and minor dependent get 2.44Kg and 1.22Kg of foodgrain respectively per week. But the women workers who constitute the majority of the manual workers get the ration of two minor dependents only. The state government has been providing 7,600 tonnes of rice and 5,000 tonnes of wheat each month to the tea garden at subsidized rates.
Under the food security act, a beneficiary (each member of the family) will get 5Kg of rice per month at Rs 3 per Kg through the food and civil supply department, which will supply the ration to fair-price shops across the state. To avail the benefit, a beneficiary’s annual earnings will have to be below Rs 1 lakh and priority will be given to daily-wage earners. So the tea worker’s family will be beneficial if the whole amount of their entitled minimum wage is paid in cash, and as per the above criteria, they all are brought under the net of FSA.
(3) The statutory rights under the Plantation Labour Act are rampantly violated due to lack of proper inspection. The inspectors have kept their inspections limited to specific complaints instead of conducting regular inspections. A presentation by A K Malakar, the previous labour commissioner of Assam notes that inspection in the tea estates is done at the consent of the management, when the department is not in a position to provide means of transportation, the management takes an advantageous position in providing vehicles and therefore inspections cannot be impartial. Therefore management escapes prosecution even for grave violations. Penal provision of Rs 500 is ludicrous and is not a deterrent. So PLA, Assam Scheme must be implemented effectively by giving necessary tooth for punitive action for violations of its provisions.