Gaurav Sarma
IJDTSW Vol.5, Issue 1, No.3, pp. 40 to 63, July 2018

Locating Adivasi Communities In the Tea Industry Of Assam: Implications from the Past, Present and Future

Published On: Saturday, August 4, 2018

Abstract

This paper is an attempt to understand how labour has been historically operating within tea plantations of Assam. This has been done by looking at a plantation through the socio-economic lens in relation to the Plantation Labour Act, 1951. The paper goes on to argue that ‘plantation’ as a category is a colonial legacy and the tea industry’s inability to adapt to changing times is spelling crisis in the near future. However this adaptation is restricted to labour processes in the paper. The term ‘Adivasi communities’ has been used in place of’ labour’ or ‘tea tribes’ as a point of assertion firstly, as a position to indicate that labour is not free within a plantation in Assam and secondly to indicate how a community is being stripped off their identity for over a century. The paper hopes to bring out a generic understanding of the complex relationship between the adivasi communities, the tea industry and the people of Assam. After laying out the historical context, it goes on to unravel the socio-economic realities supported by primary data collected in a tea plantation of Upper Assam. The paper concludes with suggestions to a way forward for the industry.

 

The Tea Industry in Assam

Tea comes from the biological term Camellia Sinensis. This plant was native to Upper Assam and it is said that the Singpho people had already been drinking it (although unprocessed) when Robert Bruce discovered it for the British Empire in 1821. The Anglo-Burmese war ended with the signing of the Yandabo treaty in 1826 marking the beginning of colonial conquest in Assam for production of tea which subsequently led to the breaking of Chinese monopoly over the commodity.

The tea industry in Assam contributes more than half to the annual tea production of India.1 It is largely dominated by big companies that carry forward the colonial legacy of plantations, taking pride over a past which almost seems like floating in an incongruous hangover that fails to reconcile itself with the present world order. This incongruence manifests itself in the unprecedented crisis that the industry is facing today due to factors ranging from climate change, rising production costs, labour absenteeism etc. As it grapples with these issues, the most vulnerable group in this transformative and volatile landscape are the Adivasi communities working in the plantations whose livelihood solely depends on the garden.

History and Labour Recruitment for the Tea Industry in Assam

Assam was an agricultural society with a diverse, composite culture of communities living together when the tea industry was established in the 19th century. The industry developed parallel to the agricultural society and did not have much effect on it economically and socially. Vast tracts of land were lying uncultivated and uninhabited which led to unhindered procurement of land for the establishment of the industry. Now the need was of large-scale manpower to clear the dense forests and wastelands to be made suitable for the cultivation of tea for which the local Nepali people formed a major workforce along with some other tribes like the Bodo and the Kachari people (Chatterjee, 2003). Once the industry was set up, the Assam Company imported Chinese workers to work in the plantations at double the wage that was to be paid to the local Assamese workers employed in the plantations. After the Chinese labour force was withdrawn in 1843, local people were the sole source of labour till 1859 (Kar, 2012). The Kachari people from the Darrang district formed the major part of local labour, joined by the agricultural workers in the off-season. However during these years, there was always a tension between the demand for labour and the total supply of labour in the plantations. The incumbent labour force always fell short and did not exceed 10,000 when the actual need for labour was about 16,000-20,000. Nevertheless, the wages at the time were not that low as the local people had considerable bargaining power and they could go back to agriculture. The population of Assam was too low to cater to the tea industry and eventually the local people did not want to work as they could sustain themselves through agriculture and farming and did not feel the need to work in the plantations which were anyways paying them less than any other work in agriculture or the government services. Moreover for the planters, employing local people meant paying high wages while the strength of the population willing to work was pretty low. These setbacks which emerged in Assam at the dawn of the tea industry set the colonial rulers thinking of the future of the labour-intensive industry. It is then that the Bristish decided to import labour. (Gupta, 1986)

But the question was- From where and how?

Adivasi Communities in Assam: A Brief History and Context

The Adivasi communities comprising of tribes like Santhal, Gond, Munda, Kharia, Oraon, etc were primary inhabitants of the Chotanagpur region which includes the present day states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, etc. They were historically self-sufficient segmented tribal societies living and sustaining through agriculture and forest produce, which was the primary source of livelihood. The economy of these communities was not centered on money as they could sustain themselves from the forest itself. They claimed their rights over the forest land in which they were living. But the penetration of colonial capital made these communities vulnerable and at the same time the British were also in the hunt for cheap labour. These communities turned out to be an easy target through the draconian policies of land taxation and revenue collection which threatened the self-sustaining livelihoods of the people.

Importing labour for the tea industry which covered most parts of Assam and North Bengal, where a single tea plantation can hold 600 hectares of land, was a humongous task in itself. There had to be mechanisms set in place to smoothen up the entire process. This mechanism which triggered one of the largest migrations in history not only served the interests of the tea industry but the British Empire as a whole- the land revenue policies. These peasant and hunting-gathering societies holding customary land rights were systematically alienated from their own lands by the British administrative land revenue policies which gave absolute power to the zamindars to collect taxes. Many communities who depended on the forest for their livelihood did not have such huge reserves of cash required to pay the heavy taxes (Chatterjee, 2003). ‘Labour Catchment Areas’ were identified based on overpopulation and poor vulnerable people who could be easily lured (Gupta, 1986). Consequently, during the last decades of the 19th century, the recruitment drive overlapped with famines in the region and this made people desperate and readily volunteer to migrate to the plantations. They were promised better lives in a far off land which they had no idea and how would they, as the tea industry was itself a new colonial project undertaken in Assam. They were caught in an agro-industrial setting premised on capitalism but showing signs of feudal characteristics at the same time.

The recruitment process was carried out in phases backed by legislations to legitimize the entire process (Kar, 2012). Recruitment officers known as ‘sirdars’ were employed to successfully relocate the people by setting up ‘labour lines’ (small hamlets found in tea estates of Assam). The draconian Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act, 1859 ensured that the workers stayed till their contracts got over (Guha, 1977). Thus, an indentured system was in the making within a landscape of ‘patronization’ and ‘order’, reinforcing the colonial rationality of ‘civilizing the uncivilized’ (Chatterjee, 2003). People were brought to Assam, cramped in boogies of trains and settled in the segregated ‘labour lines’ of plantations. They were provided with a small plot of land which was somehow enough to meet daily needs. The living conditions were abysmal which only catered to the subsistence needs. Labour was recruited on a contractual basis. But people did not have any idea how to return to their homeland from the remote corners of the tea plantation in Assam. Thus, once the contract officially ended, most of the families chose to settle in the gardens itself.

The import of labour changed the entire demographic pattern of Assam in the early 19th century. The Adivasis today constitute around twenty (20) % of the total population of the State out of which around seventeen (17) % are engaged in the tea industry (Saikia, 2009). The tea industry today employs around seven (7) lakh people in Assam alone.2 The wage of the workers, since the colonial period was kept very low as the planters had to reap profit and compete in the international markets (Dutta, 2015). Though the situation has somewhat improved in the post-colonial era, the colonial structure of the plantation still prevails in the form of denying just wages and adequate living and working conditions for workers.

Identity Formations of Adivasi Communities in Assam

The Adivasi communities found themselves in a peculiar situation after arriving in Assam on the promise for better livelihoods. They were suddenly caught in an agro-industrial setting premised on capitalism but showing signs of feudal characteristics at the same time. This setting operated in isolation and there was very little contact between the Assamese and the Adivasis. This is when the construction for identification of these communities began among the Assamese society. This process gave birth to categories like ‘coolies’ and ‘tea tribes’ (Sharma, 2009). The category ‘tea tribes’ began to be used widely. And eventually the identities of all the distinct tribes having their own unique cultures were consumed under a reductionist industrial umbrella category known as the ‘tea tribes’.

This is where the identity assertion of the Adivasis becomes so fundamental for the emancipation of the communities. But unfortunately in the tea plantations of Upper Assam, the Adivasi communities are slowly losing grip over their languages and cultural practices. The people mostly converse with each other in Sadri (which is the common language spoken among the Adivasi people) (Fernandes, 2003). This loss of culture, some people argue is because of the mixture of different communities in the tea plantations of Assam. This might be a reason why in Upper Assam where there is a mixture of Adivasi and other communities (especially the Oriya) most of the Adivasi people cannot speak their mother tongue and generally converse in Sadri, while in Lower Assam where this kind of a complex mixture has not taken place, Adivasi communities have managed to retain their language and culture. This might be due to several factors like being out of the plantation structure, development of awareness among the community due to education, close proximity to their ancestral land, etc. But this sense of consciousness is lacking among the Adivasi communities of Upper Assam. But again communities residing in Upper Assam have mostly been restricted to the plantation structure.

These factors are creating a confused scenario among the people in Upper Assam. However, these confusions might dissolve when this all encompassing exonym ‘tea tribes’ is dismantled and the workers are recognised as people having distinct culture and identities. Adivasi people today are asserting their Adivasi identity and in the process also creating a strong ‘social capital’ of intellectuals, political activists among them.

Plantation Economy

The tea industry in India, particularly in Assam is inherently colonial in terms of its underlying economic (trade) structures and social relations within a plantation. ‘Plantation’ as a concept is a colonial construct which was created for the cultivation of cash crops. Today in a post-colonial setting, a majority of the tea being produced in Assam for the market comes from the plantations which are organized into rigid enclave-economies. These enclave-economies have certain characteristics which essentially suited colonial interests and which still survive to this day, not as an anachronism but evolving; over time.

One of the pre-requisite for any industrial setting is the reproduction of the conditions of production as well as the social formations (Althusser, 1971). This is the basic premise of an enclave-economy, where labour power is given the means to reproduce itself through the ‘historical minimum’-wages and by fulfilling other subsistence needs. Another characteristic is that in an enclave-economy, the market is always externally oriented and this is one of the reasons why the plantations can operate in isolation from local market centers. Local market centres develop nearby as the workers’ labour-power does not possess any exchange value which is to say that they cannot buy what they produce unlike a traditional capitalist structure (Dupuy, 1983). This is precisely the reason why internal mechanisms are in place within the plantation itself through which labour constantly reproduces itself. They are provided with the minimum subsistence needs within the plantation like a weekly market or a health clinic.

The plantation structure is not only on the realms of the physical but also occupies the individual mental reality. Through the suppression of history and culture, the plantation structure colonized the minds of the Adivasi people and inserted within them an ‘inner plantation’3 such that they internalized the oppression in their minds on the face of colonial civilizing mission. This internalization created the ‘other’ through institutions like the colonial schools and establishing binaries of ‘modernity’ and ‘primitiveness’. The people were stripped off their distinct cultural identities and reduced to ‘workers’. This is one of the greatest victories of the plantation economy. Therefore, it is these very foundational structures, which makes plantation as a concept gravely unjust for the workers who produce tea. This is the reason why there is a need to take the plantation as a unit of study and understand it in totality; because the very plantation structure shapes the socio-economic reality of the working communities living in it.

Tea in the Global Context

TABLE 1- World Production

Country

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016 (P)

China

1789753

1924457

2095717

2248999

2350000

India

1126330

1200410

1207310

1208660

1239150

Kenya

369562

432453

445105

399211

474808

Sri Lanka

328397

340026

338032

328964

292362

Vietnam

174028

180325

175000

170000

165000

Indonesia

137769

136856

135721

129293

125500

Others

769492

781284

802735

796395

815858

Total

4695331

4995811

5199620

5281522

5462678

Source: Tea Board of India

TABLE 2- World Export

(Qty. in M.Tons)

Country

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016 (P)

China

321785

332416

301484

324956

328692

India

208260

219060

207440

228660

216790

Kenya

430205

494347

499380

443461

480330

Sri Lanka

306040

309199

317885

301316

280874

Vietnam

144028

140325

132000

133500

127000

Indonesia

70071

70842

66399

61915

50000

Others

295100

294635

301724

305569

293887

Total

1775489

1860824

1826312

1799377

1777573

Source: Tea Board of India

The above two tables makes India’s position quite apparent in the global tea market. India has been the second largest exporter of tea after China. However, it is the absorbing and thriving domestic market which ensures the stability for the Indian tea industry. As it becomes evident from the data, India exports a negligible amount of its total tea production. For example in 2016, production was 1239150m.tons out of which 216790m.tons got exported. Kenya and Sri Lanka on the other hand exports most of their total production. The relation between production and export patterns are important because export quality production makes the tea industry more progressive and sustaining in the long run as certain standards have to be maintained like labour standards, land-use, environment, etc which can be neglected in the domestic market.

TABLE 3- Estimated Apparent Consumption of Tea in India4

(Figures in M.Kgs)

Year

Domestic Consumption (Estd)

2013-14

911

2014-15

932

2015-16

951

SOURCE: Tea Board of India

Legal apparatus in regulating working conditions

The Plantation Labor Act of 1951 was passed by the Parliament to provide for welfare and regulate the conditions of work in plantations all over India except Jammu and Kashmir. ‘Plantation’ as defined (in relation to its applicability) according to the act is “any land used or intended to be used for growing tea, coffee, rubber, cinchona or cardamom which admeasures 5 hectares or more and in which fifteen or more persons are employed on any day of the preceding twelve months.” However the State Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, declare that the provisions of this Act can also apply to any land used or intended to be used for growing any other plant, even if it admeasures less than five hectares and the number of persons employed are less than fifteen (15) (PLA, 1951). In that sense, the State Government is empowered under the Act. The act recognizes plantation as a self-sufficient unit which contains offices, hospitals, dispensaries, schools, etc. The Act regulates all major aspects from registering and appointment of Chief Inspectors to ensuring adequate healthcare, education, living and working conditions of the plantation workers. The Act states that the statutory benefits like healthcare and education must be exclusive of the wage calculation.

According to the act, a “child” is someone below the age of fourteen (14), an “adolescent” is someone who is between fourteen (14) and eighteen (18) years of age and an adult is someone who has completed eighteen (18) years of ages. A “family” is seen as the worker’s spouse and the dependent children below the age of eighteen (18) years and also includes, “where the worker is a male, his parents’ dependent upon him”. A “worker” can be a person who is employed for any kind of skilled, unskilled, manual or clerical work. A plantation is liable to employ a welfare officer where there are three hundred (300) or more workers in a plantation and the state government has the authority to prescribe duties and qualifications for the same (PLA, 1951).

The Assam Plantation Labour Rules, 1956 are detailed rules framed by the State government which lays out the procedure for implementation of the provisions under the Plantation Labour Act like welfare, maternity benefit, etc.

There are numerous other legislations (other than the PLA) which apply to the tea industry in some way or the other, but the PLA has been paramount and solely applies for regulating welfare conditions in the plantation sector. The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923 which applies to plantations, does not prove to be of any substantial benefit to the tea industry as the nature of work is different from other industries and occupational accidents are few. Similarly other legislations like the Minimum Wages Act, 1936, the Industrial Employment Standing Orders Act, 1946 and the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 does not apply to the plantations to a great extent. This is the reason why the need for a separate Plantation Labour Code was felt necessary which came out in the form of the Plantation Labour Act, if it meets the criteria of a ‘plantation’ under the act (Gaffar, 2015).

FIGURE III- Socio-Economic Conceptual Framework

Understanding the socio-economic scenario in plantations

India is the second largest producer and exporter of tea in the world. The country has also been witnessing annual domestic consumption increase year after year by approximately 15 million kg annually. The country exports approximately 200 million kg tea globally and imports around 22 million kg annually to meet the high domestic market demand for tea.5 Yet despite this equilibrium of the market forces of production and consumption, the stakeholders in the tea business keep on stressing on the frail and monotonous argument of how the tea production costs and labour costs are increasing, thereby affecting positive growth of the industry (Bhowmik S. K., 2015).

The Plantation Labour Act, which regulates welfare in the tea industry, has clearly laid out provisions for the socio-economic development of the workers settled in the tea plantations. These include facilities for potable drinking water, adequate housing and sanitation, primary schools, hospitals with certified medical officers, crèches, canteens, etc. for every plantation. But these provisions are explicitly violated by the management running the tea plantations so much so that these violations have become normalized. Considering the fact that most of these basic provisions have never been implemented6 in the tea plantations and even if done so, the functioning of these facilities can still be speculated, the management’s claims of costs involved for their implementation is clearly speculative. “The non-implementation of acts is mainly because of the indifference of the state governments and of course the plantation companies” (Bhowmik S. , 2015).

The Plantation Labour Act, 1951 came into force as a social regulatory mechanism in the plantations of India. Unlike new forms of regulations and certifications which often operates from the West and works closely with the management when it comes to setting social standards on labour, the PLA is rooted into the context where the plantations are located and is independent of any affiliation with the management as the legislation is legally enforceable. It works in close proximity to the plantation system, unlike the new forms of neo-liberal regulatory institutions, as checks and balances to the inequities in the plantations. If the PLA is enforced in its vitality, it could be one of the best tools for social regulation thereby ensuring that the plantations are socially just to the people living and working in it (Besky, 2010). State regulatory mechanisms like the PLA has a lot of scope to improve the existing conditions in the gardens. But it is quite unfortunate that the PLA is being violated from the government’s end too, let alone the management. Labour inspectors and officers under the Labour Department of Assam Government are considerably few in relation to the total number of registered tea plantations (Ghoshal, 2016). Even if labour inspectors are present, they do not conduct inspections and audits on time. Regular audits are important in ensuring sustainable welfare which is lacking in the new forms of regulations. As cited by (Sharma I. , 2018), a study conducted by the North-East Research Centre in Guwahati in 2004 found grave violations of the provisions under the Plantation Labour Act and almost non-existence of the entitled provisions in some of the gardens out of the 172 tea gardens of Assam in which the research was conducted (Bharali, 2004).

The workers are paid deplorable wages at ₹137 (for permanent workers) in the tea industry of the 21st century (Dutta, 2015). (Bhowmik S. K., 2015) argues that wages are considerably high in the tea growing regions of the South, while it is much lower in the Northern regions of Assam and West-Bengal, despite the fact that the region shows positive signs in realizing productivity and prices. Low wages have been justified in the North by arguing that the plantations in the South do not provide the in-kind benefits and if the value of ‘perks’ are included with the in-hand cash, the difference between the wages of two regions is actually negligible. Bhowmik states that the productivity per kg of made tea per worker is 705kg in Assam, 817kg in West Bengal, while it is only 613kg for Tamil Nadu and 688kg for Kerala. Moreover the auction price of tea is also very high in the Northern States compared to the Southern States. Despite such promising signs of productivity, the workers are not paid a wage that is commensurate to the labour that they put in. This has a significant impact on their purchasing/consuming power and this is the reason why in-kind components are so crucial for the well-being of the workers.

The Public Distribution System in the tea industry is one of the oldest forms of food distribution system in the country. The food grains are supplied directly from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godown to the employees through the PDS quota under APL scheme (Saikia, 2009). The tea industry has been providing to its workers food grains at a highly subsidized rate of 47paise/54paise per kg rice and wheat respectively. In total, 35kg of rice and wheat are provided per month. However, there have been attempts by the centre in recent times to scrap this significant component of ration which is exclusive of wages and compensate it with cash (Pisharoty, 2017). This move also involves the alteration of the definition of “wages” in the PLA through the Plantation Labour Bill, 2016. But this does not seem like a viable option because there is already widespread malnutrition among the people working in the tea plantations and in that sense the ration component is anyways not helping the people much, but the ration at least ensures a regular minimum supply of food in the family. According to the medical director from Assam Medical College, nine out of ten patients from the tea plantations turn out to be malnourished (Rowlatt & Deith, 2015).

Assam accounts for the highest mortality rate in India at 300 per 100,000 live births in 2011-13.7 In the major tea growing districts in Upper Assam (Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sivasagar, Jorhat and Golaghat) where the Assam Medical College also happens to serve, maternal mortality ratio was 404 per 100,000 live births, resembling Sub-Saharan Africa (Ghoshal, 2016). Anemia and Thalassaemia has been a common health problem concerning the Adivasi communities in the plantations of Assam (Teli, Deori, & Saikia, 2016). These factors directly affect the maternal and infant health. Besides, respiratory diseases like tuberculosis are also very common. The tea garden workers have also seen epidemics like gastroenteritis and tuberculosis time and again which is an outcome of abysmal living conditions without adequate water supply (Misra, 2003).

The overall socio- economic condition of the Adivasi communities in the tea plantation of Assam has also been shaped by the administrative status of the Adivasi communities. The majority of the Adivasis in Assam come under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) while the same communities in the Chotanagpur region come under the Scheduled Tribes. The Adivasi communities have been demanding the ST status in Assam. Since the nature of the status question is political, consecutive governments have tried to play on the promise of granting the ST status and several local communities in Assam have also come out in strong opposition to this demand. If these communities get the ST status it would certainly make considerable impact on improving the socio-economic conditions of the people. The status question is also seen as a form of identity assertion by the Adivasi people (Sharma, 2018). The Adivasi communities were a major vote bank for the Congress until 2014 when the Adivasis voted for the BJP. This was a shock for the congress and they knew that the people were becoming aware and frustrated for their demands to be met. The people made a strong statement that the Adivasis cannot be taken for granted. Yet after BJP came to power, the demand for ST status is still pending (Chakravarty, 2016).

The denial of the basic welfare measures have resulted in sporadic incidents of violence in some tea estates across Assam. Although it is difficult to establish a direct causality between both these factors, the incidents can be seen as the eruption of long-accumulated anger of the people towards the management. These incidents include gherao and burning down executive bungalows, killing executives from the management, etc.8These are results of long-term historical neglect and were very much avoidable if welfare measures were undertaken adequately and workers were paid on time. These incidents have made tea garden managements and state alert from time to time and made them re-look at the complexities involved in dealing with labour and the general population has formed varied perceptions on the Adivasi people. Ideally after such sporadic outbursts of incidents, the management and the state should have worked together, but this has not happened and the workers find themselves sandwiched in between the management and the state that pass on the blame to each other pertaining to implementation of the Plantation Labour Act and its provisions. The management argues that their cost of production out of which labour cost which accounts to almost 55% of the total cost, has been increasing substantially (Misra, 2003). While the state argues that ensuring welfare measures is the managements’ responsibility. All these processes have only widened the gap between workers, management and the state.

The general Assamese society seems to hold a deep-rooted prejudice towards the Adivasis which has stigmatized the Adivasi community settled in Assam. The 2007 incident that led to brutal attack on the Adivasis gathered for a peaceful protest demanding ST status in the state capital was justified as retaliation by the local people against vandalism carried out by the protesters (Misra, 2007). Though people are quick to condemn violent behavior of the Adivasis in several incidents like setting the owners’ house on fire in Tinsukia district or protesting against the management, they do not look deeper into where this kind of violent behavior stems from and what could possibly make them commit such ghastly acts.

Due to their existing socio-economic condition, people are not aware of their rights which reflect back in terms of poor development indicators like healthcare and education. Moreover it is quite naïve and un-professional on part of both the management and the State to not see investments in social welfare and well-being as a catalyst for increasing worker productivity. Investing on the wellbeing is very important because the Adivasi communities make up the very foundation of the tea industry. It is only them who have nurtured the tea industry and the fate of the industry also lies with them. Wages are abysmally low in Assam as compared to the Southern states. The argument that the in-kind benefits amount up to the wage in the South is flawed because a fixed amount is already being deducted for ration, thereby reducing the base wage even further from ₹137/126 respectively. The other benefits combined also, do not make it more than ₹200 per person9 while the basic minimum wage in the Southern States is more than ₹250 which again keeps on rising according to the variable dearness allowance (VDA) considering the rise in the cost of living in the wage calculations. Cost of living and inflationary factors are also not considered in Assam.

There have been numerous studies and research in tea being carried out by different agencies like the Tea Board, but the area which has largely been neglected is labour and welfare. There has not been any rigorous research which holds companies accountable for implementation of social welfare provisions in the gardens. The Tea Board’s primary focus is on conducting ‘tea research’, but one can only wonder why ‘research and development of labour’, which constitutes a primal role in the functioning of tea industry, should not come under tea research. It is only the external actors who have always focused on social welfare and held the companies accountable. This is to say that labour welfare has historically been seen as the least priority area in tea research and by the industry in general. Even today, when there is a constant search for the long-term sustainability of the industry, the very people on whose shoulders the tea industry is sustaining itself are neglected.

FIGURE IV- Indicators representing socio-economic reality in a tea plantation of Assam .

SOURCE: Primary data collected in Sotai T.E, Assam.

The Centrality of Wage

Tea plantations comply with the minimum wage set by the bilateral agreement between the Consultative Committee of Planters Association (CCPA) comprising a body of employers associations and Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) the largest union under Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) representing the tea workers of Assam. One can look at this compliance as necessary (on management’s part) for the constant reproduction of labour by allowing room for subsistence living. And therefore, it is only when we move beyond the ‘wage and statutory compliance’ and look at how these shape the consumption expenditure and living condition of the workers, we get a sense of the crisis. The minimum wage for un-skilled work in Assam is ₹250 and the tea industry which comes under the organized sector pays its workers as low as ₹137. It is wrong to argue that tea plucking and manufacturing is un-skilled work. Tea plucking involves refined skills and it is needless to say that workers in the factory need to possess certain skills to carry out their specific tasks. However, it can be seen in the recent past that the government is slowly getting involved in the wage settlement in the plantations. This can have a positive outcome for the workers. The present government has made it mandatory for all the workers to have bank accounts for direct wage deposits. This move has gained widespread support among the people as savings have become relatively easier for the families. However, this scheme has not yet come into force in Sotai T.E and the workers still receive their weekly wages in-hand.

In the study it was found that most of the people did not have any track of their daily spending. Another interesting aspect is that even if the primary working member in the household was a woman, the wage was mostly in control of the man. This factor has significant implications on spending. It was felt that the women were more conscious of spending and education of their children then the men. Moreover, they are the ones who were found to be managing the household chores including the kitchen, but still in most cases they did not have much idea of the spending on food items. Alcoholism was seen as one of the major factors leading to uncontrolled spending by some women and the owner of the plantation. The usual perception (including the owner’s) on alcohol is that people remain poor since they spend too much money on alcohol. However this is only looking at the problem at the level of mere common sense. On the contrary, it can be argued that it is chronic poverty and abysmal conditions in the garden which push people into alcohol addiction. Hence, there is a need to understand the circumstances that lead people into the daily habit of alcohol consumption in the plantations. The labour intensive tea industry demands toiling physical labour. People come home to poor housing conditions without proper sanitation. These factors need to be considered while looking at the problem of alcoholism. Moreover, the local drink which is popular among the Adivasi society called ‘hadiya’ has been an integral part of Adivasi culture and many people do not consider it as alcohol. But another variety of home-made drink which is popular among the workers and is much more harmful is the ‘chulai’. But, the point which needs to be stressed is that preparing alcohol in the household has been an age-old occupation and an alternative source of income for the families living in the plantations. While the selling of alcohol should not be promoted, there is also a need to look for alternatives which would supplement selling alcohol for better livelihoods.

Currently, agitation in demand for the increase in wage has been going on led by the All Assam Adivasi Students Union (AAASU). This agitation started in the later months of 2017 strategically eyeing the 2018 panchayat elections to pressurize the government for an increase in wage to ₹350.10 Such a huge leap from ₹137 seems impossible considering the past increments in wage at a difference of not more than ₹10-15 every year. Many people working in the tea gardens believe that wage is at the core to all of their problems and if the wage is set in a manner that considers the everyday cost of living in a household, the situation could be much better. The involvement of the government in wage settlement is needed and there is a renewed sense of hope among that people that the government is starting to get involved especially since the setting up of the Minimum Wage Advisory Board11 (under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948) to re-look at the current wages in plantations and recommend changes for the same along with the introduction of bank accounts and by setting up a panel to fix the minimum wage.

Alienation in tea Plantations

The 2007 incident in Guwahati is a very symbolic event in the history of Assam. It is symbolic in the sense that this event brought the Adivasis and the local people into close confrontation with each other for the first time in the capital of the State. There was certainly a sense of uneasiness when the Adivasis came out to demand for their rights and more so, as they had come out of the structure of the plantations that they have long been confined to. The Adivasi communities has been living in isolation from the mainstream Assamese society because of geographical, occupational as well as cultural factors. This event brought the Adivasis into close contact with the mainstream society and resulted in a shift in power equations. Events like these bring out rather overtly (which otherwise stay covert in the lived experiences of the people) the phenomenon of ‘isolation’ and ‘alienation’, and without trying to understand these, it becomes difficult to grasp the socio-economic reality of the Adivasis in totality. Isolation is so stark that even the genetic and transmittable health problems that the plantations of Assam breed stay within the plantation itself. These health issues can very much come under control if adequate prevention measures are undertaken within the plantation.

The survival of the colonial structure of the plantation economy and the existing socio-economic situation in the plantations has to be seen in relation to the concept of alienation. Alienation can be looked at in various ways when we try to understand the socio-economic condition of the people. The most primary form of alienation that the Adivasi communities face in the plantations is that of geographical and material alienation. Tea plantations were set up in the erstwhile uninhabited regions of Assam because of which towns came up and started to prosper catering to the needs of the tea industry. However, the coming up of towns was a gradual process and it still did not change the fact that the plantations operated in considerable isolation. The people living in the towns still do not know much about the functioning nor the people working in the industry. This is the reason why there has been least contact among the Assamese and the Adivasi people. This form of alienation has always worked in favour of the industry which has kept the workers unaware of the outside world, which in turn has also resulted in a lack of awareness among the people living outside the plantations to the exploitations in the industry. The workers are also materially alienated from their own labour. They do not know where the tea is sold or how is it sold or on what price is it sold. This form of alienation has led to horizontal inequality in the supply-chain. Besides, there is alienation at the community level too. The Adivasis have been historically reduced to mere workers in an industrial setting and this has led to an alienation of cultures and identity. Different tribes have got mixed in this historical process which has led to losing their distinct tribal identities. All these forms of alienation are manifesting in the Adivasi youths of today as they are increasingly moving out of the tea plantations in search for better opportunities and livelihoods.

The way forward

Tea industry is a highly-women centric industry (Rasaily, 2014). Women from almost every household are usually employed in the garden. But when it comes to the control of the money that they earn, it is always in the hands of men. The point being, it is very important that women have control over the money because they are the ones who know the daily expenses of the family better than men. Working mothers should also be part of the wage negotiation processes as they can actually portray the actual cost of living in the households. The recent Minimum Wage Advisory Board also does not have any women representatives, let alone any Adivasi women. In a women-centric industry with alarming mortality and infant mortality rates, women should be part of the decision-making process (Satpute, 2017).

Stakeholders (especially from planters associations) argue that the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 is outdated in the present times and there is a need to re-think/ re-look this institutional regulatory mechanism which has over-burdened the tea companies, ultimately leading to losses hampering the industry12.If such is the case, then there is also a need to re-look at the tea industry which is inherently colonial in its structural formations and has been functioning on the colonial construct of ‘plantations’. So as plantations are still very much a reality, the legislation which was passed to regulate the conditions of work in these plantations should also exist. And the question of whether the Act is applicable to the present times should only occur if the plantations do not exist anymore. If the proper implementation of the Plantation Labour Act is not possible in the present times, then there is need to think beyond the idea of the plantation structure instead of doing away with the legislation itself. The point being that it is about time the tea industry came out of the colonial hangover and learned to innovate. And at the very axiological premise of innovation is developing trust for the people who are working in the tea industry. For instance, rise in labour costs could easily be diverted towards the workers by helping them become self-sufficient through opportunities for alternative livelihoods. The tea industry has to overcome the ‘fear’ that is at the core of the suppression workers face, which is the fear that anything more than fulfilling subsistence needs would make the workers leave for better opportunities. Of course workers would want to leave, like in any other capitalist enterprise. But it is the acceptance that workers have every right to leave, will actually result in better social welfare policies. In fact, this ‘fear’ is also colonial which once got translated into draconian legislations by the British.

The realization that better wages and living conditions translates into greater worker productivity is surprisingly missing in the tea industry. It is evident today that workers are already migrating to metros in search for better jobs and there is widespread absenteeism in the tea gardens. Instead of arguing that the workers will move out of the gardens, there is a need to enhance the working environment such that they do not have to go looking for jobs in the metro while also respecting their right to do so. The point being, all these forms of colonial thinking must be done away with. There is a need to think discursively and find ways that shift the existing colonial structure of the plantation economy towards developing socially fair methods of trade which is rooted in the context and addresses the needs of present times. Until we build a value-chain in which a grower/worker has an authority for his/her produce and gets in return the fair price for their tea sold at the open market, the tea industry will always be on a crisis.

The tea industry needs to transform its productive processes in a manner whereby it seeks to uphold the 17 sustainable goals under the UN Development agenda by ensuring that the workers enjoy the four principles of decent work- dignity, equality, fair income and safe working conditions. 13 It is important to look at cash, in-kind components and the provisions under the PLA like housing, potable water, etc as a step towards a ‘living wage’14 rather than a mere ‘subsistence wage’. The tea industry is not a free labour market where anyone applies for a job. It is a few particular communities who have been serving the tea industry for generations. Therefore, the implementation of the Plantation Labour Act in its spirit is not only a way for ensuring a decent standard of living for the workers but towards correcting a historical wrong meted out towards the Adivasi communities for generations.

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Web links

3 Coined by Kamau Brathwaite

4 Estimated based on ORG India study report.

6 Refer- Bharali, G. (2004). Labour Unrest and Social Insecurity of Plantation Workers: A Case Study. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre

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