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Saturday, September 18, 2021

BJP’s success story in Assam’s tea garden belt and the future of the Tea Industry

Every time as the election season approaches, Assam’s tea garden workers are being wooed by political parties of all shades with promises of sops galore, as they comprise a hefty share of the state’s electorate. The tea garden workers are in a position to influence the outcome of as many as 60 Assembly constituencies in the state and 5 Parliamentary constituencies – Kaliabor, Mangaldoi, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, and Jorhat. The 8 lakh workforce in the 800+ tea gardens of the state is a formidable vote-bank whose unstinted support had been enjoyed by the Congress Party for decades since Bharat’s Independence.

The BJP in Assam has been able to make some impressive gains among the voters of the tea garden community, spread across seven districts of Upper Assam. Thanks to the untiring efforts of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the organisational superiority of the RSS in the tea garden areas remains unmatched to that of the Congress Party-affiliated Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh (ACMS).

The ground-level work of the BMS has been a very important factor in facilitating the victory of the BJP in the tea garden areas of Assam. The tea garden community constitutes a sizeable voter-base for any party desiring to control the reins of power at Dispur. In fact, the BJP’s entire strategy of sweeping Upper Assam has carefully hinged on the full-fledged support of this community of plantation workers and labourers, both in 2016 and this time in 2021 as well.

The BJP was able to make a serious dent in the Congress’ support-base among the community for the first time in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It repeated its success story in the 2016 Assembly elections and again in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. This time too, the BJP successfully wrested from the Congress Party the constituencies of Doomdooma, Sarupathar, Golaghat, Moran, Lahowal, Duliajan, Tingkhong, and Naharkatia, all having a substantial segment of tea community voters.

What needs to be accepted here is that the dent made by the BJP in the Congress’ traditional vote-bank of the tea garden areas has now become permanent and irreversible. As a result, its former grip in Upper Assam has been lost forever.

Prior to the Assembly Elections of 2021, the Congress Party desperately made an all-out effort to retain the lost ground with its election campaign focussing on increasing the daily wages of the tea garden workers to Rs. 365/- from an existing Rs. 167/-, which somehow caught the ruling BJP on the wrong foot placing them on the defensive.

To counter the Congress, the BJP highlighted the various measures that had been undertaken during the last five years of its rule for the tea garden belt. Both the parties did not leave any stone unturned to pull all sops with the objective of countering each other’s claims on their respective contribution to the tea industry of Assam.

A week ahead of the polls on March 27, the brew was already steaming for the candidates of both the BJP and the Congress, with none too sure of who would get to sip the final cup. Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra made particular efforts to woo the community with both of them visiting tea gardens and enjoying a cup of tea and lunch with the workers. Mrs. Vadra even tried making a popular connect as she sat on the garden grounds, chatted with the workers, sipped a cuppa, visited the home of a labourer’s family, and even tied the wicker basket to her head while plucking tea leaves at a garden in Biswanath district. The BJP immediately ridiculed it as a “photo op session during the off-season when leaves are not plucked.”

In Assam, the Muslims and the tea garden community both, have been known for patronising the Congress Party for a long time since Bharat’s Independence. It almost enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the votes of the tea community for many decades. But, the shift of allegiance of the tea garden community of workers and plantation labourers towards the BJP has become complete by now.

The Congress Party, too, does not have any leader of standing in Upper Assam and the demise of former CM Tarun Gogoi has left a permanent vacuum. It has failed to neutralise the situation by giving responsible positions to key leaders hailing from Upper Assam.

On the contrary, in its very first term itself, the State BJP Government established mass contact with the tea garden workers by having them open bank accounts under Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), besides assisting them with cash handouts. Various schemes and projects in the areas of healthcare, education, and infrastructure activities like new road and water supply projects, etc. were also introduced for the benefit of all sections of the tea community, including students, youth, and women.

As per a news report published in The Assam Tribune of March 25, 2021 the BJP Government had opened 7.5 lakh bank accounts for tea garden workers, given a fillip to education by opening 119 new model high schools, came up with healthcare facilities having mobile medical units, provided free medicines in dispensaries and special financial assistance to pregnant women, besides addressing their nutritional needs.

The ruling BJP’s ally AGP also stepped up its campaign among the tea garden workers by assuring them that the NDA Government will continue with its initiatives to improve their standard of living, if voted to power. A budgetary provision of Rs. 1,000 crore for the welfare of tea workers in the poll-bound states of Assam and West Bengal was made by Finance Minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman in the Budget of 2021-22. This was done for “the welfare of tea workers especially women and their children in Assam and West Bengal”, in the words of Sitharaman.

Such sops are clearly directed at the votes that the tea workers are capable of drawing. It also included an allocation on road improvement aimed at developing communication infrastructure which is very important for tea gardens located in certain remote areas of Upper Assam.

But, the hard fact remains that most of the tea workers still live in squalid conditions, and many do not get the legal benefits guaranteed by the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 which has since been subsumed under two Labour Codes – the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 and Social Security Code, 2020.

On the other hand, a common complaint of the tea garden owners has been that their business faces unprecedented challenges given the rising input costs and ever-growing competition from across the globe. E.g. the daily wage of a tea worker in Assam is a meagre Rs. 167/- per day which comes at the lowest end of the scale. Although this was increased by the State Government in February, 2021 by Rs. 50/- with an eye on the upcoming Assembly elections, it is still very low.

As the prices of tea keep fluctuating in the global market and their margins are squeezed, the most pressing question that arises is – What is the way forward in a business that still employs 1.16 million people directly in the task of tea production? A huge majority of these workers are women. Additionally, several millions of people derive their livelihood from ancillary activities associated with the tea industry. The economic significance of this sector arises from the fact that it is supposed to be Bharat’s second largest employer.

Given the changing circumstances and the evolving nature of the business, the fear is that the entire sector is being squeezed and it may turn into a struggling behemoth in a few years time. This makes it a pale reflection of the days when tea brought a sense of romance and the planters led a charmed life, the business being considered rock-solid then.

There are more than 35 tea-producing countries worldwide at present, and the race to the top is often described by the industry as ‘neck and neck’. If Bharat wants to keep its neck in, a lot has to change. Planters associations have been pitching for increased government support, and increased budgetary allocations to Commodity Boards including the Tea Board. How far the ruling BJP can address their demands along with that of increasing the wages of the poor labourers, remains to be seen.

-by Dr. Ankita Dutta (The writer holds a doctorate degree in Political Science and regularly writes on topics of national and current interest).


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