Chota Tingrai TE, Tinsukia, Assam: Dressed in a worn-out blue jacket, black trousers and an overused pair of sneakers, Ravi Lohar, a young man in his late 20s, did not present a vibrant picture of youth. His sleepless countenance coupled with a frail physique were in sharp contrast to the requirements that his work as a nightwatchman at the Chota Tingrai tea estate in Assam's Tinsukia constituency demanded.
Lohar is a member of Assam's tea tribe community (comprising of 104 sub-tribes like Munda, Tanti, Orang, Naik, Kisan etc), which has over 35 lakh voters and is a major contributor to the state's economy. The political importance of the tea tribe community in Assam is of such magnitude that it single-handedly made the Congress bite the dust in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls by voting against the party in as many as 26 Assembly constituencies. With as many as roughly 800 tea gardens in Assam operational today, the community that forms around 18 percent of the state's total population is far from the glory than its number should have actually commanded.
The ramshackle and unhygienic conditions that prevailed in the labour lines of Chota Tingrai Tea Estate was testimony to the fact that this set of India's population is leading a life far below human dignity.
"During the rainy season, the labour lines are all flooded. There are no drains or proper toilets. Children relieve themselves in the open and the sight is an eyesore. There is no contribution either from the company or from the government to improve our living conditions," Lohar told Firstpost.
Chota Tingrai has 460 families with 800 permanent workers and another set around 800 temporary labourers often referred to by the degrading term 'faltu'
The condition of the tea garden community has gone down to such pathetic levels that it has forced NGOs like the Parivesh Suraksha Samiti to step in and to try to restore some semblance of dignity to their woeful existence.
"We train them with other skills like making the raw material for incense sticks or in mushroom cultivation so that they can earn some extra money. We are trying to generate small loans without interest for them so that they can all have some basic furniture to lead a somewhat comfortable life," said Jayanta Barua, president, Parivesh Suraksha Samiti.
Often used as political pawns to checkmate others particularly by the Congress for decades, the community today finds itself in dire straits and faces absolute political neglect.
"None of the political leaders have ever visited us after victory in polls. The Congress promised a lot but gave us nothing. The party deceived us for all these years. In fact, the new generation is keen on giving the BJP a chance," Lohar said.
The angst expressed by Lohar is not unreal as local MLA Rajendra Prasad Singh is still to visit these people even once in the last 15 years. But does a truant Congress, makes the road easy for the BJP? Not yet, as stringent performance parameters are already in the place for the BJP in the event of a victory.
"It has to ensure that the workers in the garden get whatever is meant for them be it Provident Fund, Widow Pension, ration card etc. The labour associations have demanded Rs 365 as wages per day but the garden only pays us Rs 126 including ration," the night watchman said.
Ironically, the largest of all tea labour associations in the Assam valley — Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) — collects a day's wage of every worker once per annum as a donation. "However, to date there is no accountability as to how the money has been utilised for all these years," Barua said. The Congress-dominated ACMS is led by its strongman Paban Singh Ghatowar, who is now contesting from the Moran Assembly seat.
Chota Tingrai lacks in basic health and primary education facilities and is light years away from the umpteen welfare schemes launched by the Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government over the past 15 years. The garden falls in the strong tea belt of upper Assam. Chota Tingrai is just an example representing more-or-less similar tales of suffering in the 800-odd tea gardens in both the Brahmaputra and the Barak valleys.
Gobin Munda, district secretary for the BJP Chah Morcha in Tinsukia alleged that the Congress is openly flexing its money and muscle power.
"A day before the polls, the Congress distributes money, mosquito nets and serves the local drink to the women in the gardens and ensures their votes. Now, the Congress government has started taking refuge in lies and is saying that the BJP will curtail their ration cards and they should allow Congress to win to secure their food security," Munda said.
He made far more serious allegations against the ACMS.
"The annual donation collected from the workers is again distributed back in money and kind at the last moment by the Congress among the garden workers in lieu of votes. They are exploiting the people by luring them with cheap tactics for votes," Munda said. "They did nothing for all these years. A lack of drainage systems, broken earthquake-prone quarters and poor toilets are common. Power connection is haphazard. Due to a naked power line, a boy lost his life last year in the Keyhung Tea Estate. There is no metre system and the workers are randomly charged for electricity consumption," he said.
Employment, education and women welfare a far cry
"Most of the graduates from tea garden areas are unemployed. The infrastructure in schools is still inadequate. So many education schemes have been introduced both by the state and the Centre but none of them have reached the garden areas. Even after so many years of British rule, women in tea gardens still pluck leaves wearing just blouses and petticoats," said Robin Kurmi, a teacher from the tea garden community.
"The new government will have to focus on generating employment for educated youths. If an educated youth gets the same wage as any other labourer, where would the value of his education lie? There has to be a fillip for small scale industry to create jobs, improve the economy," Kurmi said.
Too much political interference
There is no debate that the tea industry and its community in Assam is going through a crisis period. Unfortunately, the political class — instead of providing a solution — has been playing an obstructionist role all the while.
"Organisations like the ATTSA (Assam Tea Tribes Student Association), BCMS (Bharatiya Chah Mazdoor Sangha), ACMS are creating multiple political interference even affecting the work culture. The physical fitness of the tea garden worker is also going down due to a lack of apposite facilities. Maoist elements are quietly making inroads and they want to use these hapless workers to further their own agenda. It's high time for the political parties to act sensibly," Barua said.
No mean task for BJP
The BJP did deliver a political scoop as it completely uprooted the Congress from the upper Assam belt in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Now that Narendra Modi tsunami has passed, the party has to manoeuvre quite a bit to convince someone like Lohar and Kurmi that there is a 'wind of change' blowing against the Congress.