Talk of ST status for Assam's 'tea tribes' may give BJP fillip in election year, but real benefits miles away at ground zero

The tea tribe's sizeable population across Assam makes them a politically important demography for any party in the wake of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Hence, this made for an opportune time to pick up the quota debate.

Editor's note:  A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Election on the Go, over a course of 100 days. 

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Dibrugarh: "Our community has been exploited for decades, the Scheduled Tribe status will help us get the benefits of government schemes," Bhaiti Munda (26), could hardly hide the sense of new-found hope satisfaction in his voice, even as he worked on a sewage drain at the Sessa tea garden in Dibrugarh. For the 'tea tribes' or tea estate labourers of Assam, with their lives revolving around the sprawling lush tea estate, have had little opportunity to become hopeful about anything else in a long time. The new found possibility that they might just get the Scheduled Tribe status in the wake of a Constitution Amendment Bill have given a new fillip to the community.

For the lakhs of tea garden workers spread all over Assam, it has been decades of exploitation and agitations demanding that coveted tag. A tag that, ironically, they would easily enjoyed in their native states, had their forefathers not migrated in the 19th century to work in the British-owned tea gardens of Assam. Over the generations, these tea garden workers, spread across districts of Western Assam, Morigaon, Nagaon, Sontipur and Darrang in central Assam; Golaghat, Jorhat, Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia in upper Assam; and North Cachar and Karbi Anglong districts in Barak Valley. Their numbers grew over the generations and now they constitute close to 20 percent of the state’s total population, according to the 2011 Census.

However, a sizeable population still lives in and around Dibrugarh, arguably the economic hub of Assam, which is surrounded by sprawling tea estates. But the proximity to the industrial town has had little benefit for them; government schemes that should give them better access to healthcare, sanitation, education, and drinking water facilities, often seem to fail just where the boundaries of the city melts into the tea estates.

Lush green Sessa Tea garden, Dibrugarh

Lush green Sessa Tea garden, Dibrugarh

In such a scenario, many in the community had been agitating for their basic rights, pinning their hope on the one goal - obtaining the Scheduled Tribe status for their community. The widespread belief amid the members of the community is that the Scheduled Tribe status will be beneficial for them in many aspects, including the quota benefits in government jobs and higher educational institutes.

Their sizeable population across Assam makes them a politically important demography for any party in the wake of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Hence, this made for an opportune time to pick up the quota debate.

Finally, on 9 January,  years of protests to get the Scheduled Caste tag appeared to have borne fruit when the Minister of Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram tabled The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in the Rajya Sabha. The Bill still has to become an Act, or an Ordinance, to actually benefit anyone, but the conversation is already moving in the right direction for the ruling party, which by the way has also released a slew of sops for the community in its state budget as well.

The Bill seeks to amends Part II of the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) order 1950, which specifies the communities deemed to be Scheduled Tribes, to now include the tea tribes of Assam, along with five other economically better off communities in the state, the Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Moran and Mataks, who had been demanding the status for a long time. However, the tea garden tribes have remained the most economically and socially backward of them all.

A tea garden workers house

A tea garden workers house

"Along with the five ethnic groups of Assam, the tea tribes of Assam are also demanding the ST status. And after examining their demand, our department has decided to grant them the ST status ," said an officer from culture and tribal affairs department in Assam.

However, one has to remember that the criteria to be listed as a Scheduled Tribe includes primitive traits within the community, a distinctive culture, geographical isolation, and backwardness amid other things. Naysayers argue that since the 'tea tribes' are in essence individuals who migrated from different states, they do not constitute a single ethnic community that can be deemed tribals, or even backward.

The Coordination Committee of the Tribal Organisations of Assam (CCTOA), an umbrella organisation representing the Scheduled Tribe (plains) people of the state, has strongly come out against the granting of ST status to these communities. They continue to organise rallies and bandhs against the move, invoking mixed response across the state.

“Granting ST status to these six communities (the sixth being the tea tribes) will destroy the existing Scheduled Tribes of Assam. Once granted ST status, these six communities shall enjoy reservation in political representation, education, employment, land and natural resources. The six communities do not fulfil the criteria and that's why Register General of India (RGI) dropped their demand eight times," said Aditya Khaklari, Secretary General of All Assam Tribal Sangha and chief coordinator of CCTOA. According to 2011 census, Scheduled Tribes (as per the current listing) makeup 12.45 percent of the population of Assam and are understandably loathe to see their reservations diluted.

But the argument that Assam's plantation workers are not a single tribe-based community, but rather an assimilation of individuals is not entirely correct.

Over the generations, the plantation workers also have developed their own unique culture, and language which is different from that spoken in the rest of Assam. Their unique music is an important part of their community's identity, which is usually performed during weddings, festivals, before the arrival of new season, ushering-in of new life, and harvests. Their jhumur is a folk dance unique to the tea tribe community. They also have an important place in Assam’s cultural history, and not just the state's economy because their hard work, over the years, has made Assam's tea a well-known brand. For decades, they have been fighting for ST status, even though the communities they belonged to — Munda, Santhal, Kurukh, Gonds, Bhumij and a dozen others — are STs back in their native states. But in Assam, these Adivasi ‘tea tribes’, comprising 112 sub-groups, many from the Chota Nagpur region, besides Jharkhand and even Andhra Pradesh, are classified as tea garden labourers or tea garden tribes.

As we travelled through the villages in Dibrugarh, it became clear what the ST tag means to them. "If this happens, we can get small government jobs," said a happy Bhaiti Munda. This also the view echoed by many others we spoke to during our course of travel.

Assam Tea Tribe Students' Association (ATTSA), Dibrugarh district publicity secretary Lakhinder Kurmi agrees with Munda's views. "Their current OBC status has not given our people the kind of opportunities that are needed to uplift them and be recognised as first-class citizens of Assam", he says. "The Bill will provide reservation for us in government jobs as well as education. We can go for higher education with the reservation. We are poor people and higher education is a distant dream for us and the ST status will help us for fluffing our dreams," he added.

"We are backward and if we are ST, then we will get lots of benefits, especially jobs in the government, besides other opportunities," said Pronob Tanti, 31, from Khanikor village. "The Congress exploited us for decades by using us as a vote bank." Tanti also felt that after BJP government came to power in 2014, development has taken place in the rural areas. "Rural women used to face problems to go outside for defecation. But under the Swasth Sarvatra scheme toilets have been constructed in the village."

Likewise, most of  the people we spoke to have high hopes with this new Bill, though some are unsure of how exactly the ST tag will help them. Like Sasun Tasa, 45, who was drying firewood in the afternoon sun, wonders what will the new tag entail for a labourer like himself. "I have heard about the ST status but can't say how we will benefit from it," he said. "We don’t know much about it because we are poor and our main concern is to earn and feed our family. If the government is going to give us some benefit, then it is good."

This makes it plain that the state machinery needs to do much more to create awareness as to what this development could mean. It is these set of people who are neithre too hopeful of a change from the ST status, nor are they deeply impressed by the BJP

"Except rice and kerosene, we are not getting any benefit from the government," said Nima Rabi Das, 52. A resident of Bokel village, Nima, who was widowed last year, said no one tells them about new government schemes for people like her. “We heard that in some areas toilets and latrines were constructed under government schemes, but we have not benefited through the scheme. A government official came to us for survey and assured us that latrines would be built but all that we have is a temporary latrine which has no door."

Temporary toilet ata tea garden worker's home

Temporary toilet ata tea garden worker's home

As the Lok Sabha campaign gains momentum, the Congress strategy will be to play down the talk of ST status to the different communities. The first salvo in this was fired by the president of Congress affiliated-Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh, Paban Singh Ghatowar. He alleged that out of 112 tea tribes in Assam only 36 have been included in the list. "The tea tribes comprise 80 lakh people in Assam and compared to others, they are backward economically, socially and in education. Compared to 72 percent overall state literacy, only 46 percent of tea tribe people are literate." He accuses the BJP of using the ST status issue as a 'lollipop' before the elections.

He also accused the BJP of pursuing a divide and rule policy. "While communities like Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Moran and Matak will be awarded ST status as a whole, only one-fourth of the tea tribes will be granted ST status,” said Ghatowar. He claimed that many sub-tribes among the tea tribes have been unable to produce the proper ethnography certificates, and hence will be left out. "This is highly discriminatory," he claims.

Parag Dutta, a young BJP leader from Dibrugarh, was quick to respond to these allegations. "The tea garden people have been neglected till now," said Dutta. "Now that they have got ST status along with the other five ethnic communities, they will all benefit equally. Paban Singh Ghatowar was elected five times as MP from Dibrugarh constituency but has not done anything for the development of tea tribe community. Our government is committed to providing the ST status to the six ethnic groups of Assam."

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Ignatius Topno, Dibrugarh district president of All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam, that is fighting for the ST status, however, adds a note of caution. "The Bill needs to be passed in the Lok Sabha for us get the ST status," he pointed out. It was to be tabled in the ongoing session, but the last day of the Lok Sabha came and went without mention of the bill. "We appeal that ST status issue not be used as a major agenda before the elections." He said that in order to press for their demands they will continue to organise a series of protests and rallies.

The author is a Dibrugarh-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters


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