Lok Sabha polls: BJP has edge in Assam's tea belts as locals blame former Congress policies for underdevelopment
It's business as usual at the Halmira tea estate, tucked in Golaghat district of Assam, about 300 km away from Guwahati.
For the tea garden workers, poverty is too enormous a problem for grief to be a priority.
It is the feeling of being let down that has seen the tea tribe vote bank of Congress in Assam swing towards BJP.
The managements in the tea gardens feel that the ‘freebies’ that political parties give in a way harms the industry.
It's business as usual at the Halmira tea estate, tucked in Golaghat district of Assam, about 300 km away from Guwahati. From the first look, no one would understand that only a month ago, this tea garden was the epicentre of a massive tragedy. 160 people, mostly workers of tea gardens, had died in Golaghat and adjoining Jorhat district after consuming spurious liquor, 47 of them from Halmira. Over 100 tea garden workers from this garden were hospitalised, and work was badly affected.
Life and work have limped back to normalcy. For the tea garden workers, poverty is too enormous a problem for grief to be a priority. They are the most marginalised, but whenever Assam votes, the six million tea garden voters, locally known as tea tribe from the 825 tea gardens in Assam, will hold the key. They directly decide results in at least four out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam. Thus, at Halmira, the buzz is more about the election than the dance of death that the area saw only last month.
“I have lost my husband to the hooch tragedy. But I cannot give up work out of grief. No tea garden worker can give up work. We are marginalised. So even in grief, we work. We really want the politicians to make illegal liquor a poll issue and make a promise that it will be banned,” said Ganga Moni Ghatowar, a tea garden worker at Halmira. Her husband Dilip Orang was a permanent worker in the garden.
The garden workers have taken a decision that they won’t allow any political party to lure the tea garden workers by providing them free liquor.
“This tragedy is an eye-opener for not only this garden but the entire tea tribe community. I don’t think illegal liquor is now readily available even in other gardens. This is a good thing happening in the tea tribe community, although it came at a cost of 160 lives. Ever since BJP has come to power, we have seen some developments for us as well. We have voted for the Congress since independence, but it did not do much for us apart from carrot-dangling. And yes, it's the free booze that used to be supplied in every tea garden to win votes. This was also started by the Congress and the other political parties also followed the same formula, including the BJP. It’s the cheapest way to win votes," said 55-year-old Bablu Bhumij, a labourer at Hamira.
On 30 March, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a massive poll rally in Assam’s Moran, which falls under tea tribe-dominated Dibrugarh district, he claimed that only a ‘chaiwala’ can understand the pain of tea garden workers.
"The NDA government has taken initiatives to open bank accounts for tea garden workers. Lakhs of families in the tea belt have received Rs 5,000 as aid in two installments, the government has also decided to provide free rice and two kilograms of sugar to four lakh families in the tea belt,” Modi said at the rally.
Ironically, the prime minister did not mention the hooch tragedy. But still there is a feel-good factor working in favour of the BJP.
All his life, Bablu had been a Congress supporter but he switched over to the BJP in the last general elections in 2014. It is this feeling of ‘being let down’ that has seen the tea tribe vote bank of the Congress in Assam swing towards the BJP.
There are over 800 large tea gardens in Assam. The workers were brought during the British Raj from among the migrant Adivasis from central India. Their numbers are close to 60 lakh and they form nearly 17 percent of the state’s electorate. In 2014, BJP had won three out of the four seats decided by the tea garden workers — Tezpur, Jorhat and Dibrugarh. Congress’ Gaurav Gogoi , son of former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, had won the Kaliabor seat, where migrant Muslim voters actually outnumber the tea tribes. For decades, the migrant Muslims of Bengali origin and the tea garden workers were the biggest vote bank of the Congress. BJP has now been able to capture the tea tribe votes.
“Now, inside the tea garden, its 70:30 in favour of the BJP, in some areas, it is even 90:10. We will vote for the parties that will give us most benefits. BJP has given us more in five years as compared to Congress in last 50 years. Maybe Congress thought that we are the most backward, most illiterate, most marginalised, so we will take whatever it gives us. No doubt Congress had many tea tribe ministers, MLAs, MPs and even Union ministers. But they did very less for the community and more for themselves and their friends and families," said Laxman, another tea garden labourer at Halmira.
A tea garden worker in Assam is still paid a pittance: Rs 167 per day and ration at very subsidised rates. Their demand of minimum wage of Rs 350 stands unfulfilled, though it was a poll promise made by both BJP and Congress.
In 2017, the Assam government launched a scheme to increase financial inclusion. By January 2018, seven lakh tea garden workers did get Rs 2,500 through Direct Benefit Transfer and another similar transfer took place earlier this year.
The feel-good factor for the BJP has also been due to allocation of Rs 1 crore for each of the 850 large tea gardens to build metallic roads inside the garden.
“Modi government has brought them under banking system trough Jan Dhan, Arogya Bharat. Free mobiles for labourers are given, and roads are being built inside the garden. But these don’t really change much the fate of a tea garden worker. They are still deprived of basis amenities. 80 percent of the garden hospitals don’t have doctors. Gardens are tucked away in the interior, so for health care and education, people have to travel between 10 and 50 km. Scheduled Tribe status to tea tribe community has been the biggest promise by politicians across the board. It remains unfulfilled” said Jagadish Boriak, a tribe leader from the All Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (AATTSA).
This time, BJP has dropped its sitting MP from Jorhat, Kamakya Prasad Tassa, to give ticket to Assam minister Topon Gogoi. But in Tezpur, it has given ticket to another minister Pallab Lochan Das, a young tea tribe leader.
There is a straight fight between two tea tribe candidates – Rameshwar Teli , the sitting BJP MP from Dibrugarh and Paban Singh Ghatowar, former Union minister and a veteran tea tribe leader from the Congress.
But for the sulking tea industry, the elections bring little hope. When contacted, industry lobbies did not want to comment on record, but the general feeling is that no political party has any vision to bail out the sinking tea industry.
“Half of the industry is running in loss. The other half is on break even and a handful are making marginal profits. In such a scenario, the political parties talk about the industry. But only workers, because they are voters. The industry is also not able to fund elections, so the industry is no more important for the politicians,” said a Golaghat-based senior tea planter who has held important positions in the industry, including in the tea board.
The managements in the tea gardens feel that the ‘freebies’ that political parties give in a way harms the industry since workers remain more engaged in political rallies, abstaining from work, thereby harming production.
And the Congress is still not ready to give a walkover to the BJP. Congress is leading the charge by asking the BJP about details of where it spent Rs 4,500 crore for the tea gardens.
“The government says it is going to spend five percent of the budget on tea community. But there is no clarity on where it is spending the money. The government had stated that the amount will be spent to set up 100 hospitals, 100 colleges, 150 higher secondary schools, 200 high school and 1,000 primary schools. It also promised to set up 100 hostels for students of the tea tribe community as well as guest houses in Delhi for those from the community who visit the capital due to medical and official reasons, but BJP leaders have not been able to explain how much they have achieved on these promises," said Assam Congress leader Bhagirath Karan.
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