In 1773, the Boston Tea Party, became an iconic event that kickstarted the American Revolution. Demonstrators, many of them disguised as Native Americans, destroyed an entire shipment of tea owned by the East India Company by dumping it into the Boston Harbour, to protest a tax system that favoured the colonisers by allowing them to sell Chinese tea in American markets without paying taxes.
In Assam, trouble has been brewing in its many tea estates where workers hailing from Tea Tribes have been forced to live and hand to mouth, working for a measly daily wage of just Rs 167!
In February, the state government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) helped pave the way for a higher wage, an increase of a mere Rs 50 to the daily wage. But the tea estates went to court against this hike. As a result, the tea estate workers were deprived of even this marginal hike pending the outcome of the court case. Then on March 22, just days before the first phase of elections, tea estates voluntarily agreed to a hike of Rs 26… another meagre amount.
Organisations representing interests of Tea Tribes such as Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA), All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) and the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) have expressed displeasure with the denial of a basic living wage.
AASAA president Stephen Lakra told told The Telegraph, “The planters were not keen to give Rs 50 and now they have unilaterally announced the Rs 26 hike four days ahead of elections. Was it to calm down the workers? The government and the planters have shown they are not pro-worker.”
Who are the Tea Tribes?
In colonial times, after tea leaves were found growing by a British officer named Robert Bruce in 1823, the British brought several people hailing from Adivasi and tribal communities of other Indian states (present day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) to work in tea estates in Assam. By 1862, there were 160 tea estates in Assam. Many of these communities have been granted Scheduled Tribe (ST) status in their home states.
In Assam, these people came to be known as the Tea Tribes. They are a heterogenous, multi-ethnic group and speak languages as diverse as Sora, Odia, Sadri, Kurmali, Santali, Kurukh, Kharia, Kui, Gondi and Mundari. They worked in these tea estates in colonial times, and their descendants have remained in the state to this day still working in tea estates, making Assam their home and adding to its rich socio-cultural tapestry. Today there are over 8 lakh tea estate workers in Assam and the total population of the Tea Tribes is estimated to be more than 65 lakhs.
Tea estates in Assam
According to the Directorate for Welfare of Tea Tribes, at present there are 803 tea estates in Assam. Dibrugarh leads with 177 tea estates, followed by Tinsukia (122), followed by Jorhat (88), Sivasagar (85), Golaghat (74), Sonitpur (59), Cachar (56), Udalguri (24), Karimganj (23), Nagaon (21), Halaikandi (19), Karbi Anglong (15), Lakhimpur (9), four each in Baksha and Darrang, three each in Dhubri, Kamrup (Metro), Kamrup (Rural) and Kokrajhar, two each in Dhemaji, Dima Hasao and Goalpara, and one each in Bongaigaon, Chirang and Morigaon.
Electoral might of Tea Tribes
Today Tea Tribes, comprising people of diverse ethnic groups including, but not limited to Santhal, Kurukh, Munda, Gond, Kol and Tantis, are influential in as many as 42 of the total 126 assembly constituencies in Assam.
Interestingly, the BJP had promised Rs 351 as the daily wage in the run up to the 2016 elections, a promise they clearly reneged on. Meanwhile, the Congress has promised a daily wage of Rs 365 within six hours of coming to power, in a bid to woo voters from the tea-tribes in the state. But even this is not being seen as a living wage as one’s income should allow them to put their children through school, and have access to quality medical healthcare. But given the existing and even proposed wages, Tea Tribes contend that it is barely enough to put food on the table and pay for some bare essentials.
The discontentment is high and it remains to be seen if the Tea Tribes will use their votes to oust the current government, in their own version of a tea party, thereby kickstarting a revolution against the BJP in Assam.
Assam elections: Akhil Gogoi in jail, elderly ailing mother leads the campaign
BJP’s election manifesto in Assam promises “corrected” NRC, end of “Love Jihad”
Assamese made a compulsory subject for non-Assamese school students