The Greens turn to Red

Figures of woe from the tea gardens of Assam

India is the world's largest tea producer; and Assam accounts for about 55 percent of the 840 million kg of the beverage produced globally last year.

Tea garden pickers make up for more than 95 per cent of the workforce in the industry spread over 2, 31,890 hectares in the state. Approximately 60 per cent of the tea garden workers are women

A tea garden picker earns a maximum of Rs 49.50 for an eight-hour daily work schedule. He is also entitled to subsidized ration, free healthcare facilities, and statutory benefits such as provident funds.

Rs 12 out of the Rs 76 per kilogram production cost of the 450 million kilograms of tea that the state produces every year is spent on welfare schemes for the 1.5 million tea garden worker, spread over 800-odd gardens in Assam, a situation that the management says is now unaffordable.

Only 30 per cent of the labourers’ homes in the tea gardens of Assam has electricity. That as opposed to the 74 per cent rural electrification index in the state. Literacy stands at a low 30 per cent among the tea workers community in a state where the average hovers at 68 per cent, as against the country’s mark of 54.28.

The tea garden pickers now have 30 doctors, with many software engineers from their community “working abroad”.

Tea labourer control 35 out of the 126 assembly seats in Assam

“Bhado mahat dham-dhama-dham
Param Pujat dham-dhama-dham
Bojau aami dham-dham-a-dham
Maadol Sautali....”
(Dham-dhama-dham in the month of Bhado
Dham-dhama-dham at our param Puja
Dham-dhama-dham we play
Our Sautali madols)
---A jhumur song from Chameli Memsaab

While the familiar rhythm of the maadol still echoes in the not so pucca alleys of Assam’s tea gardens, the Jhumur dancing Jugnus and Chamelis are an angry lot these days. The cotton field community of the state, as it were, is no longer willing to let the management take away what happens to be the only ‘bonus’ for the millions that pick the two leaves and a bud that make your morning cuppa, and done so unfailingly for more than a hundred years: the Rs 500 that they get for Durga Puja and Diwali. To the Indian Tea Association (ITA), the umbrella organisation that represents some of the biggest tea plantations in the state, the amount makes for unaffordable welfare in a situation where both profits and sales have fallen. “Unless, of course, production is dramatically increased,” says M Dasgupta, additional secretary, Indian Tea Association (ITA). As it stands now, the war threatens to be all out one--with the frightening possibility of the recent death of five protesting coolies in the Khobang tea estate of upper Assam in police firing being a mere indication of what is to come. In the state’s valley of green, battle-lines are drawn, sharper than anyone would have anticipated. “The management cannot cheat us anymore,” says Kamakhya Prasad Tasha, general secretary of the Assam Tea Tribe Students Association. Assam’s tea industry has never seen times as ominous as these.

The fences that have so long kept the tea labourer out of the world, and the world community out of the ‘lines’ where only tea garden workers are expected to live, no longer guarantee the safety they did. In an open market economy with its attendant demands of transparency, the inevitable conflict precipitated by the exploitation of generations through a century and a half, now threatens to sweep away all who stand in the way. “Our counter (to what the tea industry is doing) has just begun,” says R Dhanowar, Assam’s labour minister, when asked if the government is willing to take on the industry head-on. The minister, a former tea worker of the lines himself, would be one of those who have got away from the unending grime of his forefathers. “Only 30 per cent of the labour sheds in the tea gardens of Assam has electricity,” says Paban Singh Ghatowar, Assam Congress chief and president of the Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh, the apex body of tea labourers. That as opposed to the 74 per cent rural electrification index in the state. The labourers killed in Khobang lost their lives to troops of the Assam Tea Security Force, a batallion that was raised with the aim of protecting the tea industry from insurgents, who they claim were targeting them like no other. No quarters asked, or given, in the state’s tea estates these days.

Among those who people such as Ghatowar (his mother lived in the lines till she came to live with him “a few years back”), left behind in the lines, literacy stands at a low 30 per cent, in a state where the average hovers at 68 per cent, as against the country’s mark of 54.28. “This has always made it easy for the management to exploit us,” says Dr Kamakhaya Prasad Sahu, general secretary, Federation of Tea Labours Union (FTLU). And not too many are willing to mince words. “It’s an industry with a colonial mindset. They haven’t done much for the labourers. They won’t,” says Ghatowar. In Kharikhatia tea estate in Jorhat district, for example, five coolies died from gastro-enteritis after drinking water from a pond, the only water source for the garden’s labourers. In Rangapada of Sonitpur district, the Empire Tosimlo tea company has one hospital with two doctors who are responsible for the ‘health’ of the entire workforce of eight gardens, where the number of tea pickers would run into thousands at the very least. In Mornoi tea estate in Kokrajhar district, apart from pending wages, rations-a meagre 3.26 kg of rice and flour every week-too have been stopped since November 2002.

Expectedly, the industry-one that has for long been accused of exploiting the region without giving much in return-has braced itself for the worst, with an increasing number of incidents of violence, including one where labourers of the Sopai tea estate in Assam’s Sonitpur district allegedly attacked and burnt alive the deputy manager and manager of the garden after power supply to the labour sheds was disconnected, in the height of summer. The law no longer seems to make a difference to any one more. Lately, the tea companies with their enormous financial clout has been pulling out their executives where the going has got tough. In the past, the state’s media reported the airlifting of the top executives of various multinational and other big plantations by intelligence agencies from Delhi, in what seemed to be a precursor to the launching of Operation Bajrang in the state against ULFA militants. Says Dhiraj Kakoty, secretary of the Assam chapter of the Indian Tea Association (ABITA): “What do you do if someone threatens to kill you? Do you sit at home or do you run?”

Botol loli, kombol loli, vote kake dili re?
(You took the booze, and you took the blankets, but who did you vote for?)

Like the industry itself, the state’s political groups too have had it coming. As far back as 1985, the tea workers’ community, then a part of the state-wide anti-foreigner agitation spearheaded by the All Assam Student’s Union(AASU) had removed the Congress, the self-proclaimed benefactors of the community, from power, only to be ignored by the Prafulla Mahanta-led Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government at a later date. Today, the AGP has chosen its side, with Brindaban Goswami, the party president now taking on the Tarun Gogoi goverment for its “anti-worker polices”. Party colleague Sarbananda Sonowal, who is also former member of the AASU, that has for long demanded that steps be taken for uplift of the tea community, recently met the union Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley, impressing upon him the need for an early solution to the present crisis. Earlier, the AGP had demanded that a separate ministry be set up at the state for the benefit of the tea industry.

As for the Congress that would have under ‘normal circumstances’ preferred to make made just the right noises, mostly refusing to disturb the equation that ensures the votes of the tea labourer in 35 constituencies they control, while at the same time keeping satisfied the owners of the industry, imperative at fund-raising time, the Dhanowars and Ghatowars are now forced to lead the crusade against the “exploitation of tea workers”.

What no one, neither the industry nor the political groups seemed to have taken into account was the fact that the exploited “coolie” from the gardens, who was to be only taken for granted, had also made good. Ghatowar, who now poses the most serious challenge to chief minister Tarun Gogoi from within the party, is just one of those who symbolises the change in the community. As any proud tea worker such as Dhanowar will tell you, they now have 30 doctors, with many software engineers from their community “working abroad”.

And with the empowerment has come a stage where the political representatives from the community now owe it to their kin in the lines to speak up. Nothing less is acceptable. The tea worker is increasingly unwilling to cast his vote in exchange of a sponsored round of haria, the local brew, doled out on poll eve, along with botols and kombols that come to them from their political masters. It’s a stanza that local bard would rarely think of adding to his favourite jhumur anymore.

The empire strikes back

Not that the industry is willing to give up without a fight. Just now, statements range between the rabid (“How do you sensitise an illiterate workforce about balance sheets,” courtesy Dipanjal Deka, senior executive with ABITA ), and what the tea management, despite all its efforts may be hardpressed to explain as economically reasonable. Knee-jerk responses to the industry’s present crisis include a mandatory picking of 21 kilos everyday for workers. Failing to do so could mean a deduction of wages. “Why are we asked to pick more tea when the management says that tea is not selling enough?” It would be a question that the industry doesn’t seem to have an answer for, more so when opinion even within its ranks stands divided. According to Kakoty of the ABITA, “the only minus point of the Assam tea industry is the over-supply of tea and nothing else”. Either way, the industry, led by the ruling MNCs and other large corporates, is convinced that the only way to survive would be to cut back on the benefits given to its workers at the lowest level. That would include “Rs 12 out of the Rs 76 per kilogram production cost of the 450 million kilograms of tea that the state produces every year”, on welfare schemes for the 1.6 million workers spread over 800-odd gardens in Assam.

As far as that section of the industry is concerned, also to be blamed for the present upheaval in the market is the “bought leaf factory” owner-“the smart businessman”, as Dr Jayant Madhab, economic advisor to the chief minister, calls him. With the user-friendly small-scale technology now easily available, the state has in the past few years alone seen close to 150 small tea factories come up in the state, ones that aren’t anywhere close to the big garden factories in terms of labour requirements and establishment costs. Their source of leaves: the other new operators in the market, the small tea growers who with their tiny, cost-effective holdings now together account for 20 per cent of the state’s total produce, and in combination with the bought-leaf factory, make for a deadly mercenary market-force that is capable of undercutting the biggest tea behemoths in the state. Says the vice-president of one of the biggest MNC broking houses headquartered in Kolkata, speaking on conditions of anonymity: “The bought leaf factories have run riot and ruined the tea market.” Read between the lines, it also means that the state’s small tea operator does not have the overheads of the behemoths, and hence can provide the consumer lower prices. “They are opportunistic investors,” says Kakoty.

The North Eastern Development Finance Corporation (NEDFi), had, under the chairmanship of Dr Madhab provided financial aid to what may have been the first small tea growers co-operative at Lahdoi, in Upper Assam. “Today, they are settled despite the present crisis,” says Dr Madhab, a former director of the Asian Development Bank.

Many of those adversely affected by all of this believe that the only way to tide over the crisis would be to get all companies to sell through the Gauhati Tea Auction Centre (GTAC), one that has been steadily undermined over the years with the big players refusing to auction their stock, preferring to feed the market directly, through on the spot sales. “This was done because they wanted their money to roll quickly,” says Jaideep Phukan, senior GTAC executive, referring to the 34-day credit facility that the auctions involved. Others, however, point out that spot sales would be a convenient way of selling produce that would rarely have to be accounted for.

Plan B of the tea companies now includes reining in the unsustainable welfare cost such as health and education, by getting the government to share the burden, “as in West Bengal and South India”. “We are in the business of tea, why shove things such as education onto us. That’s the government’s responsibility,” says Dhiraj Kakoty of ABITA. Also on the pipeline is a newly designed marketing campaign that the industry hopes will attract generation next to drinking tea. Multicropping a much older option, and one that the industry miserably failed in is another sector that is now being reconsidered. “Any kind of crop that can give us money,” says Kakoty. That is a sector that the industry never took seriously says Dr Madhab. “Oil producing crops such as citronella and patchouli, are ready for harvest within a year.” Besides, says Dr Madhab, “40 per cent of the bushes are nearly 50 years old, resulting in falling productivity quality, and hence sales. The industry thumb rule of replacing 2.5 per cent of the bushes every year, has for years been ignored by most of the state’s plantations.

One falling leaf at a time

Not surprisingly then, sympathy for the bigger players of the tea market may, in the current situation, not be forthcoming. The bypassing of the GTAC has, for example resulted in revenue from the industry falling to Rs 13 crore, down from the previous Rs 113 crore. “Last year only 29 per cent of tea produced in the state was sold through the GTAC and 20 per cent through the Kolkata Tea Auction Centre,” says GTAC’s Joydeep Phukan. That would mean 51 per cent being sold directly to buyers at prices that nobody really knows. “We don’t know how much money they get from their buyers in, say London,” says Dhanowar. Add to that the tea ‘samples’ given out to buyers (allegedly a tertiary route of allowing their produce to enter the market without any accountability), and the garden- packed tea phenomenon, and the balance-sheets begins to blur even further. “Selling through the auction centres mean paying extra in terms of brokerage and other costs,” says Kakoty. “And there too many brokers in the market.” According to a study by AF Ferguson & Co, Mumbai, on behalf of the Tea Board of India in 2002, the big brokers, mostly in league with the bigger tea companies, fix the prices even before the auctions. This proved disastrous for smaller and medium tea plantations that were completely dependent on tea auctions for its survival. Major broking houses, however, brushed aside the Ferguson report saying that “it was absolute nonsense”, a view not widely subscribed to.

And hence the general feeling in the state: that while the spoilt babalog community of the medium player partied in the local Gymkhana club, their gardens, long taken for granted, went to waste. Years back, for example, Tata Tea, made it compulsory for two assistant managers to share the same bungalow-and the same domestic help, that normally comprised quite a platoon. It would have been a concept that most brown sahibs would have balked at. Just now, Tata happens to be the only company that is willing to pay its workers the bonus, as demanded. Blanket allegations, however, include the use of cheap “phaltu” labour, that marginalises the 1.5 million strong permanent worker community. In the nitty gritties of the business, the profits, say the affected, lie in the lack of accountability.

In all of this, it is the tea garden worker who now stands cornered, in an industry that he and his forefathers have given their lives for. As Bipool Naidu, a pre-primary school teacher in Assam’s Jorhat district says: ” It’s mad to talk balance sheets with the labourers after keeping them illiterate for so long.” The ‘Naidu’ would be the remnant of the state that his ancestors would have been brought from, in this case from Andhra Pradesh, in the mid 19th century, after local Kachari and Bodo workers refused to toil in British plantations demanding higher wages and better working conditions. British planters had then found it difficult to handle the uppity lot because they had their farms to go back to. As CP Bruce, a pioneer of the industry wrote in 1869: “The native assistants were being taught the techniques, but the labour force that would make this possible had to be made available in great numbers and, of course, they had to be under the control of the planters”, a phenomenon that has now returned to haunt the planter, in all its compounded manifestations. Along with the others like them who were brought in from Orissa, Bihar and Bengal, the Naidus, Murmus, Ghatowars and Dhanowars formed the unknown lot, a community that found solace in their common tragedy, reduced to what would one day constitute the “tea tribes of Assam”, with a scheduled status. Apart from the whip lashings and economic exploitation, stories of the community would come to include those that speak of executives using their women to suit their needs. To the caste Hindu Assamese of the state, they have meant little beyond making faithful domestic help, used to babysit their babalog.

There is a third stanza to the jhumur that embodies the history of the coolies who make your morning cuppa:

Sardar bole kaam kaam
Babu bole dhori aan
Saheb bole libo pither chaam
O bideshi saab
Phaki di anilo Ashaam
(The sardar says kaam kaam
Babu says catch them and bring them here
Saheb says he will whip away the skin on our backs
O videshi saab
You lied to bring us to Assam ...”)

Something in the tea gardens of Assam is about to change. And everybody, it seems, will be there to pay the price.

By Pranab Bora and Kuntil Baruwa-with inputs from Bijoy Shankar Handique in Jorhat and Monalisa Gogoi in Guwahati (