GUWAHATI: It’s ‘Chai time’ in Assam again. Like every Election in the state, this time also political parties have once again pointed their attention towards the tea gardens of the state-specifically upon some 60 lakh tea tribe population which consists of one of the largest chunks of the ‘decisive’ votes in the state’s Brahmaputra and Barak valley.
In the House of 126 in Assam, votes of tea garden workers work as a deciding factor in some 40-42 seats in Upper, Central, and Northern Assam besides Barak Valley.
Though promised of Schedule Tribe (ST) status and a hike in their daily wage for several years by all previous and current governments, political parties have yet again begun their poll campaigns reiterating the ‘same’ promises.
While ruling BJP has decided to go full throttle in its poll campaigning in the tea belt of the state from February 6 with Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to provide Rs 3,000 each to some 8 lakh tea workers through direct benefit transfer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also visit Dhekiajuli in Sonitpur district on February 7 to launch ‘Asom Mala’ aimed at helping improve state highways and major district roads network in the state.
Besides, the PM will also lay the foundation stone of two medical colleges and hospitals, which are being set up at Biswanath and Charaideo, at a total estimated project cost of over Rs 1100 crore. Sonipur district is also a tea-producing district in the state.
Congress’ Rahul Gandhi is also going to start his poll campaign in the state from major tea producing district-Sivasagar on February 14.
All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) general secretary Deben Orang told TIME8, “The BJP leaders have no knowledge about the misery of the tea garden workers. From ST status to a hike in daily wage, the long pending demands of the community have been neglected and only used for political gain. We want a permanent solution to our problems but these financial schemes are only a temporary measure. No change will happen to any of the households with merely Rs 3000.”
Previously, ahead of the last Lok Sabha Election, the state government had deposited Rs 5,000 in two equal installments to around 7.21 lakh accounts of tea garden workers.
Orang threatened that if the Modi government doesn’t give a concrete solution to their demands before the polls, they would ban BJP leader’s poll campaigning inside the tea garden areas.
For the tea tribe community, the prime demand has been a minimum daily wage of Rs 351 as proposed by the advisory board for tea workers. Despite producing more than half of all tea grown in India, and with more than a million workers being employed, tea garden workers in Assam get a meager daily wage of Rs 167 only.
“Modi who often refers to himself as a ‘Chaiwala’ has failed to address the plight of tea workers. The BJP government while coming to power in Assam in 2016 had promised to hike the daily wage but nothing has been done so far,” alleged Rupesh Gowala, secretary of Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS).
Gowala informed that the tea garden workers in Kerala get a minimum daily wage of Rs 310 while in Karnataka it is Rs 263 and Rs 241 in Tamil Nadu, he informed.
Brought to Assam by the British from central India’s Chotanagpur plateau for tea cultivation during the early 19th Century, the Adivasi tea tribe community living in other parts of the country enjoying ST status. However, the same has been deprived in Assam on the ground that the list of STs is accorded to each state or Union Territory is valid only within that particular jurisdiction.
Usually, the list of ST communities is state-specific and a community declared as ST in one state, does not necessarily receive the same recognition in other states.
However, promises of granting ST status to the tea tribe community has remained as a poll plank in Assam for ages. During the 2014 poll campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that if BJP came to power, his government would grant ST status to the six communities including the tea tribes of Assam within six months.
“A few days back, when BJP’s national president JP Nadda came to Assam and said that BJP government has already given ST status to the community in Assam. Does he know anything about it? They are just trying to mislead the people to get votes,” Orang alleged.
In January, Nadda in a ‘goof-up’ at a poll campaign in Silchar said that the Centre has ‘already’ granted Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to Assam’s six ethnic groups of Koch Rajbongshi, Tai Ahom, Chutia, Matak, Moran and Tea Tribes. However, the issue was still pending as a Group of Ministers (GoM) constituted by the Assam government for the preparation of modalities for granting ST status to the six communities was reportedly yet to furnish its final findings, which would then be sent to the Union government.