The grim reality of a lush green tea garden


Written by Priyanka Dass Saharia

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Last month there was a post from Walkfree.org going viral on social network sites which exposed a case of “modern slavery” of young girls from the tea estates of Assam. The article blamed the twin causes of acute poverty and poor working conditions for the helplessness of parents which compels them to send off their young daughters to the cities in search of work, or in gain of some well needed money as domestic helps. It also explains their lack of outreach and resources at being unable to track them when they go missing or file complaints at possible slavery contracts that they are duped into. That’s the present day reality to the modern face that slavery has taken. Young vulnerable girls, forced in domestic servitude are the by-products of trafficking form the hills. The article ends with a call for help and action by the largest shareholder company of the business “Tata Global Beverages (owner of Tetley Tea)” to end the precipitating crisis of the “Tea maid trade”.

Many of my acquaintances asked me to comment on the situation, as a local from the state whose mother has worked as a community medical practitioner in the area, with the tea estate women workers. 

“There is a shortage of regular employees, meaning there is a contractual basis that is going on. There is a lack of permanent posts which deprives them of many facilities, like health reimbursements. The health centres o the tea estates, are very deplorable. It is very poor infrastructure and the investigation and facilities are bad. Hence they are sent to the government sectors” says Niru Prabha Saharia, a resident doctor of Silchar Medical College who worked closely with the community in the area.

She further adds on her personal experience, “Male and female work at the same rate, but they have no special provisions for the female. Many ladies bundle up their children on their backs and work. They have no source of entertainment and they live in horrible conditions. They live in kutcha houses, with no proper facilities of clean drinking water and living conditions.”

She elaborates the medical makeup of these workers, “Many workers are from the tribes hence they carry genetic mutated genes which have haemoglobinopathy, which is a congenital disorder of the haemoglobins. They suffer from anaemia and similar blood deficiency diseases.”

The workers are paid extremely minimal wages which reek of the gross violation of the ILO norms. “The wages are below 100 a day and it is pathetic. There is a price that many have to pay for such low wages. They look for alternative ways to earn. This slavery condition probably explains that condition. It’s a blessing that the government medical colleges don’t charge high rates for medical checkups. They can even avail of free medicine in many conditions” says Mrs Saharia.

Election times are the only events when these communities see the light of the day, “These politicians often come to the areas and promise huge benefits for the large number of votes that they gain from the large tea workers’ community. It is a grim picture of deprivation yet the ladies at the plantations are ready with a warm smile. These communities often make it to the fore front of international magazine, glossily packaged in the name of ecological tourism and exotic consumer products, but what lies underneath the floss is a reality of pathetic living conditions, psychological alienation from the same globalisation that they cater to.

The Plantation Labour Act of 1951 is a namesake mechanism here, remaining simply within the confinements of the official documents. “The wages are extremely low. We get not more a 100 which is the maximum”, states Rajni (name changed), a worker at the estate in Konapather.  A social activist Malini Sharma (name changed) working in the region adds on, “The money usually goes to the men in the family for alcohol. Women have been found to be more sensitive towards their kids’ education, but what can one do. There is so much of poverty that often children drop out of schools and help their parents. Child marriage is prevalent as well. The women are at a very vulnerable position, exploited of their labour and abused at home too. They rarely have a say in what happens at home. Income doesn’t give them the requisite bargaining power. The companies are in the search to cut production costs and sell products at the highest margin.”

“Vector borne diseases are very common. The lack of awareness, illiteracy and poverty are the multiple causes to the poor conditions that they live in. I think it’s a colonial hangover that people are suffering in the region. The top managers don’t want to invest much in the development of these places. I have no idea how the colonial rulers did treated them, but the managers of the companies in present day really don’t do their bit. Even during pregnancy they are rarely given any respite. There are very poor prenatal and post natal health care services too. Malnutrition is the biggest problem in the area. Maternal mortality is another blotch in the whole picture.” comments Mrs Saharia.

Studies have shown that the school enrolment ratio of the male children is far more than the female kids of the tea workers’ community. Workers are kept on a contractual basis which aids in the whole exploitative cycle followed by the company owners and employers rather than keeping workers on a permanent basis which would entitle them to health reimbursements, high wages and infrastructural facilities. Apart from physical injuries and abrasions, occupational hazards of pesticide sprays and working in the dens of mosquitoes make them susceptible to contracting many diseases. Housing remains another issue where temporary workers live in thatched houses in abysmal living conditions.

One has to take account of the psychological stress encountered by the community who have no sources of fulfilling their aspirations, “I want my son to go out and study, but I don’t have any money. I can’t take a loan as the interest rates are so very high” says Ramlal (name changed), a worker in Hajua tea estates. “Education facilities, training programmes, rehabilitation actions and protective mechanisms could help” adds an estate manager who wishes to be anonymous.

Assam happens to provide 1/6th of the world’s share of tea and contributes to 60% of India’s market. Packages from Assam are found to be in the international markets, in glossy covers and alluring advertising eulogies and Assam knows well that the tea business is the driving force behind the state’s economy. Adding to that, the labour community with their contribution and involvement plays a crucial role in our society. Hence it is imperative that one takes into account, on an in-depth study of the socio-economic conditions of the community of the tea workers. Labour is the heart and soul of a tea plantation without which no bush can survive, and it’s rather ironic that the driving forces behind the entire enterprise are neglected. 



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