With the discontinuation of subsidised rations to tea workers still hanging fire, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi recently raised their minimum daily wage to Rs.169. The Labour and Employment department has been directed to ensure compliance with this order. A long standing demand of tea worker unions is thus sought to be met. Tea workers in Brahmaputra valley have been getting Rs 94 as minimum daily wage, while the corresponding figure has been Rs 72 for tea workers in Barak valley. With only one year left for Tarun Gogoi’s term to end, it remains to be seen how tea garden owners go about implementing this order. For tea workers have been getting a raw deal even when it was boom time for the Assam tea industry. This when the Congress has been in power for more than five decades in the state with the tea tribe community forming its most reliable votebank. Yet tea workers continue to be exploited, forced to agitate frequently for bonus and rations. Tea garden magements have been tardy in depositing workers’ provident fund monies, or in issuing them ration cards.
Which brings us to the vexed issue of rations for tea workers. The Plantation Labour Act of 1951 regulates the wages of tea workers, their duty hours and amenities including subsidised rations to be provided by the magement. The Centre has now made it clear that the two components, cash and benefits are different and cannot be clubbed together as minimum wage. Supplied by the Centre and routed through the FCI, the Assam government has so far been sanctioning subsidised rice and wheat to tea gardens to be distributed to workers. But things will change after the tiol Food Security Act, 2013 comes into force by 31st March this year. Aiming to provide subsidised foodgrains to two–thirds of the country’s population, this Act will entitle a tea worker’s family of four to receive 20 kgs of rice at Rs 3 per kg. As of now, tea workers’ families are getting 35 kg rice as rations at 50 paise per kg. Obviously tea workers stand to lose in terms of quantity and price unless magements procure foodgrains at open market rates and provide it at subsidised rates to workers. This is a burden tea garden magements are unwilling to shoulder, citing declining profits or outright losses with the Assam tea industry in doldrums. There are proposals to monetize the ration subsidy by paying Rs 14.20 per worker daily, but labour unions consider this a pittance.
Meanwhile the battle to score political points over discontinuing rations is hotting up, even though the Gauhati High Court is set to hear the matter after granting a stay earlier. The Tarun Gogoi government has taken the BJP to task for hitting tea workers where it hurts most, even though it remained silent when the UPA was passing the Food Security Act for which the present complication has arisen. The Congress–affiliated ACMS is on the warpath while Union ministers are desperately seeking to clarify the Central government’s stand. At stake in this political war of words is which way 20 lakh tea workers will vote in the 2016 state elections. After the Congress bastions of Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Tezpur in tea belt districts fell to the saffron wave in the Lok Sabha elections last year, alarm bells have begun to ring at Rajiv Bhawan. The Chief Minister’s move to raise the minimum wage has to be seen in the context of the BJP targeting the low wages tea workers have been getting. As both the parties grapple to corner tea tribe votes, a larger issue goes unnoticed. It is the trap of a subsistence and bonded economy from which the tea tribe community has little hope of escape in the near future. Political parties pay lip sympathy to their empowerment, while conspiring to keep them tied to political patroge. The betrayal is complete when these same parties join hands with tea garden magements after elections are won, with some tea union leaders taking their share of the spoils.