Plight of Assam’s Tea Tribe women

A cane basket on her back, picking leaves in a lush tea garden, and smiling are the most visible faces of a woman in the garden of Assam.
Plight of Assam’s Tea Tribe women

Prof. (Dr.) Dharmakanta Kumbhakar


 A cane basket on her back, picking leaves in a lush tea garden, and smiling are the most visible faces of a woman in the garden of Assam. They seem to be very happy and friendly. This is a pretty picture of Assam’s tea tribe, which women paint mostly for cover shots. But in reality, they are not as happy as shown on the cover shots. They have lots of stories of ironies.

Tea-plucking business in Assam is mostly a women-dominated affair, and they make up more than 50 percent of the total workforce. But most of the tea tribe women of Assam suffer from illiteracy, poverty, poor health, and a lack of awareness. Their basic amenities of healthcare, education, drinking water, housing, childcare facilities, maternal care, and accident cover are not adequately provided. Nothing has changed ever since as far as the lifestyle of tea garden women workers in Assam. Ignorance among tea tribe women and “no management support” are to blame for this situation. The top tea estate management does not want ‘too much development’ for these women.

A baby girl born in the tea garden of Assam has lesser chances of survival in comparison to her male counterpart before reaching the age of five. Most of the girls of the Tea tribe in Assam are victims of child marriage. Child marriage is an age-old tradition in the tea gardens of Assam. It is common in the community. Girl trafficking is common in the tea gardens of Assam. Most of the women in the tea gardens of Assam are deserted by their husbands after bearing children. Lack of awareness is one of the reasons why teenagers elope, often resulting in early pregnancy and the desertion of the young girl once her partner realises the additional responsibility. Economically, tea tribe women in Assam earn as much as their male co-workers. But that does not mean they have a say in the way they lead their lives. They often face domestic violence. Alcoholism, mostly among men, is a cause of domestic violence in the community. Mothers’ Clubs is trying to spread awareness amongst the tea tribe women of Assam against alcoholism and child marriage, with some success. The Adolescent Girls Clubs by the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association (ABITA) and UNICEF are trying to change the mindsets about child marriage.

Most of the tea tribe girls of Assam are deprived of education. Many-a-time, tea tribe girls drop out of school to work and supplement the family income. The management does not want them to be educated. If they become educated, ultimately they can fight their own battle, and this is what the estates don’t want. One hopes that the primary and high schools established by the Assam government in the tea garden areas will definitely help the tea community girls of Assam to be highly educated and lead a quality lifestyle.

Most of the tea tribe women of Assam are unaware of the menstrual hygiene-related practices that they should be adopting and their adverse health impacts on them. Only a few use sanitary napkins. The rest use unsanitary old cloth pieces, papers, dried leaves, grasses, etc. These unhygienic and unsanitary practices lead to a lot of infections, such as fungal infections, urinary tract infections, reproductive tract infections, etc., and even death. A major publicity campaign should be launched for them to use sanitary napkins to enable them to understand their importance. Commercial sanitary napkins are not cheap. For the tea tribe women of Assam, the luxury of affording sanitary napkins is a far-fetched dream. The need of the hour is to improve the quality of life of these poor women by providing them with free, highly subsidised, and easily accessible sanitary napkins, which will give them freedom and protection from their monthly dilemmas and discomfort. One hopes that the Assam government’s scheme of providing free sanitary napkins to girls studying in classes 6 to 12 in government and government-aided schools will benefit tea tribe girls also and will reduce dropping out of school too.

Health-wise, malnutrition is common among the tea tribe women of Assam. Their common diet includes mostly rice, dry fish pickles, and chilies. A study by UNICEF and the Assam Medical College found that of the 14 meals in a week, only two are nutritional in a tea tribe family. Women and children from tea tribe families suffer from malnutrition from an early age. Another UNICEF sample study found 95 percent of women in the tea gardens to be anaemic, which experts say is related to poor nutrition. Anaemia makes women particularly vulnerable during pregnancy and childbirth. Anaemia and malnutrition continue to cripple the tea garden women of Assam, making them most vulnerable to diseases like tuberculosis. Smoking, consumption of alcohol, poor quality of life, and poor housing, which debilitate the immune system, make them more vulnerable to developing tuberculosis. Inhalation of smoke from biomass fuels used by tea garden women for domestic cooking also largely contributes to developing tuberculosis. Tuberculosis kills more women in the reproductive age group than all causes of maternal mortality combined in the tea garden population of Assam, and it creates more orphans than any other infectious disease. One expects that the Assam government’s scheme of providing free rice to the tea garden community under the National Food Security Act will definitely improve the nutritional status of Assam’s tea tribe women and thus their health status.

The major tea-growing areas of Assam have a much higher maternal mortality rate (MMR) than the state average. Anaemia, hypertension, and substandard food habits are some major causes of high MMR among tea tribe women in Assam. Almost 90 percent of young workers working in the tea gardens are anaemic. Anaemic conditions are caused by nutritional deficiency or low iron storage resulting from a previous pregnancy and heavy menstrual blood loss. This results in pre-labour dates and a baby with a low birth weight. In most anaemic pregnancy cases, maternal mortality is an inevitable truth. Hiding pregnancy is very common among tea workers, as they fear losing their jobs. They do heavy work through eight months of their pregnancy with poor nutrition. Thus, they become weak, anaemic, and vulnerable to high maternal mortality. Of course, the Assam government’s welfare scheme of providing Rs 15,000 under the Wage Compensation Scheme for pregnant women in the tea garden is helping the tea tribe pregnant women to look after themselves and their unborn babies better without compromising the livelihood of their families. This incentive is not only ensuring nutritional support for pregnant mothers and infants in the tea community but also helping to reduce maternal mortality and infant mortality in the community.

Tea tribe women usually drink alcohol and high-salt-induced tea that is served to them as an energy drink to combat dehydration and extreme fatigue due to heat buildup. A recent study found that they consume around four times more salt than others. This leads to less iron absorption and makes the woman anaemic. Alcohol and salt lead to complications in pregnancy often characterised by high blood pressure and organ damage; in medical terms, it is referred to as eclampsia, one of the main reasons for the high maternal mortality rate among tea tribe women of Assam. The Assam government is supplying 4 kg of sugar per tea garden family per month free of charge under the Affordable Nutrition and Nourishment Assistance Yojana. One hopes it will stop the practice of consuming salt with tea amongst the tea garden community of Assam and reduce the risk of hypertension, eclampsia, and maternal mortality.

Moreover, due to the unavailability of any nearby hospitals and healthcare facilities in the tea garden of Assam, tea tribe women of Assam often bleed during delivery to death, a risk known as postpartum haemorrhage (PPH). The proper role to be taken by ASHA workers is the need of the hour, as they have the source to reach out to this population. Workplace intervention is another way to address the maternal problem. Active participation by tea tribe women is required in the Village Health Nutrition Day (VHND) programme, where issues of general healthcare, nutrition, and reproductive health are discussed.

Consumption of tobacco-based substances and betel nuts is common among tea tribe women of Assam, and therefore tobacco-related cancer is high amongst them. In general, they put the tobacco under their lower lips or with betel nuts and continue to work as the substance helps them go for hours without food.

The Assam government and a few NGOs are trying to promote good health practices among Assam’s tea tribe women, with some success. But a lot more needs to be done. The Employee’s State Insurance Act 1948 (ESI) should be implemented properly. The issue of poverty and the unavailability of good healthcare infrastructure for maternity can be sorted out by the proper implementation of ESI. The Plantation Labour Act 1951 only covers permanent tea workers, not casual tea workers. The casual tea workers need to be included in the welfare programme. Women in these tea gardens must use the Mother and Child Card (MCP) properly, where they can check the health of themselves and their children. One hopes that the proper implementation of Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana and Ayushman Asom-Mukhya Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana in tea gardens in Assam will definitely improve the health status of Assam’s tea tribe women and the whole tea community.

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