FROM A CORRESPONDENT
GOLAGHAT, Aug 19: 10-year-old Suraj Bauri scored 70 per cent in his class IV examition last year. Suraj, second son of a tea plantation worker-couple of Ganeshbari Tea Estate in Lahoal of Assam’s Dibrugarh district, had a strong penchant for studies. Lahoal is around 450 kilometers from Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. When his teachers asked him about his aim in life, he replies that he wants to read as much as he can and wants to bring smile to his parents’ face by doing a good job in future.
“Yes, he was sincere in his studies and he had a curious mind. In class, he would ask questions repeatedly until his confusion is cleared. He was one of the good students of the school. He scored 60 to 70 marks out of hundred in each subject,” said Chiranjib Gogoi, Assistant Teacher of Ganeshbari TE LP School, the lone school of the Ganeshbari Tea Estate. There are more than one thousand workers in the Tea Estate but not a single upper primary and high school is there in the Tea Estate for the children of these workers. They have to go to Dikom High School, which is around three kilometers from the Tea Estate.
To the utter surprise of the teachers, around 15 days before the annual examition in November last year, Suraj suddenly stopped coming to the school. When he remained absent in the classes for more than a week, teachers of the school sent his classmates to his home, located at the Tea Estate labour line.
“As per our teachers’ advice, we went to his home. We told him that our teachers had wanted him to come to school. But he told us that he could no longer attend school as he had to look after his two little sisters,” said Deepak Gowala, who was a classmate of Suraj, now studying in Class V in Ganeshbari TE LP School.
Suraj is the second child of the five-member family. His mother and elder brother work as casual workers in the Tea Estate, who go out for working at the Tea Estate at 7.30 in the morning and come back at 3.30 in the evening. His father, who was a permanent worker in the Tea Estate, died last year due to Tuberculosis (TB) that he was suffering for years.
“Such kinds of diseases are common in tea plantation areas. Tea plantation workers suffer from such deceases because of their habit of taking excessive alcohol,” said Dr Angshuman Gogoi, a medicine specialist of AMCH. Consuming country liquor, locally known as hariya, is a tradition among the tea plantation workers.
When this correspondent visited his home on a hot shiny midday, Suraj was playing with his two little sisters under a tree in front of the courtyard of their house.
When I asked him if he would like to go to school if the situation permitted him, he replied in the affirmative.
“Yes, I want to go to school again but now it’s not possible for me as my two sisters cannot stay at home alone. I have to serve them food also,” said Suraj.
“If I get a chance, I will get myself admitted to school in future, when my two sisters will grow up,” he added.
Suraj is just an example, there are many such children of tea plantation workers, who have dropped out of school due to such problems. Many plantation workers have three to four children. In Ganeshbari Tea Estate, a total of four children out of which three are girls, dropped out of school in Class V due such problems in 2014. Sivani Kashyap, Arati Gaur, Sushila Gowala, who left school in 2014, are now passing time at home by playing with their brothers and sisters. Sometime they even go to pluck tea leaves also in case their parents cannot go to work due to illness.
The attendance rate of students in TE schools during the period from mid-October to December is relatively high compared to the rest of the year.
“The children can come to school during this period because, many parents, who work as casual workers in gardens, stay at home. The season of plucking tea leaf is usually over in November. The casual workers have no work during this time. They can look after their little children during this time. So elder children of the family can come to school,” said Pratibha Bhagawati, Assistant Teacher of grijuli Tea Estate LP School, located at grijuli in Baksa district of Assam along the Indo-Bhutan border, which is around 80 kilometers from Guwahati.
“Other time of the year, these school children have to cook food at home and look after their little brothers or sisters, as a result they cannot attend the classes in school,” she said.
According to the Plantation Labour Act, Tea Estate magement has to maintain crèches for the children of the plantation workers, who are to be looked after by trained women. Besides crèches, the employers have to provide recreatiol facilities when there are more than 25 children between six and 12 years of age.
Most of the tea plantations, however, have no such facilities. Even if in some tea estates there are such crèches which are not functioning properly. Neither grijuli TE nor Ganeshbari TE has such facilities while hortoli TE, another Tea Estate located at Lahoal, has a crèche but workers said, it is not functioning properly.
Bhagawati further said that most of the plantation workers have more than two children.
“It is very common that every workers’ family has three to four, five children. So older children have to look after the younger ones in the absence of their parents,” she said.
When this correspondent visited the labour line of Ganeshbari Tea Estate, it was found that most of these women from 30-40 years of age have three to four children. Despite government’s massive family planning campaign, birth rate has not come down much among tea plantation workers. Government birth control schemes have failed to reach out the plantation workers to sensitize them.
Even though contraceptives are available in the Tea Estate hospitals, staff of the hospitals hardly take any initiative to sensitize the workers. Many TE hospitals have no doctors. gijuli TE Hospital has one doctor while Ganeshbari TE Hospital has been running sans a single physician for last three years.
Laxmidhar Tanti, a local Adivasi student leader of grijuli, feels that there is much to do on the part of the government as well as the employers to ensure birth control among plantation workers.
“The Government and the Tea Estate magement as well must take effective steps to sensitize the plantation workers about family planning. It is one of the many factors behind the poor education of the children of plantation workers,” said Laxmidhar Tanti, a local Adivasi student leader of grijuli.