Not wage hike but other factors responsible for crisis in Assam tea industry

Tea Garden

Our Correspondent

TINSUKIA, July 12: All leading political parties, including the BJP and the Congress, are looking to woo voters from the tea tribes community by taking up the wage policy of tea workers as an issue. The voters of the tea community constitute around 35 per cent-40 per cent of the total electorate in some tea growing districts. Keeping the next general election in mind, the Congress is making frantic efforts to regain its bastion in tea belts even at the cost of the garden economy which is under threat owing to several factors.

Though recent wage enhancement has created ambiguity and confusion among various stakeholders like ITA, State government, ACMS, MWAB and JACOTTAA, the main issues like healthcare, drinking water and education have taken a back seat. Organizations are only demanding a breakup of the daily wage given to tea labourers in cash and other components.

While the Indian Tea Association has claimed that the recent interim hike of Rs 30 in daily wage of tea garden workers will entail the garden management to pay Rs 351, that includes all components, the ACMS has ridiculed it by saying that such proposition is arbitrary and not rational in the sense that all components like ration, firewood and fuel, except annual allotment of umbrella and boot, cumulatively will not exceed Rs 250 per day.

About assurances given by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to the ITA team recently supporting the tea industry by providing subsidized ration, Raju Sahu, former Chabua MLA and secretary of ACMS Panitola branch, said the Sonowal-led BJP government had always been on the forefront to announce sops to gullible tea garden workers but had never fulfilled any of its commitments.

“The BJP was first to announce enhancement of daily wage to Rs 350 in its election manifesto two years back and is not trustworthy. Sonowal even overlooked the exploitation of tea workers in a garden owned by Nag & Sons Company located in front of his original house at Pukhurijan Bindhakhata under Chabua constituency. The garden has been depriving workers of basic amenities like housing, drinking water, toilet and ration and paying a meagre amount of Rs 90- Rs 100 as daily wage,” Sahu alleged, adding further that the ITA should have outlined actual causes that had made the tea industry a vulnerable sector.

While the State government proposed to help the tea industry tide over the present crisis, a garden manager in Tinsukia district said all State government officials, particularly inspectors, connected with tea matters like excise, labour, police, factory and boiler, weight and measures, allegedly extort money from gardens on monthly basis which amounts to approximately Rs 50,000 for a garden per year and unless the tea garden management fulfil their demand, the gardens end up in departmental litigation.

“Can the Sonowal government stop this illegal gratification prevailing in tea gardens?” a senior official of the garden welfare department asked, adding that the gardens spend this amount either from welfare or contingency fund meant for the welfare of the workers and employees.

A tea planter on the condition of anonymity said the present wage hike could not be a sole reason for the crisis. “Assam tea has been rejected by the global players for high content of nitrogen and pesticide residue. The ITA should restore quality to capture the global market,” he observed.

To tide over the shortfall of green leaves, many gardens procure leaves in bulk from small tea growers who allegedly use excessive fertilizers and manure to boost production, caring little about quality standards. He maintained that all stakeholders, instead of fighting for political mileage, should lay thrust on better and quality tea. He also advocated establishing proper green leaf analysis centres for chemical test and subsequent certification procedures at the time of procurement of green leaves before processing in the factory.