GUWAHATI, Feb 11: Despite government’s tall claims that a slew of measures have been initiated for the development of tea garden community, it is a fact that the condition of the tea garden labourers in Assam have not improved much even after 70 years of Independence, with a sizeable section continuing to live in abject economic condition. Education, which paves the way for upward social mobility, continues to be hit by insurmountable roadblocks among the tea garden labour community. Except for a miniscule faction, most of the people from the tea gardens are still bound within the gardens.
The Plantation Labour Act 1951, which was a result of a series of trade union movements, was ected with an aim to improve the condition of the plantation workers and to ensure their rights. When the Act was ected, many thought that it would be of immense help to the tea plantation workers but in reality nothing of that sort has happened due to its poor implementation or in a way non-implementation by the tea garden magements.
In 2014, a panel, formed by the then Congress government, conducted an in-depth study of the working conditions in the tea gardens of the State, which found that the magements of many tea gardens were not offering the facilities they ought to provide under the Plantation Labour Act 1951. The panel came up with some recommendations for certain improvements, especially in the health and education sectors. However, unfortutely the government has not so far implemented these recommendations. When this writer recently visited some tea estates in Dibrugarh, Sonitpur and Baksa districts in Assam, it was noticed that most of the tea garden magements have failed to implement the provisions of the Act, especially in respect of health and education of children as well as in respect of working hours of the workers.
As per the provision of the Act, every tea estate should have medical services and educatiol facilities. Even though hospitals are there in the tea estates, the infrastructure facilities of most of the hospitals are very poor and many hospitals don’t have adequate number of staff and physicians. The Ganeshbari TE Hospital at Lahoal in Dibrugarh district has been running sans a single physician for the last three years, while grijuli Tea Estate in Baksa district has no physician since December last year. The condition of Tingkharia TE Hospital at Dhekiajuli in Sonitpur district is so deplorable that it is impossible for the patients to stay in the hospital. The toilets are not in useable condition while the beds in the cabin are broken.
Even though as per the Act the employers have to maintain crèches for children who are to be looked after by trained women and should provide at least a primary school for imparting primary education to children of labourers, crèches in most of the tea estates are not functioning. Neither grijuli TE nor Ganeshbari TE has crèche facility, while hortoli TE, another Tea Estate located at Lahoal in Dibrugarh district, has a crèche but workers complain that it is not functioning properly.
Similarly, the existing infrastructure of most of the Tea Estate schools is very poor. In Tingkharia Tea Estate LP School and grijuli Tea Estate LP School, students if five standards are imparted education in a single room. The toilets at Tingkharia TE LP School have not been repaired for a long time and as such children cannot use them. In many Tea Estate schools, there are no permanent and trained teachers. Teachers in many schools work only half time. The schools remain closed in the peak plucking season since the teachers have to be in the garden or factory.
The Plantation Labour Act 1951 made it compulsory for the employers to provide certain measures for the workers and imposed restriction on working hours. Among others, it laid down that maximum working hours for an adult worker would be 54 hours per week and for non-adults 44 hours; but this working hour limit is often exceeded. The workers leave home at around 7 to 7.30 in the morning and return before sunset. As a result many workers consume alcohol excessively to make themselves free from stress caused by unusual working hours. Such working hours have affected the education of their children as well since they hardly get time to look after the educatiol needs of their children. Many children skip school as their parents leave for work in the garden before their children go to school.
Hence, besides ensuring proper implementation of the provisions of the Act, there is also an urgent need for its amendment as several norms under the Act have become obsolete by now. For instance, according to United tions Convention on the Rights of Children, a worker below 18 years of age is deemed a child worker, while it is below 14 years as per Plantation Labour Act. Secondly 40-hour week, and in some cases 48-hour week, is considered to be the standard working hours of a worker by the UN Convention. Hence, 54 working hour week laid down by the Plantation Labour Act flouts the standard working hours norms set by the UN Convention.
(This article is based on a study done by the writer on Education of Plantation Worker’s Children as a part of tiol Foundation for India (NFI), New Delhi’s Media Award Programme, 2016.)