With scams littering the 15-year rule of the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government, there is a painful sense of déjà vu with a State Minister now alleging that subsidized foodgrains were lifted as ration for 10 lakh tea workers, who happened to be non-existent. And these ‘ghost’ workers numbered more than the 9 lakh flesh-and-blood workers entered in government records. Clearly, swindling at such scale is not possible without tea garden magements operating hand in glove with a section of babus, along with some tea tribe and union leaders. State Labour and Tea Tribe Welfare Minister Pallab Lochon Das said as much in the Assembly, prompting Tarun Gogoi to challenge the government to bring the errant garden magements to book. Gogoi has further dared the Sonowal government to probe ‘all the former ministers concerned, not just a select few’. His allusion to the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led camp thriving in the new government should be seen for what it is — a cynical attempt to muddy the waters. Gogoi has been harping on this ‘unequal treatment’ after his former heavyweight ministers like Gautam Roy and Akon Bora were grilled in connection with the Social Welfare scam. It is a scam in which 9 lakh ‘ghost’ children were fed nutritious meals for 15 years, but all that Gogoi and like-minded leaders see is political vendetta when ex-ministers are summoned for questioning. A similar political tussle, complicated and long drawn, underlies the emerging tea ration scam. The Congress vs BJP blame game over tea garden rations has been running for a little over three years now, a fallout of the UPA’s tiol Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 replacing the targeted public distribution system. The then Congress government in Assam was slow off the starting blocks to implement the Act; when it did get around to do so, it found that NFSA had no provision for rations to tea workers.
Under the ration system, tea garden magements procure subsidized wheat and rice from FCI and distribute it among workers at 50-55 paise per kg, with each worker entitled to around 33 kg foodgrain every month. Since the allotment under NFSA was believed to be substantially lower, workers were understandably opposed to it. After it fell upon the incoming NDA government at the Centre to push the states to implement NFSA, the Tarun Gogoi government in December 2014 filly issued an order to stop allotment of subsidized foodgrains through FCI to tea gardens from January 1, 2015. By that time, the issue was ripe for politics, as a sizeable part of tea community votes was estimated to have moved away from the Congress to the BJP. After the expected furor broke out in tea gardens over ‘stopping of rations’, the Congress government in Assam passed the blame to the Modi government. That politics is still continuing, with the Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh (aligned with the Congress) spearheading tea worker protests only last month. The garden magements have meanwhile been providing rations by lifting foodgrains from open market, but have made it clear they find the burden too heavy with their falling margins. However, some tea students and workers organizations along with the KMSS have been alleging that errant garden magements lift foodgrain at subsidized prices — but deduct far more from workers’ daily wages in the me of ration. Minister Pallab Lochon Das is accusing the ACMS of striking a secret deal with tea garden magements to let them withdraw from providing rations, while carrying out disinformation campaign against the Central government and seeking to foment trouble in the gardens. Sounding a warning, he has made it clear in the Assembly that under Labour Act, ration is a component of wage and must be provided. So it all boils down to the question of who will foot the extra cost to keep providing subsidized foodgrains to tea workers — garden magements are reluctant to keep paying more, while the State government keeps looking to the Centre to provide some relief. In the midst of this all-round blame game and passing the buck, if there was pilferage of rations in the me of non-existent workers to be sold off in open market, then the State government must now get to the bottom of it with a thorough probe.