(Sumantra Mukherjee is a freelance journalist. This story is part
of his work supported by the National Foundation for India through a National Media Fellowship)
“If you find a carry-bag hanging on a stick erected in front of a house, then it’s a sign that local liquor is being sold in that house and if the carry-bag is missing, then the brew is in process.” Binita Ekka, a student of social work living in a tea estate in Dibrugarh speaks walking between the mucky lanes which remained secluded from the realm of development since decades. Meanwhile in another tea estate, a group of women came together to pull the plug on illegal liquor dens that has been destroying the lives of male adult population in that tea estate. Even the under-aged teenagers hop into these dens to booze.
Binita Ekka lost her father when she was 12. She saw her mother being a victim of domestic violence until her father passed away due to alcoholic overdose. She says, “All of us know how much a family run by a woman who works as a temporary worker can earn. In such a family, if my father pounce upon my mother and snatch away the money meant for our living for fulfilling his thirst in liquor dens, just think how a woman has to manage food for her children. Forget about other things like books, clothes, medicines, tuitions, etc.”
Pinku, a community producer sitting in Radio Brahmaputra’s studio at Maijan Borsaikia Gaon, airing the show Brahmaputra Live where a pre-recorded show is aired while narrow-casting is used in another tea estate to bring together the local communities and their woes through a holistic dialogue on-air. Rumi Naik is in the field with her sound recorder and a transistor radio for narrow-casting. She has a question – “What is stopping the communities of tea estates from progressing?” There are 35-40 people assembled in the courtyard of a house on the day they are supposed to receive their wage. The number of women in the audience surpass the men. Most of them are hearing their voice in the radio for the first time. Thus their excitement knew no bounds as Rumi adjusts the antenna of the transistor radio to 90.4 MHz. Their nervousness can be identified from their struggle for words but nevertheless most of them pro-actively participated with their candid views and opinions.
“When a family member falls sick, the budget of a household tremors.” Dipti Khaklari sighs. In such a meager income when you have to raise a family, educate the children, buy food, clothes, etc.; you already face your worst nightmare. And this nightmare worsens when a member of your family falls sick and you have to take them to a private clinic. The tea estate management deducts a portion of a labourer’s wage for public utility services it provides. She adds, “A big lock wait for our arrival in front of the primary health-centre. The local dispensary refers every case (other than fever or constipation) to Dibrugarh Medical College. The medicines wash away our money and if there is any accident or serious illness, death seem to be inevitable.”
“The 25kg rice that we get at Re. 1 per kg can feed us for 15 days but once it ends, we have to buy 10kg -12kg rice from the local grocer at the retail price”, says Promila during her conversation with Rumi. Determining the expenses that a household have to bear in the name of food, clothes, tobacco and liquor there are very less scope for them to repair their house, create savings for themselves and their children, start agriculture in a small plot of land, etc. A tea labourer earns 137 rupees a day. 40% of his earnings go in purchasing tobacco and liquor. Rather than expending 55 rupees on tobacco and liquor, saving it in bank will fetch them 19,800 rupees a year with interest rate of 4% – 4.25% p.a. which he can later use in renovating their house, help their children’s education in future, agriculture, health issues and other contingencies.
But why do every evening a man has to go to the liquor den? Upon asking Jahnobi Kerketta about this menace, she retorts, “See the consumption of locally brewed liquor has been trickling down since generations. After working for such long hours under the scorching sun when your body throbs in pain. It’s unbearable. Everyone knows till date, liquor did no good to anyone yet they flock into those den for a sip of liquor so that the dizziness can tranquilize their pain.” Those who brew these local liquor add chemicals like pesticides and tranquilizers meant for animals so that their booze can create the dizziness. Over the years, many died because of it but neither the police nor anyone from the management was ever concerned about it.
“How can you expect our community to progress when they go on reproducing 4-5 kids?” Mrs. Ghatowar, a proud mother of a 12 year old girl studying in a private school in Dibrugarh, remarks. There is no awareness on family planning in tea estates. The income is very low and giving birth to one more will only add burden but most families in the community fail to understand this. She adds, “My husband too works in a tea estate and has a very limited income. If you have 4-5 children, then how can you can feed them properly, give them proper education or buy clothes for them? Then what’s the point in giving birth to so many kids. Thus this awareness of having 1-2 children should be imparted in our community.”
Brahmaputra Community Radio Station is an initiative of Centre for North East Studies (C-NES) which works comprehensively in the tea tribe region where social vices like illiteracy, superstition and alcoholism thrives. During a conversation with Bhaskar Jyoti Bhuyan, the station coordinator of Radio Brahmaputra, he says, “If you reach out to them telling them about eclampsia or postpartum haemorrhage, they won’t understand a word. Firstly, you have to talk about their housing, education for their kids, the Government’s schemes for their welfare because these are the basic elements of their lives and then slowly you can transition your talks to tuberculosis, malnutrition, menstrual hygiene, maternal health, adolescent health, etc. There are numerous research studies done by distinguished scholars on their lives who publish it in several prestigious journals. But amidst these hullabaloo, we tend to forget that these communities are isolated since decades. So, going to the microphone and asking if they received their houses, electricity, education for children, toilets for homes, etc. will be more beneficial at the receiving end.” He adds, “When we started narrow-casting much before we obtained community radio license, communities hardly spoke up. They listened. But slowly and gradually they are participating. We have a long way to go.”