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The Hindu
The Hindu

Plight of tea garden workers becomes poll issues in Dibrugarh again

The two leaves and a bud, plucked by tea garden workers, may have made Assam’s tea industry globally renowned but the lack of their facilities comes to the fore only during elections with cacophony of promises by politicians to address their plight.

Nestled amidst verdant greenery, the Dibrugarh constituency stands out with the highest concentration of tea gardens in the region with estate workers accounting for 30% of the total 16.50 lakh voters.

The Congress enjoyed the unstinted support of this major vote bloc since Independence till 2014 when the BJP wrested the seat for the first time and retained it five years later.

Serving as a microcosm, it vividly portrays the challenges faced by tea garden workers.

The constituency, comprising two districts of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, has a total of 301 big estates and 51,063 small tea gardens.

Wages, health, education and land documents (pattas) are the major issues of tea garden workers of the constituency.

Union Minister and BJP candidate Sarbananda Sonowal’s campaign has mandatory stops at tea gardens where he shakes a leg with ‘jhumur’ dancers of the tea tribe and plays their traditional drum before he starts highlighting the party’s contribution to improve the life of estate workers.

"During the tenures of Himanta Biswa Sarma and mine as chief ministers, we have made all-out efforts to solve the long-standing problems of garden workers who were neglected by the Congress during their 60 years of misrule," Mr. Sonowal told PTI.

Tea garden workers speak “favourably of the BJP because the party has significantly contributed to their economic betterment, advocated social justice, and facilitated a path to a more dignified life”, he claimed.

“Conversely, the Congress has historically treated them merely as a vote bank without adequately addressing their needs," Mr. Sonowal alleged.

Opposition candidate Lurinjyoti Gogoi told PTI that Assam is globally known for its tea industry, but the condition of its workers is pathetic.

"BJP had made many promises for tea garden workers, including ₹350 as wage, land pattas of their houses, health and education facilities but all remain unfulfilled," the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) president said.

There is a strong resentment against the BJP among the tea garden community in the entire Dibrugarh constituency, he claimed.

The third candidate in the fray, Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Manoj Dhanowar, belongs to the tea tribe community. He claimed that the condition of garden workers here is the “worst in the country and so-called facilities provided by the BJP government have not reached all sections”.

"In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the workers are paid ₹450 per day, but in Assam, BJP is not even paying the promised ₹350 and workers are getting a mere ₹250," he claimed.

Mr. Gogoi said the BJP’s neglect of the community is evident from the fact that the sitting MP and Union Minister Rameswar Teli, who also belongs to the tea tribe community, was denied a ticket from the seat this election.

Countering his allegation, Assam minister and Tinsukia MLA Sanjay Kishan, who also belongs to the community, told PTI that the “opposition has no issue and are trying to divert people from the development work that the BJP has initiated” in the State, particularly for tea garden workers.

"In Assam, there are 35 Assembly constituencies where tea garden voters play a pivotal role, but it is not possible that in each, people from the community will be given tickets to contest," he added.

Health is also a major concern in tea gardens with at least one or two tuberculosis patients in most families and the outbreak of gastro-enteritis is common in these estates, CPI-ML leader Subhas Sen, who works with workers, told PTI.

"There are no well-equipped hospitals in tea gardens. There are no permanent doctors and even if there is, they cater to at least 5 to 10 tea gardens, working on a part-time basis," he said.

The dropout rate among the children of workers is also very high with almost 95% of them not sitting for the matriculation exams, Mr. Sen added.

Tea garden worker Durgamani Keot said her daughters have dropped out of school but they "don’t want to pluck leaves like me".

Ms. Keot said she has received most of the government schemes, like free rice and gas connections, but has yet to get land pattas.

Another worker Kuli Tanti said though she had applied for all government schemes entitled to, she is yet to get the benefits but hopes to get it once the elections are over.

The Dibrugarh constituency will go to polls on April 19.

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