Debating India

STATE ELECTIONS 2006

Parties vie to woo tea workers in Assam

Sunday 26 March 2006

Special Correspondent

Hunger-stricken workers are in no mood to be taken in by their promises

Golaghat: Seven year-old Rimi Nagbongshi of Usha tea estate under the Golaghat Assembly constituency has had nothing to eat at home after returning from school for the past six months. Her family had to skip meals for days together as her mother who works in the tea estate as a permanent and her father as a temporary worker have had no money to feed Rimi and her three brothers after a lockout was declared in the garden in October last year.

Political parties and candidates have launched a vigorous election campaign in more than 800 odd tea gardens of the State. The tea tribe community plays a deciding role in 35 seats of the 126-member Assam Assembly. For the Congress, the community is a traditional vote bank while for the opposition Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the election has come as an opportunity to make inroads among the garden workers.

However, the condition of a large population of the community whose forefathers were brought by the British to Assam is best measured described by the plight of workers of the Usha tea estate. The garden reopened recently after a new owner took over. However, the garden workers will not get the salaries of the six months of the lockout period.

Candidates of the AGP, the BJP as well as the Left parties - CPI(M) and CPI - have been harping on the poor socio-economic condition of the tea tribe community. The Congress which has fielded as many as 16 candidates from the community has been making all out efforts to keep its fortress by trying to drive home the point that whatever development has taken place in the tea garden areas, the party must get credit for it.

Its leaders say the slump in the tea industry is due to the wrong policies pursued by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The ruling party has been trying woo the voters with the promise that their woes would come to an end once the revival package for the tea industry announced by the United Progressive Alliance(UPA) government is implemented.

Paban Singh Ghatowar, former PCC president and at presently chairman of the INTUC-controlled Asom Chah Mazdoor Sangh(ACMS), admitted that resentment against the Congress has surfaced among a section of the community. But he felt it would not have the potential to create a "major upset" in its traditional stronghold.

The Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (ATTSA) has decided to back only those candidates who would do something for the community. "We have asked the political parties not to make any attempt to exploit the sentiment of the tea tribe community by merely including in their manifesto the assurance of granting it the scheduled tribe status. They should tell the voters in specific terms as to what the welfare measures they would take for the community," said Mr. Prahlad Gowala, ATTSA president.

The All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) on the other hand has vowed not to allow any political party or candidate to lure the downtrodden garden workers through distribution of mosquito nets, blankets or liquor the night before the polling day. The ATTSA too has clamped a ban on the entry of political parties in the garden areas after 6 p.m.

The AASAA claims that around 1,000 people die in the tea garden areas every year due to a lack of proper medical facilities.

Though Assam accounts for 55 per cent of country’s tea production and tea garden workers made up 95 per cent of the workforce of the industry that is spread over 2.31 lakh hectares of land, only 30 per cent of the workers’ homes has electricity. Only 30 per cent of the is literate.

"The British brought our forefathers here. The British left the country. However, our condition has not improved even after 58 years of independence. Will this election make any difference?" asked the hunger-stricken workers of the Usha tea estate.

See online : The Hindu

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