12 April, 2005
Across Assam, the Adivasis (tribals) face multiple deprivations which have their root in the historic exclusion and denial of tribal status to the community. The recent spate of violence in the tea estates has to be analysed within this historical perspective.
The recent news in the national daily on hacking of a tea grower by a mob of casual tea garden workers in Dibrugarh, brings one face to face with one of the violent instruments by which the toiling labouring classes sometime retaliate, out of frustration when their labour is demeaned and not given
its due regard by employers, and anger- of having being historically wronged. This incident is not an aberration. Over the last few years, the tension between tea growers and the Adivasis (also referred to as tea labour communities) in Assam has taken an ugly shape, exacerbated by the crisis in Assam’s tea industry. The root of the exclusion of these communities from the mainstream however, lies in their non-inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes of Assam, despite the fact that they are tribes. This has denied them Constitutional Entitlements which are accorded to other backward castes in the state.
The tea labour communities, constitute the oldest amongst Assam’s immigrant groups that was recruited by the British Tea Planters from present day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal between 1861 until the early 20th century, to work as indentured labour in tea plantations in Assam, spread over the districts of Western Assam, Morigaon, Nagaon, Sonitpur and Darrang in Middle Assam, Golaghat, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukhia in Eastern or Upper Assam, North Cachar and Karbi Anglong districts in Southern Assam and the Barak Valley. Belonging to the tribal groups such as Santhals, Mundas, Oraons, Kharias, Gonds, Khonds, Kisang and Nagesias, they settled down in Assam at the end of the contract period, and some left the tea plantations to settle in the surrounding agricultural lands before the expiration of the contract. The latter came to be known as the ex-Tea labour community which lives in villages neighbouring the tea estate and provide casual labour to it depending on seasonal demand.
The present day population of the tea labour community in the state is estimated to be 20 percent of the state’s population, which according to conservative estimate comes to five million. Despite their numerical strength and long history in Assam stretching more than a century, they remain ‘outsiders’ without the tribal status, as has been accorded to them in their place of origin, and are deprived of benefits availed by the other backward castes.
The local factors pushing the Adivasis of Assam into poverty are manifold. Alcoholism is a major drain on income which forces women and children’s mobility outside their village in search of work, resulting in high drop out rate among the school going children. The community has poor access to
anti-poverty, social security and scholarship schemes and is deprived from agriculture extension services. Often, there is strong beneficiary selection bias in favour of the politically powerful and the community fails to articulate its concerns at public forums like the gram sabha. There are less
permanent jobs available, especially for Adivasi men working in estate factories due to increased mechanization of the production processes.
Erosion has taken away small farms owned by them and the ex-gratia from the government though critical, is insufficient to sustain them for long. Besides, closure of tea estate (which has taken away both job opportunities from the people and also facilities such as the tea garden hospital), indebtedness caused by disproportionate spending on health, stricter enforcement of rules related to absence from work and suspension that has increased joblessness amongst Adivasis have compounded their ill-being.
Tinsikhia, which is just a few hundred kilometers from Dibrugarh, where the hacking incident took place, records a high level of land alienation of the Adivasis. Such cases of land alienation are closely linked to poor access to institutional credit of the Adivasis, which, partly, is related to absence of/lack of ownership of Miyadi patta or land documents. In the last eighteen years, the average land holdings of the community in Lezai Jagroban, Dibrugarh has come down drastically from the original 20-24 bigha; most of them have eventually been lost as mortgage to moneylenders.
There are patterns of land grabbing by the dominant community which pushed the Adivasis to work in tea gardens- some of which are now vigorously downsizing to cut the production costs. This has resulted in loss of jobs for the tea community and has compelled them to take up daily wage labour in absence of an alternative. The casual labour in the tea estate are the worst off and most impoverished as they are not covered under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 or Assam Plantation Rules, 1956, and therefore face severe employment insecurity or the fear of ‘Chotai’ (downsizing). Their plight is all the more acute, as they get work only for 5-6 months during peak season, after which they have to eke out a living by daily wage labour outside the plantation area. Unlike the permanent labour, they do not get facilities like quarters, estate hospital, provident fund and the gears such as plastics, boots, gloves, slippers etc.
There are instances in rural Assam where Adivasis are affected more severely by natural disasters than any other social groups residing in the same village. For example, in one of the villages in Dibrugarh, the Adivasis have faced greater risks of land erosion as their agricultural lands were mostly concentrated near the river. Unlike the Shyam community which had also lost major landholdings in erosion, the Adivasis in this village did not have any government jobs to fall back on. Natural disasters have thus amplified the livelihood crisis which these communities face in Assam.
Most of the political parties in Assam have merely been using the issue of Adivasis and tea tribes as a ‘political tool’. The urgency of the situation needs to be understood in the policy making quarters, or else, the cumulative frustration and anger of the community will vent through greater incidences of violence-making criminals out of ordinary human beings who struggle each day to claim a distinct identity and a decent life for themselves and their families.
(The writer is a Programme Officer with Praxis-Institute for Participatory Practices, a Delhi based NGO.)