The tea industry is touted as the country’s second-largest employer, but it is also an industry that undermines labour rights and deprives workers and their families of the most basic needs. There’s widespread poverty, malnutrition, human trafficking, and starvation: obvious factors underscoring the desire for a better life. Basic facilities like healthcare and education are extremely poor and when the reins of the state of affairs are under the hands of a leader as incompetent as Mamata Banerjee, things are bound to get difficult for the tea plantation workers who earn a pittance in return for their hard labour.
For more than 4,500 workers of different tea plantation gardens in Bengal which have declared lockouts, it is a hand-to-mouth existence in a grim battle against grinding poverty. The issues of these tea plantation workers garners attention whenever there is an assembly election in West Bengal or Assam. With the assembly elections in both states scheduled in 2021, the issues of the tea plantation workers are being discussed once again. Mamata Banerjee has hiked the minimum wage rate in the state in order to appease the tea plantation workers, most of whom are daily wage labourers. Priyanka Gandhi too took to plucking tea leaves with estate workers at the Sadhuru tea garden in the Biswanath district of Assam, sending a message to the tea plantation workers in not just Assam but also West Bengal.
This comes after PM Modi’s outreach to the tea plantation workers. A few weeks ago, on a visit to Assam, Prime Minister Modi addressed a large gathering of plantation workers, said, “Documents have emerged to show that a conspiracy has been hatched outside the country to defame Indian tea. I am sure the tea workers from Assam will give a befitting reply. No tea garden worker in Assam can tolerate this attack and I am sure they will win this fight against these conspirators as they are stronger than these forces with vested interests.”
Prime Minister struck a chord with the tea plantation workers and promised to take concrete steps for improvement of their working conditions as well as remuneration. In the union budget, the government already allocated 1,000 crore rupees for tea plantation workers.
“I propose to provide 1,000 crores rupees for the welfare of tea workers especially women and their children in Assam and West Bengal,” said Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
However, the issues of tea plantation workers cannot be solved just by doles. The tea plantation workers suffer a lot due to the lack of required infrastructure and a large number of them decided that they will not vote if the road connectivity is not improved. “No road no vote,” said the workers’ union of the tea plantation workers.
Bengal has at least four Lok Sabha seats and more than 30 assembly constituencies where tea workers’ votes are decisive, yet Mamata-led TMC has put the whole issue on the back-burner. Mere assurances are provided to the tea workers by the Mamata government before the assembly election but assurances don’t solve problems.
The gardens where the dues are piling up since April last year are Madhu, Dheklapara, and Bandapani in Alipurduar district, Red Bank, and Surendranagar in Jalpaiguri district, and Panighata in Darjeeling district. These tea gardens have been lying abandoned for years. More importantly, the workers of these gardens are not being able to meet even their most basic needs.
Therefore, Prime Minister Modi’s emphasis on infrastructure development across the country, special budgetary allocation for the community, and the support for their profession would help to bring back their confidence in the state machinery, and the community would rally behind the saffron party. On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee, whose government has not been able to deliver on a single promise made by the party before the 2011 assembly elections, would suffer a huge loss in at least 30 assembly seats.