Coronavirus Lockdown: Tormenting Times for the Tea Industry of Assam
An all India lockdown for 21 days from 25th of March, that is what the Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered on 24th March as a preventive measure to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Lockdown refers to shutting down of all kinds of markets, businesses and offices except the essential ones like grocery stores, pharmacies, petrol pumps as well as offices of the electricity board and health sector apart from the police and fire brigade who are never off duty whatever be the situation.
Other than these, no citizens are allowed outside their houses. Also to buy essential commodities, people cannot step out of their respective localities as violators will be charged under section 270 of IPC.
Now, there is a major business sector of the state whose workings during this time of lockdown has not yet been addressed - the tea industry of Assam.
In the 21-day lockdown the ministry of home affairs has exempted a few services and businesses.
As per point number 5 of the order no. 40-3/2020 dated 24th March of the ministry, industrial establishments are to remain closed. The exceptions to this closure are:
a. Manufacturing units of essential commodities.
b. Production units, which require continuous process, after obtaining required permission from the state government.
Despite being a continuous process of plantation and manufacturing, the tea industry of Assam has not been exempted from the lockdown.
As per the Directorate of Welfare of Tea Tribes, Government of Assam, there are 803 tea gardens in the state. The total number of tea garden workers in this industry is numerous, given that this sector employees the largest number of labourers and daily wage workers.
Impact on the workings of the industry
The plucking season of the buds for manufacturing of tea has just begun from the first week of March. As per information the best produce is to be collected during this initial period. The shutting down of operation would mean complete destruction of the second round of plucking that would have been of the finest quality and distributed throughout the world.
So given the fragile and perishable nature of the tea plants, the Assam Valley Branch of Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations had requested the Labour Commissioner to exempt specific operations of the industry.
The application requested that tea gardens be allowed to work for the protection of the plants by spraying of pest repellents and pest killers as there might be huge and permanent damage to the plants during such a long closure period.
Further, irrigation of plants is to be continued, given scanty rainfall during the period.
As per an order issued by the Chief Secretary of Assam and the Assam State Disaster Management Authority on 27th March, the above mentioned request had been granted for plantations to ensure essential plant protection, spraying work for pesticide, weedicide, etc. However, only those workers who are willing to work and are medically checked are to be employed and complete protection of them is to be ensured. Further, disinfectant spraying in the labour lines is also to be undertaken.
“Given that the tea plantation and manufacturing business is a continuous process, the state government should have exempted us from the lockdown,” he added.
Nazrana Ahmed, President of Assam Tea Planters’ Association talking about the loses in the tea industry said, “The tea industry was already in a crisis in the last two years, and from the beginning of this year there has been a drop of sale prices in the Gauhati Tea Auction by an average of Rs. 80 to Rs. 90 per kg. Further, the tea industry is dealing with a very fragile and perishable commodity dependent on plant physiology and is infected by pests. The plucking is done on a round of every six to seven days. So during lockdown these plants would grow about a foot long and have to be skiffed as these cannot be used for the manufacture of tea. We have to wait for regeneration of the bushes again. So a lockdown of even five days actually means about a month long lockdown for the tea industry.”
Avinash Borooah, Director of Bhergaon Tea Estate, Udalguri informed, “A circular has been given by tea association for skiffing of the buds grown during this period, as otherwise, future production would be hampered.”
He further informed that loses cannot be calculated as yet and have to be measured after skiffing of plants have been done.
As informed by Priyanauz Dutta, Secretary of Gauhati Tea Auction Centre, all tea auctions that were scheduled for the coming weeks have been postponed due to the lockdown as samples could not be transported to parties for check.
Tea labourers panic about wage payments and ration
As per a circular issued by the Tinsukia District Magistrate on 22nd March, the Janata Curfew on 23rd March was supposed to be a paid leave for the labourers of gardens of the district.
G Plus enquired about this paid leave with a few garden owners of the district.
Bedanta Sen, Assistant Manager of Digulturrung Tea Estate, speaking to G Plus said, “We did not receive any such circular from the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association (ABITA) under which our company is registered. Until such orders are given we cannot take any decision about the issue of paid leave for labourers.”
"As the plucking season has just started, we also have many temporary workers coming in from South India. We are meeting with the DC regularly about awareness programs to be conducted and have also informed authorities about the arrival of people from outside,” Sen added.
It has to be mentioned that there are 14 tea estates under the Kolkata based Assam Company India Limited in Tinsukia, and there are around 1365 permanent workers in each tea estate as informed.
So how are these many people to survive these times of crisis without regular payment?
Further, owners of the smaller tea gardens also said that they were not informed about the circular of paid leave. They further shook off responsibility stating they are very small gardens and do not have many permanent workers.
“The matter is under discussion amongst all the stakeholders. The situation is evolving on a day to day basis and action has to be taken as such. As of today there is no pendency of any wages or amenities to be given to the workers. But such pendency will develop in the coming days and the call has to be taken up by all stakeholders,” said Nazrana Ahmed.
“It is an unprecedented situation and we are trying to deal with the situation. We also believe the government would facilitate monetary compensation for the workers as well as the industry,” she added.
Borooah informed, “We are supporting the complete lockdown of the state. The permanent labourers have to be given complete wages but not the temporarily hired workers.
Talking of awareness, Borooah said free sanitizers and masks have been distributed amongst then workers and their families and guidelines explained in detail.
A source in a tea estate seeking anonymity said, “We want the people to come for work.
Because when we give them leave they stay in close proximity given that the quarters are located very close to one another. Further they are into drinking, playing cards and other such gathering whenever left unoccupied. But at work they have to maintain a certain distance while plucking. As we all know it is very difficult to make them understand certain things so we believe they will be safer at work. Chances of spreading the virus at home are more in case of an outbreak. However, as lockdown is given we are cooperating with the government directives.”
Dipanjol Deka, Secretary of Tea Association of India informed, “We are discussing the issue with the government and awaiting clarification from the Labour Commissioner about the wage and ration distribution amongst the tea labourers. If the government does not provide for them then steps have to be taken by the management during these times of closure.”
“The 48 hours tea garden lock down announced by the All Assam Tea Students' Association (AATSA) prior to the national lockdown has also posed as a major setback given that due to this bandh we are not able to prepare for the actual closure till of three weeks,” Deka added.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on 26th March last announced a list of schemes for the benefit of the poor. A relief package of Rs 1.70 lakh crores was announced under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna to reach out to the poor and the disadvantaged sections directly.