Coronavirus Lockdown: Tormenting Times for the Tea Planters of Assam
GUWAHATI: The Assam Government has ordered lockdown of the state from 6 pm of 24th March till the midnight of 31st March as a preventive measure to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the state. 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.
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 are numerous, given that this sector employees the largest number of labourers and daily wage workers.
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.
Nazrana Ahmed, President of Assam Tea Planters’ Association, speaking to G Plus said, “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.”
Talking about the loses in the tea industry she 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 are 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 five days actually means about a month long lockdown for the tea industry.”
“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.
Avinash Borooah, Director of Bhergaon Tea Estate, Udalguri 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. 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.
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 quaters are located very close to one another. But at work they have to maintain a certain distance while plucking. So we believe they will be more safe at work but chances of spreading the virus at home are more. 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) has also posed as a major setback given that due to this bandh we are not able to prepare for the actual state lock down till 31st March, which probably might extend further,” Deka added.
As informed by Priyanauz Dutta, Secretary of Gauhati Tea Auction Center, all tea auctions that were scheduled for the next two weeks have been postponed due to the lockdown as samples could not be transported to parties for check.
It has to be mentioned that given the already prevailing crisis of the tea industry of Assam, the coronavirus lock down is likely to hamper the industry further given that this is the peak season for plucking of leaves and the best quality of tea is produced during this period, as informed. And its not just the revenue that would decline but also the great masses of generations of workers that are dependent solely on this trade.