Our Beneficiaries

The Adivasi community forcibly brought to Assam as indentured labourers in the 19th century to work in the tea gardens, is one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in Assam. They have never ever received the minimum wage of workers from the plantation management. 50% of them are temporary workers with no guarantee of regular work/ration by the management. The school drop-out rates, the infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate etc. are the highest in the Adivasi community in Assam.

Historic Trauma

The indentured labour system of the tea gardens was designed to ensure that the industry thrives while the cost of labour is kept minimal. This could only happen if the labourers were isolated from what was happening outside the garden and are made solely dependent on the garden management for their basic survival. This act of the colonial British government coincided with several legislations created for the erstwhile British government in India be it Criminal Tribes Act 1871 or the Indian Forest Act 1878 and 1927, to claim pastoral lands and forests which were inhabited and used by Adivasis and pastoral communities since time immemorial.

Adivasis who lived in harmony with nature and forests were now deemed criminals if they entered their home – the forest. People who never had to rely on any capitalist structure to survive now were forced to look for livelihood by working for landowners and plantation management. While the British were gone, the people who were left to lead the country preferred the British way of handling their forest resources, and the aftermath is evident. The Adivasis in Assam have now suffered for generations of entrapment. Today the community forms 20% of Assam’s population, but their socio-economic and political status in Assam is still far from equal.

Identity and Equity

According to scholars who have presented ethnographic reports on the community, there are 96 ethnic groups who are listed as ‘Tea Tribes’ in Assam. Of these 36 are recognised as Scheduled Tribes, 27 as Scheduled Castes and the rest as OBCs in other states of India. In Assam, these tea tribes are listed as OBC/MOBC. This status has deprived the community of various equity measures prescribed in the Indian Constitution. Representatives from the community are of the opinion that the term ‘tea tribes’ does not acknowledge the identity of the Adivasi people in Assam. In fact it erases the heritage of the community and attempts to create a permanent identity based on the profession which their community was forced into.

The struggle for proclamation of Adivasi identity is a long one in Assam and even though there is a government department called Tea Tribes Welfare Department, the community prefers to be addressed as Adivasi. This issue is also in line with the fact that several derogatory terms like ‘coolie’ and ‘baganiya’ amongst others have been repeatedly used to demean and rob the Adivasis of their dignity over centuries. Thus, the issue of identity that acknowledges and dignifies the indigenous identity becomes an important one.

The Case of Minimum Wage

One of the most pertinent issues faced by the Adivasi community is Assam associated with tea gardens is that of a reasonable minimum wage. While the tea industry believes that its profitability will decrease exponentially with proposed hikes in the wages leading to a economic crisis in Assam, it refuses to acknowledge that a huge part of the economic growth of Assam rests on the tea garden workers who can never live a life of upward mobility if the wages do not increase. It only becomes a rallying point during the elections, used like a carrot tied to the end of a stick, but the issue dies down soon after one or the other political party comes to power. The minimum wage of workers is much higher in most states of India in comparison. Socio-Economic Status: An ILO-funded study observes that 53 percent of the profit from tea goes to the retailer, 33 percent to the blender, seven percent to the factory, six percent to buyer/agent, one percent to the tea auctioneer/broker, and a mere 0.16 percent to the tea-plucker/worker.

Health, Land & Education

As per the Plantations Labour Act, 1951, tea companies are required to provide several social benefits besides wages, e.g., housing, medical facilities, schools, creche, etc. However studies show that only a small faction of tea estates follow the norms that too without much consequence. Due to the non-availability of proper medical facilities within the plantation (and state hospitals located in far off distances), the overall health condition of the community is poor with the highest infant mortality and maternity mortality rates and increased number of untreated diseases. 

Due to their migrant status, the members of Adivasi community suffer a massive issue of land alienation, as they do not have land title documents. Literacy level among the community is only 46% one of the lowest against Assam’s 72% overall literacy rate. The community has the highest school and college drop out rates in Assam, which results in high rate of unemployment.