Lives versus livelihoods? The tea and the pandemic: Invisibilising the workers

By Sanghamitra Acharaya*

In the ‘war’ against Covid-19 a lot has been said, about the ‘frontline’ workers. But there are other invisible service providers who need to be discussed. Besides the most invisibilised sanitation workers, the other are tea garden workers. In the hierarchy of access to services and resources, both sanitation workers and the tea garden workers are positioned down below. Most countries including ours did not pay much heed to the World Health Organization (WHO) caution and guidelines issued in February itself. In our case, by the time we took serious cognizance, the ‘war’ had waged itself. And the frontline workers were transformed into ‘warriors’, albeit without the ‘armaments’.

Tea is one of the important export items. Indian tea industry has recorded the highest ever production, 1325.05 million kgs, as well as exports during 2017-18. The total value of the exports was pegged at Rs 5064.88 crore. It is a well-known that the Indian tea industry is nearly 200 years old. Discovered by Robert Bruce, a British national, in the upper Brahmaputra valley in Assam and adjoining areas, tea was sent to the UK for the first time, in 1838 for public sale. While the industry has grown, workers remained vulnerable to vagaries of all kinds. India is among the ten countries which produce 90% of world’s tea. The three distinct varieties are produced in Darjeeling, Assam and Nigiris and names after their respective regions.  Assam produces half of India’s tea using the labour of more one lakh workers who ensure that all tea lovers get their daily dose of the beverage without break. Therefore, I shall dwell on Assam tea garden workers for the present.

Historical Vulnerability of the Tea Tribes

Assam has more than 800 registered tea estates, and at least 65,000 small tea gardens, ie, those covering 100 bighas (33.06 acres) or less. The workers on these estates and gardens are the descendants of tribal and backward castes brought by the British planters as indentured labourers from central India into the colonial Assam during 1800s to work in the tea gardens and tea industry as labourers. They are officially referred as “Tea-tribes” and ex-tea tribes; and recognized as Other Backward Classes by Government of Assam. Although there is a rising demand for the tribal status. They are an ethno-linguistic minority, primarily rural in nature and estimated to be around 6.5 million or 18% of Assam’s total population. They are one of the most underprivileged and exploited communities in Assam due to historical exploitation by tea estate management and neglect on the part of the government. Though the younger generations are better-educated, there are not many of those in the community.

During the 1800s, the planters made the barracks known as Coolie line for the workers which used to be congested. The term “Coolie” was used by authorities to denote the labourers, and is now a deprecating term socially unacceptable. The wages were strategically kept as low as ₹5 per month for men and ₹4 per month for women to force the whole family to work in the tea garden. The Act of 1901 increased that wages to ₹5.5 for men, and ₹4.5 for women. Children’s wages remained the same. The unskilled railway construction labourer- were paid about three times more than tea garden workers even in the early 1880s. They also experienced severe atrocities for mere personal pleasure of the planters. Disease and death were common due to the non-availability of health care. Education was not encouraged. In 2018 the wages of tea garden workers were increased to ₹167 but remained well below the ₹350 as demanded by the workers. They get housing facilities and free medical benefits through primary health centres; and the Medicare under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM); and the UNICEF provide care to the workers.

The pandemic and the safety of workers

The current pandemic, has posed grave threat to the tea garden workers in Assam. The poor public health infrastructure is evident by government’s own admission in the National Health Profile 2019. The public spending on health is just 1.17 per cent of the GDP. The provisioning of PPE has its own prioritisation in which these workers remains fairly low- especially in the light of the scant availability. It may be noted that early as 27 February, the WHO had issued the guidelines, noting that the current global stockpile of PPE was inadequate and therefore countries needed to pile up their stock. But it was only on 19 March, three weeks later, that the Indian government issued a notification prohibiting the export of domestically manufactured PPEs. Despite the WHO recommendation for stocking the PPEs, lying at the bottom of the PPE priority, the tea garden workers remained exposed to the risk, as they continued to work without adequate gears to keep them safe. They plucked tea leaves within a distance of one foot. The workers were vulnerable as they did not have safety gear such as masks, gloves and sanitizers- both because of lack of awareness; and the provision from the employers.

Ambiguous advisories and Perils of the Industry

In March when the COVID-19 induced lockdown was announced, it was the peak plucking season spilling over into April. This is the time for ‘first flush’, which falls between March-April, and accounts for the best quality tea. In the absence of any advisory from the government, tea plucking was not suspended during that period as any move to suspend plucking and processing of tea leaves would impact the industry unfavorably. But this exposed the workers to the risk of infection.

What was happening to the world due to COVID-19, was taken into account and necessary precautions were taken. Some awareness drives on precautionary measures were initiated in the tea gardens early March. The first flush, was severely affected by the 21-day lockdown Version 1.0 since March 24, across the country, to contain the spread of Covid-19. The subsequent extensions of the lockdown have damaged the two centuries old industry so severely, that many small units are gasping for survival and the bigger ones are struggling to deal with the crisis and its multifaceted consequences. It may be noted that the tea industry has been facing problems due to increased production and stagnant prices. With the factories in tea garden across Assam closed due to the lockdown, paying wages to the workers through the successive lockdown period has been a problem faced by the factory and garden owners. This has had severe implications on the workers. As the lockdown got extended till mid-May, the tea gardens could neither begin full operations nor the workers were given any relief package. The Tea estates in Assam resumed operations from 12th April, 2020 with a partial work force and the best quality tea of the first flush having lost. The workers were given masks and sanitizers. It is being ensured by the tea estates that their employees maintain distancing while working on the plantations.

However, plucking operations could not be resumed immediately as tea bushes which had overgrown due to stoppage of operations during lockdown had to be skiffed or pruned to make them suitable for plucking. Scarcity of rainfall resulted in the skiffing operations difficult. The deployment of workforce below the normal strength has resulted in operational problems for the industry. The loss of production and revenue is likely to have doubled—1150 million kg loss of production (nearly 25% of annual output) and around Rs 3,000 crore of revenue. Although, the government assured supply of rice for tea garden workers through PDS at the subsidized rate of Rs 22/kg in view of the lockdown, only a few districts could implement it effectively. In addition, due to lockdown and consequent suspension of plucking, tea bushes in many tea gardens awaited skiffing in the absence of a directive to the planters from the government.

Way Forward

It has been a question of lives versus livelihoods. The lockdown was initiated for ‘lives’ and unlocking for ‘livelihoods’. The impact, however, was reverse. The lockdown affected livelihoods and the unlocking the ‘lives’. The closure has put the employers in a financial crisis of the sorts due to already plummeting price of the tea since last year despite increased production. And also a reason to withhold wages despite the government’s advisory assurance contrasting this. The payment of wages should not be stopped as this is not a strike called by the workers- it is due to COVID-19 safety guidelines of the government to control the spread. This is something beyond their control which impedes their participation in work even if they wish to do so. A clear guideline needs to be prepared and executed to ensure a package offering respite to the employees and the employers- as have been the waivers for the big business houses. Considering the importance of tea in the export sector and the downward trend in the economy, providing relief to the industry-from plantation to packaging is inevitable if any booster is envisaged.

*Professor, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Research interest include health and discrimination; marginalized in underprivileged populations

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