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More Than A Storm In The Tea Cup

The Assam tea industry is worried, desperately worried. If in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was under pressure from rising militancy in the state, it is now faced with trouble on the labour front.

More Than A Storm In The Tea Cup
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The Assam tea industry is worried, desperately worried. If in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was under pressure from rising militancy in the state, it is now faced with trouble on the labour front. Abductions and killings of planters and pay-offs to insurgent groups was a common occurrence then. A decade down the line, the industry with a turnover of Rs 3,400-crore, is reeling under increasing trouble from its hitherto loyal labour force.

Assaults on top tea managers by their own workers, virtually unheard of in the past decades, have increased alarmingly over the past five years. Says Dhiraj Kakoti, Secretary of the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association (ABITA): "In our member gardens there have been 29 cases of severe assault on tea managers by workers between 1998 and now, resulting in death of at least three tea executives." During the same period, the number of abductions was nine. Militants also killed four executives in this five-year period..

ABITA, apex association of big tea companies, has nearly 250 member gardens. The latest incident in Northern Assam's Sonitpur district on May 30, in which two tea executives -- Anthony Unger and SK Singh -- of Sapoi tea estate were brutally lynched and then set afire by a group of labourers, has sent shock waves through the industry.

Although the immediate trigger for the workers' rage was disconnection of electricity to their quarters, tea industry executives say trouble on this particular tea estate owned by the Calcutta-based Kanoi group, was brewing for the past six months. As Sonitpur district magistrate, Ariz Ahmed told outlookindia.com: "The killing of the tea executives was a result of accumulated resentment among the workers against the management."

Following the killing, the once-prosperous tea estate has been locked out. The labour trouble in Sapoi is in fact symptomatic of the crisis in the tea industry as a whole. As Robin Borthakur, additional secretary, Bharatiya Cha Parishad (BCP), another tea association, says: "The Assam tea industry has been going through one of its worst phases in history. Price realization is down, costs are rising, productivity is stagnating. Naturally, companies are cutting costs, leading to friction between managements and workers' unions."

One major bone of contention is payment of bonus to workers. For nearly two decades up to 2000, workers were routinely paid 20 per cent of their annual wages as bonus. For the past two years though, most tea companies have resorted to paying the bare minimum 8.33 per cent bonus, creating resentment among workers. Admits Madhusudan Khandiat, veteran general secretary of the powerful Asom Cha Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS): "Payment of lower bonus has definitely made the workers angry since most of them feel that getting 20 per cent bonus is their birth right. Despite our best efforts we have not been able to convince the workers that the minimum bonus according to law is 8.33."

Apart from the immediate problems about payment of bonus and wages, the industry is faced with new developments. Gone are the days when workers accepted whatever their leaders told them. "The younger generation, with better education and exposure, is unwilling to accept the working conditions in the gardens. They are militant in their demands and do not listen to the seasoned leaders," a senior planter says.

ACMS, which has nearly 5 lakh members out of a total tea workforce of eight lakh in Assam, is by far the most dominant union in the state's industry. But even ACMS is now finding it difficult to reign in the rising demands for better living conditions and increased payments. Other planters blame the state government for the state of affairs today.

"The State government's inspectors who are supposed to monitor strict implementation of the Plantation Labour Act, are content to get their share of kickbacks from unscrupulous managements. As long as their pockets are regularly lined, these inspectors do not bother about welfare of the tea workers. If they were stricter, many tea companies, especially the proprietorial  kind would not get away by providing so little to the labourers," a very senior planter points out.

Quite clearly, the Assam tea industry, which produces more than 50 per cent of India's total tea production, is witnessing a churning that will have far reaching consequences on its working. Competition from other tea producing countries, rising costs, stagnant productivity and most significantly, falling domestic consumption, has brought about a major crisis in the tea industry. Labour trouble, virtually unknown till a decade ago has only added to the worries.

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