Tea workers’ movement is gaining momentum in Assam

THE CONGRESS government led by Tarun Gogoi has completed one year in office. To celebrate the occasion the Congress spent huge amount of govt. money. Within this very short time all sections of the society have raised their voice against every anti-people step of the govt. Earlier, the Chief Minister Gogoi gave a commitment to regularly pay salaries to the employees, rejuvenate the sick state PSUs, investigate all incidents of ‘secret killings’ (perpetrated during the AGP rule, particularly the killings of family members of ULFA functionaries) and promised to provide a transparent and clean administration, list the Tea Community as a Scheduled Tribe, and to pay Sunday wages to the Tea Workers etc. But they forgot all promises and resorted to anti-people steps one after another. Hence, a deep sense of betrayal prevails in the society and the govt. is fast getting alienated from the people. The govt. employees are resorting to agitations to demand regular and timely payment of their salaries.

On 18th May, when the government was celebrating completion of one year of Congress rule, the govt. employees parallelly observed a ‘Betrayal Day’ through out Assam. Agitating state govt. employees totally paralyzed the administration that day. They were protesting against the failure of the Congress govt. in implementing their commitment to the people in general and employees in particular. Workers in state govt. industries are also organizing strikes, and dharnas to rejuvenate these industries. In Assam, 49 state PSUs are facing serious financial crisis and for months together the workers have not received their wages. Suddenly the govt. has cut the grants for colleges, cut the salaries of college teachers by 15% and steeply hiked the fees for students. This provoked teachers and students to launch a movement. The govt. evicted thousands of people from forest land without giving any prior notice. Hundreds of families have been evicted even near the state capital and when people resisted this move police opened fire to kill one person and injure many, which happened only 3 kms away from Chief Minister’s residence and on the eve of celebration over completion of one year of Congress rule. These incidents have been widely condemned by every section of the society.

Most pathetic and grim conditions prevail among the tea garden workers in general and in Assam Tea Corporation (ATC) gardens in particular. ATC gardens are in the state sector. There are 14 gardens under the ATC. Tarun Gogoi govt. declared all the gardens sick and has decided to sell all the gardens to a private company. For last three months workers and employees have not been given their wages and salaries, and necessary rations, and all medical and water facilities have been stopped. Hence the workers are living in an unimaginably miserable condition. Tea workers in Assam are paid much below the government stipulated minimum wage in violation of the Minimum Wages Act. Without their weekly wages the workers are living in an artificially created famine-like situation. The workers of the ATC gardens are forced to fill their stomachs by taking wild vegetables obtained from nearby forests, and are eating unknown roots of the jungle herbs due to which workers are suffering from different stomach ailments and unknown diseases. Medical facilities are not available in the gardens. Doctors have also left the gardens due to non-payment of their salaries and the gardens’ hospitals are closed. In this anarchic situation workers are to wage a life-and-death struggle. In the month of April alone 30 workers have died for want of medical treatment.

The govt. did not show any sympathy, did not provide any relief material or medical facilities, but the Cabinet took a decision to sell the sick ATC gardens. Under the pretext of severe financial crisis the govt. has decided not only to sell the ATC gardens but also declared a wage-cut for the ATC garden workers. Three month earlier the workers received Rs. 43/- as daily wages but now the govt. has ordered reduction of wages to Rs. 30/- only. This is the attitude of the Congress govt. towards tea workers who used to be their traditional support base.

Privatisation as a means of concealing scams

ATC faces serious financial crisis even as private tea companies are flourishing in their business and earning huge profits. Of late, production of the ATC gardens was also increasing and workers were plucking huge quantity of green leaves but the management showed a big loss. This happened only due to large-scale corruption within the ATC. Actually, the crisis has been brought about by a nexus of bureaucrats, officers of the corporation, contractors and political bosses. This is the crux of the problem. Now the burden upon ATC is more than Rs.100 core. Out of the 14 gardens, it is not yet clear which one has incurred how much loan. After deciding to privatize the gardens the govt. is keen to depute a chartered accountant to assess the loan burden of every single garden. On the other hand, the revenue department has not yet finalised the total land of every garden and its assets. Yet, in the mean time, 37 national and international companies have come forward to buy the gardens. The CM has already declared that there is no alternative to selling the gardens. Actually, the govt. is trying to conceal the fact that the misdeeds of the bureaucracy are the main cause of the crisis. Hence the democratic organizations demanded a white paper on ATC gardens. The CPI(ML)-led Asom Sangrami Chah Sramik Sangha and ATC Workers’ Protection Committee have submitted a memorandum to the Assam Govt. demanding the white paper.

Now, concealing the basic facts and real causes of the bankruptcy of the ATC, the Congress has hastily entered into a bargain with private companies. On the other hand, the Congress-led trade union, the Asom Chah Mazdoor Sangh (ACMS) has propagated among the workers that their genuine rights would be protected after privatisation. ACMS is the major trade union in the Tea gardens of Assam and the only trade union in ATC gardens. But the ACMS has not raised its voice against the non-payment of wages, starvation deaths and has not pressurised the govt. for distribution of relief materials. Hobnobbing with the Congress leaders, the ACMS is betraying the workers and deflecting their grievances. The main motive behind this conspiracy of privatisation is looting crores of rupees as bribe from the private companies and protecting corrupt persons.

Growing isolation of the Congress-led union

Paban Sing Ghatowar is the president of ACMS. Two months back, Sonia Gandhi has posted him as the president of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC). This appointment has come at a time when the tea workers of Assam are struggling for minimum wages, uniform bonus in all gardens, Sunday wages, and protection of the rights of workers of ATC gardens etc. ACMS president Ghatowar became a powerful leader of the Congress but his own union workers have died of starvation. He has not even uttered a single word regarding the workers’ crisis. Paban Singh was elected as an MP consecutively for the 4th time from Dibrugarh constituency, where nearly 60% of the voters belong to the tea community. Tea workers in particular and the community in general have supported the Congress. They stood by the Congress even at the time of its crisis. However, the ruling party and its organizations never stood by the workers during their crisis and struggle, rather they opposed every instance of workers’ movement and surrendered their just demands at the doors of the management. The role of ACMS is to block the movement, divert it and always take sides with the management. The tea garden protection force was formed during the Congress government of Hiteshwar Saikia to counter the growing unrest of the tea workers. This force killed many workers in the last ten years of Congress and AGP rule. Only the CPI(ML)-led ASCSS has opposed these killings and organized mass protests from time to time demanding withdrawal of this “protection” force. But on such occasions Paban Sing Ghatowar & Co. had opposed workers and supported the protection force. The workers are gradually becoming conscious about the ACMS’ role and are realizing that this organization has nothing to do with workers rights and it has become part of the management. A sense of betrayal among the workers is growing.

When the ACMS president became the president of the APCC a section of workers felt that the long-drawn demands and aspirations of the tea community would be fulfilled. But within a very short time, Ghatowar and his party stood exposed before the workers. Earlier it was said that the tea community was a strong bastion of the Congress. Now the ACMS and Congress leaders in the gardens are increasingly getting isolated. And an independent movement is emerging by opposing the agents of the tea Company and the Congress. Now the time has come to isolate the betrayers from the gardens.

A new movement emerges

CPI(ML)-led Asom Sangrami Chah Sramik Sangha (ASCSS) is trying hard to emerge as an alternative center of tea garden workers in Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sonitpur and Jorhat districts. ASCSS has organized tea workers and is continuously fighting for their rights. It has been able to build organization in more than 30 gardens. But in ATC gardens the ASCSS had no organization or even any contact. Witnessing the growing unrest of the workers of the ATC gardens against the government’s policy, the ASCSS planned to intervene in the situation to orient and guide the movement. Out of the 14 gardens of the ATC 8 are in Jorhat and others are in Nagaon, Golaghat and Sibsagar. On 26th March, ASCSS had organized a convention on the theme Save the workers of ATC gardens at Jorhat. A good section of second rung leaders and activists of ACMS participated in the convention defying the obstruction of the state leaders. Representatives from all ATC gardens of Jorhat district were present. The convention resolved to organize the workers on a higher plane and a March to the Assembly programme was organized on 6th April, 2002 to pressurize the govt. to solve workers’ problems.

In the March to the Assembly programme more than 1500 tea workers participated. 80% of them came from the ATC gardens. The ACMS leaders propagated against the programme and obstructed the workers from participating in it. The programme created good enthusiasm among the workers. At first police obstructed the processionists by erecting a barricade near Janata Bhawan of Dispur. But workers, defying this obstacle, marched to Janata Bhawan. Again the police tried to block the agitating workers at Janata Bhawan. After a long quarrel with the police and officials the administration agreed to send a govt. representative to receive the memorandum formally.

In the meantime, processionists gathered in front of Janata Bhawan and a mass meeting took place, addressed by the leaders of ATC gardens, ASCSS, AICCTU and CPI(ML). All of them agreed to carry forward the movement and relentlessly fight for workers’ rights. The memorandum was endorsed in the mass meeting and was submitted to the govt. representative in the meeting itself.

The demands listed in the memorandum were:

1. All the pending wages and salaries of the ATC garden workers and employees should be released immediately;

2. Publish a white paper on ATC garden;

3. Restore the sanctity of law and apply the policy of uniform wages and bonus to every garden;

4. Implement election promises of the Congress and give Sunday wages to the workers; and

5. The Govt. must declare its position regarding the tea workers’ demand during the next Assembly Session.

After submission of the memorandum the leaders of the movement met and decided to formally resign from the ACMS and work with the ASCSS. Secondly, they decided to organize workers in other ATC gardens, who had not yet been contacted. To facilitate that they decided to hold conventions in Nagaon and Golaghat. Thirdly, they decided to burn the effigy of Paban Singh Ghatowar in every garden. This way the Congress is losing its ground slowly but steadily and a new struggling center is gradually emerging.

– Rubul Sarm