Talk of ST status for Assam's 'tea tribes' may give BJP fillip in election year, but real benefits miles away at ground zero

Avik Chakraborty | Feb 21, 2019 | 8 min read


Dibrugarh, Assam: The Tea garden tribes get ST status



 By Avik Chakraborty

“Our community has been exploited for decades, the ST status will help us get the benefits of government schemes”. Bhaiti Munda (26), could hardly hide the sense of satisfaction from his voice, even as he worked on a sewage drain along with other labourers at the Sessa tea garden area of Dibrugarh.

ST status to the tea tribe will be beneficial for them in many aspects. Whether it's getting the reservation in government jobs, pursue higher studies or to safeguard their basic rights. Health, sanitation, education, irregular disbursal of wages, and poor drinking water facilities have been the major roadblocks for this tea tribe of Assam towards a progressive lifestyle.

For the lakhs of tea garden workers spread all over Assam, it has been decades of exploitation and agitations to get that coveted tag. A tag that, ironically, they had in their original homes in other states but lost when their forefathers migrated many generations ago in the 19th century to work in the British owned tea gardens of Assam. Over the generations, these tea garden workers, spread across districts of Western Assam, Morigaon, Nagaon, Sontipur and Darrang in central Assam, Golaghat, Jorhat, Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia in upper Assam and North Cachar and Karbi Anglong districts in Barak Valley, grew in numbers that they constitute close to 20 percent of the state’s total population according to the 2011 census. 

Now one has to remember that the criteria to fulfill ST status also indicates primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, and backwardness etc. “Along with the five ethnic groups of Assam, the tea tribes of Assam are demanding the ST status and after examination, our departments have decided to grant ST status to the communities,” said an officer from culture and tribal affairs of Assam.

Over the generations, these tribes also developed their own unique culture, and language which is different from that spoken in the rest of Assam. Their unique music is an important part of their community identity, usually performed during weddings, festivals, the arrival of seasons, ushering-in of new life, and harvests. Their ‘Jhumur’ is a folk dance unique to tea-tribe community, who have an important place in Assam’s history, and not just for their labour which made Assam’s tea known all over the world. For decades the community has been fighting for ST status, even though the communities they belonged to---Munda, Santhal, Kurukh, Gonds, Bhumij and a dozen others----are STs back home. But in Assam, these Adivasi ‘tea tribes’, comprising 112 sub-groups, many from the Chota Nagpur region, besides Jharkand and even Andhra Pradesh, were classified as tea garden labourers or tea garden tribes. 

Finally, on January 9, 2019, their years of petitions and protests for getting the ST tag bore fruit when minister of Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram tabled The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in the Rajya Sabha. The Bill amends Part II of the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) order 1950, which specifies the communities deemed to be Scheduled Tribes, to now include the tea tribes of Assam, along with five other economically better off communities in the state, the Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Moran and Mataks. The tea garden tribes have remained the most economically and socially backward of them all.

Dibrugarh, home of Bhaiti Munda, is representative of the tea garden worker communities across Assam. As we biked through the villages here, it became clear what the ST tag means to them. “Now we can we can get small government jobs,” said a happy Bhaiti Munda, a view echoed by many others we spoke to. Assam Tea Tribe Students' Association (ATTSA) Dibrugarh district publicity Secretary Lakhinder Kurmi echoes this yearning among the community. Their current OBC status has not given them the kind of opportunities that are needed to lift them up be "recognised as first class citizens of Assam", he says. “The bill will provide reservation for us in government jobs as well as education. We can go for higher education with the reservation. We are poor people and higher education is a distant dream for us and the ST status will help us for fluffing our dreams,”.  

Inevitably, there are dissenting voices. The Coordination Committee of the Tribal Organisations of Assam (CCTOA), an umbrella organization representing the Scheduled Tribe (plains) people of the state, has strongly come out against the grant of ST status to the five well-off communities. They continue to organise rallies and bandhs against the move, invoking mixed response across the state. “Granting ST status to these six communities will destroy the existing scheduled Tribes of Assam. Ones granted ST status, these six communities shall enjoy reservation in political representation, education, employment, land and natural resources. The six communities do not fulfill the criteria and that’s why Register General of India (RGI) dropped their demand for eight times,” said Aditya Khaklari, Secretary General of All Assam Tribal Sangha and chief coordinator of CCTOA.

According to 2011 census, scheduled tribes make up 12.45 per cent of the population of Assam and are understandably loathe to see their reservations diluted. 

All the people we spoke to have high hopes, though some are unsure of how exactly the ST tag will help them. Like Sasun Tasa, 45, who was drying firewood in the afternoon sun. When this reporter entered Sasun’s house in the Sessa tea garden area, he was busy with his daily chores. “I have heard about the ST status but can’t say how we will benefit from it,” he said. “We don’t know much about it because we are poor and our main concern is to earn and feed our family. If the government is going to give us some benefit, then it is good”. Obviously, the state machinery needs to do much more to create awareness of what their new found status could do for them. But the expectations are certainly high. “We are backward and if we are ST, then we will get lots of benefits, especially jobs in the government, besides opening up other opportunities,” said Pronob Tanti, 31, from Khanikor village. “The Congress exploited us for decades by using us as a vote bank’’. Tanti also felt that after BJP government came to power in 2014, development has taken place in the rural areas. “Rural women used to face problems to go outside for defecation. But under the Swasth Sarvatra scheme toilets have been constructed in the village”.

Though not everyone is as generous in praise of the BJP as Tanti. “Except rice and kerosene, we are not getting any benefit from the government,” said Nima Rabi Das, 52. A resident at new labour line, Bokel village, Nima, who was widowed last year, said no one tells them about new government schemes for people like her. “We heard that in some areas toilets and latrines were constructed under government schemes, but we have not benefitted through the scheme. A government official come to us for survey and assured us that latrines would be built but all that we have is a temporary latrine which has no door”.

As the Lok Sabha campaign gains momentum, the Congress strategy will be to play down the grant of ST status to the different communities. The first salvo in this was fired by Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh president Paban Singh Ghatowar, when he alleged that out of 112 tea tribes in Assam only 36 have been included in the list “The tea tribes comprise 80 lakh people in Assam and compared to others they are backward economically, socially and in education. Compared to 72 per cent overall state literacy, only 46 per cent of tea tribe people are literate”. He said before election BJP is using the ST status issue as a 'lollipop'. 

He also accused the BJP of pursuing a divide and rule policy. “While communities like Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Moran and Matak will be awarded ST status as a whole, only one-fourth of the tea tribes will be granted ST status,” said Ghatowar. Many sub-tribes who have been unable to produce the proper ethnography certificates will be left out. “This is highly discriminatory”.

Parag Dutta, a young BJP leader from Dibrugarh, was quick to respond. “The tea garden people have been neglected till now,” said Dutta. “Now that they have got ST status along with the other five ethnic communities, they will all benefit equally. Paban Singh Ghatowar was elected five times MP from Dibrugarh constituency but has not done anything for the development of tea tribe community”. He said for the development of the tea industry in Assam the tea community people played an important role. “Our government is committed to provide the ST status to the six ethnic groups of Assam”. Ignatius Topno, Dibrugarh district president of All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam, however, added a note of caution. “The bill needs to be passed in the Lok Sabha for us get the ST status,” he pointed out. It was likely to be tabled in the ongoing session, but the last day of the Lok Sabha came and went without mention of the bill. “We appeal that ST status issue not be used as a major agenda before the elections.” He said that in order to press for their demands they will continue to organise a series of protests and rallies.

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