Tea World

Lesson 27

Early Life in the Tea Garden

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The life of the people who live in the tea gardens was altogether a different one, toiling eight hours a day under certain disciplines. So the nature of job they wwre engaged is more important; to understand their life in the plantations. The planters put the immigrants in the confinement of the tea garden labour 'line’ to avoid any kind of outside influences over them. About a century they were kept aloof completely unknown of the changing situation of the country. Many changes took place during this period, the country gained the independence, but very little of those changes were known to them. This was due to the special measure taken by the planters not to allow any influence of the independent movement on them. The tea gardens were a kind of independent states within the country in those days. The managers of the garden enjoyed magisterial power to arrest defaulter or deserter of the garden and to punish them. The poor labourers had to work ten to twelve hours a day but could not earn their wages. Because wages were given on nirikh work or on completion of a certain limit of work for the day.  The nirikh work was such that even a healthy worker could not complete it in time. This way, out of a week they were given three or four day’s wages. A small quantity of ration and other materials were also provided to them by the management, so that they need not go out to purchase it. Weekly and fortnightly markets were arranged for them inside the garden premises. Permission was to be taken to contact an outsider. All judicial, including the socio-cultural matters had been looked after by the garden managers. There were no leisure hours; even on Sundays works had to be done. Few fortunate who were pluckers in the garden, used this day in their paddy fields mostly on wet areas in the garden provided to them by the management. This kind of lands were in damp areas under the free grants of land which were unfit for tea plantation, so given to the labourers against a small rent for paddy cultivation.The labourers had to work in the open garden facing all the happenings during the day on their head without much protections offered by the management. The routine work starts early in the morning for the next eight hours; with few minutes break in between, to have their breakfast. They have no lunch hours. They could not leave the working place until they finish their work without which they will loss the wage of that day. The nature of works is different according to the main two seasons of the year.The summer season is used for harvesting seasons of the green leaves and manufacture it. The works of the winter season done on nirikh system; tough enough to get full wages; while the summer works sometime allowed with thika works; making the workers more harvest. A small number of workers, mostly the males are engaged in manufacturing work in the factory during the iate night when the temperature is suitable for the tea. The manufacturing work followed in the time bound discipline and without stop. From the factory manager to the shorting and rolling babu and all the workers are engaged in this continuous process. The extra works provided with extra benefits, called thika .In such a busy and detached situation, the life style and the socio-cultural activities they borrowed from their forefathers saw no change and the traits of their originality still remain among them. Simultaneously, as habituated with hard lives, they could not think about changes in their lifestyle. Gardens remained as private properties and impregnable, so organized protest was impossible. Even the trade union movement came among them lately and only after independence. However, situations slowly changed after independence. The white British managers from the tea garden began to go replacing their posts to the native managers. The native managers had also no concern with the Indian national sentiment and were more suppressive. So, in true sense, independence could not come to the laboring people of the tea gardens of Assam when the entire Country enjoyed it in 1947.

After the independence, the Congress Government, by the initiative of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), provided the ‘Plantation Labour Act, 1951 which was passed in the State Assembly for implement as ‘Tea Plantation Labour Rule, 1956’. The planters thereafter were liable to provide with the facilities provided in the Act to the labourers. But the Act could not help much the plantation labourers permanently. Very soon, the clever management of the tea gardens detected the drawbacks of this Act and appointed law experts as ‘Personnel Manager’ to use them for the interest of the management.The management reduced tea factories and the permanent workers  into a limit that the provisions of the Act only could be maintained. The trade union organizations like 'Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha’, the ‘Assam Tea Tribes Students Association’, the ‘All Adivashi Students Association’ and all other organization have been demanding amendment of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951. But the open door policy of the government for privatization and the impact of the globalization stand against the changes they require.  

Social condition

Already you have come to know that the people who had been recruited for the tea plantations between 1840 and 1950 belong to the different parts of the Country. These states were originally divided into a number of cultural regions with small principalities and therefore the people immigrated carried with them varieties of cultural differences. Their dialect also varies from region to region, caste to caste and tribe to tribe; unintelligible to one another. With these varieties, they began their life in the plantation, in a similar condition provided by the planters. Initially, they had to face a number of difficulties during interaction with their co-worker. The garden management on their part was successful to find out some persons from among them, who could understand some of the common words from the dialects or languages.The words, specially required for working condition became intermediary in the work. Gradually, such words developed into the garden-Hindi; used by the managerial staff and the managers. But among the workers themselves a new type of language developed as intermediary unwritten language. This language played the major role during their initial interactions with each other. This intermediary language helped them to come closer which gradually developed into the tea garden community of the State.  

 The tea garden community is composed of two main groups. The tribal people of the hilly tracks of Chotanagpur plateau including its adjacent areas and the scattered castes from the semi-plains of the eastern and central India. They  are such tribes with their individual dialects and clans. The castes originated from the agricultural groups could be classified linguistically as several social groups such as Bengali, Bhojpuri, Oriya, Chhatisgarhi, Khortha, Kurmali and Paanch-Porgonia, Telegu and Tamil speaking people. In the environment of tea garden, their languages intermixed with each other and at present none can speak the pure regional languages originally belonging to them. This is due to their common living style in the lines of the tea garden. Now, this community becomes the unavoidable part in every aspects of life of the State.

Economic condition

The tea garden community can be divided into two major groups. (i)The tea garden labors living and working in the tea garden and (ii) the tea garden laborers living in the neighboring villages occupying limited plots of land provided by the planters against a very nominal tax which was under the free grant of land. A few of them are also successful to acquire lands in the villages and they, are permanently engage in agricultural activity. The former group is fulltime worker in the tea garden earn their bread by working for the production of tea. The later are named as Ex-tea garden laborers depend mainly on their cultivation.

Besides, there are two other groups which have emerged recently. One of them is the outcome of the labour-cut policy of the tea garden management. After seventies the planters rejected excess laborers in the tea garden and began to employ them only during the plucking seasons. These seasonal workers are not other than the name-cut without completing their terms and the children who have attained  age of being employed but have to live unemployed due to the negotiation of ‘replacement’ by the management with the Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh(ACMS). The other factor of the growing of the Ex-tea garden labour is due to the limited land against the growing family with children and grand children. The total number of the permanent laborers is around 4 lakhs in more than a thousand plantations while the seasonal workers are four to five times more. These seasonal workers or the phaltoo workers have no right to claim any facilities from the management according to the Tea Plantation Labor Act 1951.Recently, they are allowed for seasonal deposit of their Provident fund with accommodation, ration in low rate and medical facilities during their working period. They work more than six months a year during the plucking seasons. They live either in their relatives houses in the villages or in the tea gardens in the temporary huts (chali) made of bamboo and thatch attached to the quarters of the permanent workers. The managements forbade such attachment in the company’s quarter but never take any action as these people form reserve labour force to employ during the plucking seasons.

The other group is the emerging educated class who are the professionals in different Government, semi-Government and private departments. Most of them have come from the villages and are from sound economic background. A very few also found involved in political activities, small contractors and businessmen etc. This fourth group, though small in number, may also be called the educated class are socio-politically aware and participating in the process of the socio-economic development of the whole community. About 90% from among them are engaged in one or the other social organizations and playing their part for the development of the society. To understand more clearly about the economic condition of the tea garden workers it is important to know the history and development of their employment at the initial stage. It is well known that the forefathers of the above four economic groups had been brought into Assam to work in the tea plantations since 1840. They were indenture laborers for 5 years and 3 years terms for a century and repatriation of them by their employers was bound by law. But unfortunately the planters did not take interest to repatriate rather they were intrigued by the planters for new contracts with advance payments. Those who did not enter into new contracts had no idea about how to return. They entered the nearby villages, opened virgin land, and began cultivation. These people later named as Ex-tea garden laborers by the State Government. The economic condition of these people; if possess sufficient land, is better than those of the tea laborers depending on their daily wages working in the tea garden.

During the early period there was no resemblance of wages for the laborers in the different gardens. Most of the planters used to supply their essential commodities rather than paying of the wages. Salaries left unpaid for long for which a number of riots and strikes took place for these arrears since 1847. The “Transport of Native Labour Act, 1863” amended for equal wages in all the gardens at Rs. 5 for man, Rs. 4 for women and Rs. 3 for children workers.This new rate of wage however, met with objection of the planters complaining of their higher expenses without return. This rate of wages continued till 1910 for a period of 45 years when the price of the essential commodities risen three to four times higher than it was in 1865. Thus the economic condition of the tea laborers was such that they could not think about other things than what they required for survival.  

The economic condition of the Ex-tea garden laborers is equally deplorable. Many of them use to meet their shortage of food by working in the neighboring gardens during plucking season. Very few could depend on their cultivation. Due to shortage of land a vast number of them become wage earners outside the garden in other industries or enterprises. A small number of them are drivers, handymen, craftsmen, carpenter, mason worker, iron worker, road laborer, mechanics, electrician etc. All of them are newly emerged skilled workers, but as not trained in the ITI or such institutes, and without a certificate cannot claim for proper placing in the employment. They form the cheap rated artisans under the different enterprises including the plantations.

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