Paper presented at a Seminar ‘Society, Social Change and Sustainable Development’ organised by Dept. of Sociology, North Bengal University. thth11 -13 April, 2007
The Tea Crisis, Heath Insecurity and Plantation Labourers’ Unrest
This paper deals with the problem of the health security of the plantation labourers of Assam in the context of the present crisis in the tea industry. We shall first try to understand the situation of health security by looking at the historical background of the tea industry and the plantation workers. In order to understand the situation we shall then look at the legal provisions and implementation in the Plantation Labourers‟ health facilities. The focus on the health of the plantation labourers is required because the law includes it among the amenities to be provided to them. The historical background can explain the discrepancy between the law and the reality in the plantations whose workers came from Central and Eastern India. All these have link with the present unrest in the plantations.
I. The History of the Plantations in Assam
The discovery of the tea bush in Assam by Robert Bruce inspired the colonial capitalist to make large-scale investments in it. The availability of suitable land and a thin population were favourable conditions so was the climate of Assam. Harler (1964: 33) pointed out that the Brahmaputra Valley is perhaps the best tea growing area of the world with favourable soil, climate ad topography. Once the problem of land was over the planter had to manage necessary capital. To attract the investors the colonialist enacted many laws in their favour. Within two decades many more British companies entered different parts of Assam (Nag 1990: 51-52). Between 1859 and 1866, the British Authority cleared the hills of Assam for tea gardens and tried to attract huge investments for the industry. Within a few decades, tea manufacturers in Assam had covered 54 percent of the market in the United Kingdom and had outstripped China (Fernandes, Barbora and Bharali 2003: 2).
Once the problem of capital was solved the first major tea garden was started in upper Assam in 1839 by the Assam Company. From the time the steady growth of the tea industry began from 1870, the plantations faced labour shortage. The technology of the plantation system that was launched was primitive and labour intensive. So supply of labour became the crucial factor. At first the planters hoped that the indigenous people of Assam would become labourers once they lost their land according to the Wasteland Grant Rules 1838 (Goswami
1999: 68-71). But the Bodo, Kachari, Ahom and other indigenous people of Assam were reluctant to clear dense forests infested with malaria and kala-ezar (Singh et al 2006: 41). Besides, becoming wage labourers on land that was acquired unjustly from them would have gone against their self-respect (Guha 1977). The income differential between plantation work and the peasant economy and the unattractive working conditions added to their refusal to become wage labourers (Gupta 1990: 51-53). Besides, the cultivators were reluctant to be away from home to work in the plantations. It needed both men and women but Assamese
men were not ready to allow women to work under the British planters (Phukan1984: 4). The Chinese whom the British brought to Assam did not fulfil the requirements (Guha 1977).
Thus faced with labour shortage, the planters began to recruit workers from Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and other parts of India as indentured labour in slavelike conditions. They were uprooted from their land and livelihood by the Permanent Settlement 1793 meant
to ensure regular tax collection for the colonial government. Impoverished by it they had no choice but to find other sources of livelihood. In the absence of alternatives, they were forced to follow the labour contractor and become indentured labour on the land that the Assam indigenous communities had lost under the same colonial processes to the tea gardens (Gupta 1990: 51-53). This labour force has been popularly called as the „tea tribes‟ and „ex-tea
tribes‟. We shall not join the debate on this nomenclature. In 1997, a total of 5.9 lakh labourers along with their dependants were working in 1,012 registered gardens spread in an area of 2.32 lakh hectares, which is 2.9% of Assam landmass (Sagar 2002: 1).
This process of their unequal recruitment and unfree wage relations has continued through their history. The Workman’s Breach of Contract Act XII of 1859 was introduced in
Assam in 1861 and amended in 1865 to ensure the perpetuation of extra economic coercion and allow the planters a free hand in matters related to the workers‟ justice and welfare (Singh et al 2006: 47, Barbora 1998). The workers had hardly any possibility of exploring alternatives. They lived on daily wages that did not provide any possibility of savings and mobility. That resulted in total dependence on the plantations with no alternatives. They management was supposed to provide all the facilities including health but the management refuses to bear the health cost on the pretext that the industry is passing through a crisis.
II. Background of the Health Security Measures
Health security is one a major component of social security i.e. of the basic facilities that are necessary for the mental, physical and intellectual development of a person. Health security includes health care facilities such as a dispensary, medical, drainage, water supply and sanitation. Carl Wellman (1996: 268) defined social benefits as assistance provided to an individual in need. Thus “welfare” or “social security” is the collective name for all social benefits, especially for groups that need protection to grow into better citizens. We also include a crèche since it plays a major role in children‟s health. A Welfare State has a moral
obligation to ensure the good of all its citizens, particularly the weaker sections. If it cannot do it, it can take the help of other agencies (Madan and Madan 1983: 163). A human being can lay ethical claim from society on the minimum livelihood if he or she lacks the means of sustaining life because of circumstances beyond his or her control (Wellman 1996: 268).
In the case of tea plantations, the British rulers had made some limited provisions for labour welfare. The Government of India revised them in the Plantation Labour Act of 1951
(PLA), thus entrusting the responsibility for the welfare measures including health to the management. The Government of Assam gave it a concrete shape in the Assam Plantation
Labour Rules, 1956. Of the welfare measures it provides this paper will discuss only health.
III. PLA and Health Security
PLA stipulates that, the State government constitute a Medical Advisory Board for matters concerning medical facilities and that the management make easily accessible facilities for workers and their families available. If they are not provided the Chief Inspector may cause them to be provided and maintained and recover the cost from the employer. It demands two types of hospitals namely Garden Hospitals and Group Hospitals. The former is to have simple inpatient and outpatient wards for infectious cases, midwifery, simple prenatal and postnatal care of infants and children and periodical inspection of workers. The latter is to deal efficiently with all cases and admit workers on the recommendation of a Garden hospital. They are to have dispensaries with a full time pharmacist, a midwife and two beds of the standard approved by the Chief Inspector, situated in the residential area of a garden or division employing not fewer than 200 workers. A qualified practitioner of the Garden Hospital is to visit it regularly to treat outpatients.
A. Garden Hospitals
Every garden that employs more than 500 workers is to have a hospital according to the standards set by the Assam Plantation Labour Rules 1956. Where there are fewer than
500 workers the employer may have a lien in a neighbouring hospital within a distance of 5 kilometres with 15 beds for every 1,000 workers. In that case the employer has to maintain a dispensary for the benefit of the outpatients with at least a two-bed facility, a full time qualified pharmacist and a trained nurse-cum-midwife and visited daily by a qualified medical practioner from the hospital in which the garden has a lien. Each Garden Hospital is to be under a full time qualified medical practioner assisted by at least one full time trained nurse and midwife, qualified pharmacist and health assistant. Their services should be readily available to the workers at all hours. A qualified medical practioner, a midwife and a pharmacist are to be appointed for every 300 workers or part thereof. There has to be a health assistant for every 2,100 workers. The hospital should have a sound permanent structure and each bed in it is to be allowed at least 60 sq. ft of floor space (Sagar 2002: 02-04).
B. Group Hospitals
Group hospitals are to be established in an area or sub-area considered central. If a single garden finds it not feasible then a group of gardens may come together and establish a Group Hospital in a central place and they are to share the cost of its establishment, administration and running of such a hospital without any inconvenience and economic burden to the laborers. Such a proposal will have to be approved by the State Government. A group hospital is to have a minimum of 100 beds and at least 3 beds for 700 workers, each of them with 80 sq. ft of floor space. The hospital, built according to the specifications of the State Government is to have provision for supply of piped pure water, electricity, modern sanitation and water flushed closet. Each ward, labour room, surgical dressing or consulting room and dispensary is to have a water point over a glaze sink (Sagar 2002: 02-04).
C. Conservancy and Drinking Water
Every garden is to have a latrine for 50 acres of land under cultivation, one for each sex with exclusive access to either sex. It should be conveniently situated and of the prescribed type, in convenient places, maintained by the employer in a sanitary condition and conforming to public health requirements. For the sake of privacy they must be under cover, partitioned off with a proper door and fastenings. A signboard must be displayed in a language understood by a majority of workers with the figure of a man or woman. It should have supply of piped water or at least be near a place where water is stored in sufficient quantity. There are to be adequate number of urinal under the same public health rules. It is the duty of the employer to make effective arrangements to provide and maintain in convenient places adequate supply of wholesome drinking water for all the workers during the working hours. Well water shall be sterilised periodically (Sagar 2002: 02-04).
IV. Implementation of the Act
While the law demands these measures, studies indicate that very few gardens have implemented them in full. Some employers have fared better than the others but they are more exceptions than the rule. Very few measures were implemented even in the past. Thus the health security of the plantation labourers has been neglected from the very beginning. In fact, their problems began from the time they began their journey. Studies show that their death rate was very high because of the poor arrangements. disease is reported to have wiped out completely the first batch of labourers from Jharkhand (Phukan 1984: 6). Between 1864 and 1866 out of 84,915 labourers who landed in Assam, 30,000 died, some of them after reaching the garden (Griffith 1967: 90). Inadequate housing, medical facilities and food added to their misery. There were very few legal provisions for their protection and the few Acts that existed were mostly in favour of the planters. For example, according to one study, from the very beginning the labourers got low wages and were ill treated (Guha 1977)
Though their working conditions have improved after independence, improvement is not up to expectations as one can see from several case studies. For example that of the Dirial Tea Estate in Dibrugarh district and Dhelakhat tea estate in Tinsukia district shows that the health security measures are neglected. There is hardly any crèche there with all the facilities. The drainage system is poor. During the rainy season the Lines become waterlogged and muddy. That in its turn affects the health of the workers (Kaniampady 2003: 55-57).
Also the study of 172 of 683 gardens (25.28%) in 9 districts on which this paper is based, looked at the facilities. We did an intensive study of 45 gardens, interviewed 920 families, 506 knowledgeable persons and conducted 165 group discussion sessions. Poverty was high but this paper includes only the health infrastructure that does not change the situation by itself but can do it if the people gain access to it. It is the first step in people‟s development. Another study in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh showed that, not building the infrastructure makes even the minimum development difficult. Education, administration and health are most neglected in the tribal areas (Fernandes and Bharali 2002: 30).
Most tea gardens lack basic health facilities they are supposed to have. A hospital is a distant dream and very few have a crèche as such. In most cases an untrained worker looks after them in a run-down building. In more than one garden the crèche is in the place used as
a cowshed. The children do not get proper meals. Most dispensaries are ill equipped without enough medicines and with untrained staff, have inadequate drinking water, toilet and basic facilities. A few gardens have trained nurses or even doctors. Most buildings used as hospitals are decaying. For example, in the Ghoorania tea garden in Dibrugarh district the latrines have not been repaired for a very long time, so the labourers cannot use them. The dispensary is in a very bad condition. Also in the Dhuli Tea Estate in Sonitpur the hospital has not been upgraded. The workers claimed that doctors hardly give their services to the people. In the Santak Tea Estate in Sibsagar workers complained that drinking water is inadequate and many fail to get a regular supply. The hospital too is of very poor quality. We did not see any major difference by district or type of management. We expected gardens run by national or multinational companies to be better than the others since they have to be accountable to their shareholders. But during the study we realised that it was not always the case. In fact, in some cases we found better facilities in family owned gardens than in those owned by bigger companies. That creates a sense of hopelessness in the workers and even competition for the facilities. In one of the gardens in Sonitpur such competition led to communal riots. Where the hospital has not been upgraded the doctor shirks his responsibility. Also Lines too are unhygienic (Fernandes, Barbara and Bharali 2003: 12-17).
Table 1: Extent of Dissatisfaction of Groups with the Facilities
District No. of Groups Water Toilets Medical The welfare officer takes no
steps to improve their Cachar 4 4 4 4 condition. Many workers
Darrang 18 9 6 17 said that many welfare
officers function as Dibrugarh 15 1 6 13
Assistant managers. We Golaghat 40 25 35 36 questioned the 920 families Jorhat 17 2 11 16 about the health facilities
Nagaon 19 7 7 13 and also raised the question
in the group discussion Sibsagar 17 8 16 10
sessions. Table 1 shows Sonitpur 17 9 4 10 their dissatisfaction with the Tinsukia 18 18 17 11 facilities. 7.28% of the
Total 165 83 106 130 respondents did not answer
the question on the quality
of the facilities because in practice their garden or basti lacked them. Most of the 920
respondents are not satisfied with the existing facilities. Their dissatisfaction came up very strongly in the group discussion as one can see in Table 1.
V. The Present Crisis
This was the situation of health security among the plantation labourers of Assam. Now the accounts books of the tea companies and the official auction prices proclaim a crisis but others deny its existence (Gohain 2006: 016). The management claims that it is faced with a more than 30 percent drop in prices since 1999 and that is way below production costs. This crisis had given the gardens a reason to justify denial of mandatory health privileges to their labourers. The reasons for this crisis are the free import of low priced tea and reduced
exports. Others state that neglect of the gardens is its main reason. Some garden managements have not renewed the bushes. Others claim that the commercials that publicise soft drinks have gone against tea. One can find other causes too of the crisis but in every case the labourers are paying the price (Nandy 2006: 219). We realised during the study that many managements had not paid their workers for six or more months. According to a news item (The Telegraph, February 16,2005), 11 gardens in Dibrugarh district, 5 in Tinsukia and 12 in Sibsagar have not paid the labourers for six or more months.
Denying the workers what is their due has become a mode of coping with the crisis. Another mode is casualisation of labour. Casual labour is not given welfare benefits. Some management do not even allow them to be treated in the garden dispensary or hospital, though the law does not make a distinction between permanent and casual workers. In response to the crisis the gardens employ more casual staff instead of permanent workers. In most gardens studied the number of temporary workers is higher than the permanent workers (Fernandes, Barbora and Bharali 2003: 45). They get no welfare benefits though they too contribute to the plantation economy and are thus deprived of their basic rights.
VI. Why This Discrepancy?
Thus the above data on the implementation of the PLA in the health sector shows the ambiguous position the tea garden labourers find themselves in. So one needs to find the reason why the law is not implemented though in theory the plantation labourers have more rights than the other workers do. While the Indian labour legislation in general restricts itself to wages and working conditions at the place of work, the PLA gives the tea garden workers facilities far beyond that. Thus in theory they are well looked after but the reality is different. So one has to find out why the Act has not been implemented. This discrepancy began immediately after the PLA was passed because in 1952-53 the tea industry went through a crisis and the employers felt that they could not bear the cost of implementing it (Bhowmik 1991: 189). When the industry had an unprecedented boom in production and prices, the Government decided that it was ready to enforce the Act but the situation has not changed. So one cannot say that the present crisis is its main cause.
To understand it one has to take a look at the structure of the Act. Three agencies are involved in its implementation. The government, the first of them provides the basic framework and appoints a chief inspector of plantation and inspectors for the supervision of the PLA. Their role is to monitor its implementation. The other two agencies are the management and the unions. All three seem to be responsible for non-implementation of the Act. The labour inspectors rarely do their work properly. The management says that the huge financial outlay involved in its implementation prevents them from competing with other tea producing countries, as a result, they are unable to meet its demands because the tea industry th Annual Meeting in February 2004, the is in a crisis. In his presidential address at its 114
Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association Chairman Sri N. Singh sought relief in the cess and tax components and the huge social burden which he claimed to be approximately Rs 7 per kg of tea. He cited examples of other tea growing countries that are not saddled with any such burden (The Assam Tribune, February 22, 2004).
The emergence of trade unions is recent in the tea industry of Assam. As late as 1946 the planters recognised them on a differential basis. They identified the ones with whom they could negotiate. But the planters were well organised from the beginning of 1879. The role of the trade union in the social security is important. The trade unions should look after the social security measures of the labourers and to see its proper implementation. But many studies shows that in a few gardens the trade unions are active in the wage issues and some cultural and religious functions but they hardly deal with the basic issue of health and other facilities (Fernandes, Barbora and Bharali 2003: 116).
As a result, the labourers are suffering. On the one hand, the planters are refusing to accept responsibility of health care by citing the present crisis. On the other most labourers depend almost fully on the plantation system for their sustenance. They depend on the manager for the simplest amenities and even for the necessities of life but the penal contract puts them effectively under his control (Griffith 1967). Also our study shows that 85 percent of them depend on the tea gardens and lack alternatives to it (Fernandes, Barbara and Bharali 2003: 42). Apart from economic dependence they have internalised a sense of dependence.
Thus it is clear that the present crisis is not the only reason of this discrepancy. Their health has been neglected all alone even when the cost of production was low and Indian planters were able to compete successfully against manufactures in other countries notably China. It has been the case from the time tea was discovered in Assam. The condition of the labourers then and during the following 150 years was no better though all through these years they have made an enormous contribution to the economy of Assam. One of its reasons is their poor organisation. The poor conditions also result in unrest from time to time, for example the killing of managers that one has witnessed in recent years.
One sees two main tendencies among the workers. One is their sudden outbursts and the second, an organised and protracted struggle. One saw the first type in the case of the Victoria Jute Mill workers in West Bengal in 1993 and the second by the Kanoria Jute Mill (Debnath 2003: 34). The first type is very much present among the Assam tea labourers They have resorted to several modes of resisting the regimented system, absenteeism being one of them. At times their conditions became so bad that some of them resorted to large scale, spontaneous attacks on the managers and other staff. We have the examples of the killing of ; The second type is very rare. managers of Dekiajuli and Madhuting gardens of Assam.
These conditions show the reasons for the non-implementation of the PLA and the poor state of health security in the tea gardens of Assam. One cannot say that the present crisis in the tea industry is the sole reason for not providing social security benefits. The lack of will on the side of the management is basic to it. One can say that they are solely guided by the profit motive. Besides, the community has internalised a psyche of dependence and hopelessness and that prevents them from searching for alternatives. The trade unions too are inactive. That adds to the dependence of the workers. Its net result is that, the workers are not able to demand their rights in a more systematic and organised way.
; As reported in the Pratidin, a leading Assamese daily, in Madhuting tea estate the workers has assaulted the managers for not giving them the oppourtunity to meet the higher official to discuss about the bonus. th(Pratidin. 20 Sept 2003).
This paper shows that the plantation labourers in Assam have got many health security benefits in theory, but the reality is different. The difference is cause by the profit
motive of the management and an inactive trade union that makes the workers powerless. To deal with the situation negotiations between the State, the management and the community are important. That cannot happen if the workers continue to remain powerless.
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