Assam, March 11: A stay on a hike in the daily wage of some 7.5 lakh tea plantation workers have given the Opposition alliances a stick to beat the ruling BJP within poll-bound Assam.
Candidates of the Congress-led Mahajot, or grand alliance, and the regional front headed by the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP), have begun campaigning against the BJP’s “betrayal of trust” of tea workers.
The “tea tribes” and “ex-tea tribes [former plantation workers]”, brought by British planters from central India almost 200 years ago, comprises about 20% of Assam’s 3.3 crore people.
They are a deciding factor in 45 of the State’s 126 Assembly seats, and a majority of such seats are among the 86 going to the polls in the first two phases.
“The interim hike in wage by ₹50 ahead of the polls followed by a court stay was a drama planned to hoodwink the tea workers. The BJP government knew this would happen as the tea companies were not consulted. We are making this an issue and telling the tea workers to be wary of who they vote for,” Dhiraj Gowala, president of Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA), said.
Hearing a petition by the Indian Tea Association and 17 tea companies that own about 90% of 803 estates in Assam, the Gauhati High Court on March 8 upheld the argument that the wage hike was “illegal” as no committee or sub-committee had been formed, as required under relevant sections of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
The ATTSA has influence across tea estates in northern and north-eastern Assam, where the Mahajot has allotted the Behali constituency to the CPI (Marxist-Leninist).
Party candidate Bibek Das said the State Labour Commissioner had in 2018 recommended ₹351 as the daily wage of tea workers.
“This government ignored the recommendation and made a big noise about increasing the wage by ₹50 and this too is being denied. The workers have been taken for a ride,” he said.
Pawan Singh Ghatowar, former Congress MP and leader of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh, held the Sarbananda Sonowal government responsible for the “wage hike gimmick”.
The Congress, he said, was the only party sensitive to the issues of the plantation workers and would strive to give them their due.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had in February promised ₹365 as the minimum daily wage of plantation workers.
“We know the tea estates may not be able to pay that much. We will bear a part of the financial burden if we form the government,” said State party president Ripun Bora, contesting the Gohpur seat, which has several estates.
The AJP, which claims to have weaned away 20% of tea workers from the BJP have been “exposing the government’s lies” too.
“We are telling people not to buy the wage hike that was never intended to be because of the way it was pushed through without involving the stakeholders. We are educating tea workers on the practical problems and how they can be resolved equitably,” party general secretary Jagadish Bhuyan said. The BJP played down the legal hurdle.
“Our voters across the tea belts know the BJP means business and that we will form the government again to sort out niggles. Many of the tea, union leaders are our candidates, and they are conveying our intent in the right perspective,” State party president Ranjeet Kumar Dass said on Thursday.