Roots in the Assam Tea Industry

The history of the Assam Adivasi community is closely associated with the tea industry. In the 1800s, British colonizers discovered tea in Assam and sought labourers to work on tea plantations. Unable to convince local residents to serve as tea workers, the British uprooted Adivasis from various places in central India and transported them to Assam as labourers. The British Raj developed a plantation structure that kept Adivasi workers isolated from the larger society, trapped as labourers because of their low wages and poor opportunities, and dependent on plantation owners for their basic livelihood.

Present Day Contribution to Assam Society

Present day Adivasis are the descendants of those hapless labourers who gave their sweat and blood to make the tea industry a flourishing business, at great and lasting personal cost to themselves and their community. Adivasis now constitute about 20 percent of Assam’s population of approximately 3.12 crore (30 million) people. Most Adivasis still live on tea plantations, where they work in various aspects of tea production, from picking and weighing leaves, to spraying fertilizers and pesticides, to processing tea in factories. Others have settled in villages outside of tea plantations and practice agriculture on small plots of land. Women form an important segment of the Adivasi labour force; about 50 percent of tea plantation workers are women, and a sizeable number of women are also engaged in farming.

The Adivasi community has contributed immensely to the economy of Assam. The tea industry is the second biggest industry after Oil & Natural Gas, bringing huge revenue to the state’s exchequer. The Adivasi community’s contribution to the vitality of this pivotal industry, and thus to overall economic stability in Assam, has enabled the state to carry forward its development agenda. Adivasis have also enriched local culture through songs, dance, and other cultural practices.

Challenges Facing Adivasi Community

Unfortunately, even after having lived in Assam for close to two centuries, Adivasis have never been assimilated into mainstream society. This is due partly to Adivasis’ isolation on tea plantations, and also to widespread prejudice against Adivasis from local groups who still consider the Adivasis as aliens in Assam.

One key challenge for Adivasis in Assam is their lack of Scheduled Tribe status. Adivasis belong to various tribes that are recognised as Scheduled Tribes in other states. However, in Assam, Adivasis have been denied Scheduled Tribe status. This denial has deprived the Assam Adivasi community of legal considerations they are due in accessing better education, employment, health care, and other services and opportunities.

Land alienation is another major challenge for Adivasi communities in Assam. Due to lack of land title documents, Adivasis are losing land at an alarming rate. Distress sales of land in times of sickness, marriage, or other cultural celebrations also lead to land alienation, as land is often the only support Adivasis have in times of emergencies.

Another challenge for the Adivasi community is human trafficking. Every year, large numbers of boys and girls fall prey to traffickers luring them to work in other states. In the places of destination, these youngsters are treated shabbily, do not get medical aid in times of emergency, and are poorly paid. Some of the youths disappear without any warning to their families, leaving families clueless about the whereabouts of their children. Mysterious deaths feature in newspapers and other social media. Trafficked girls who become impregnated during their time away face particular stigma and disfavour when they try to return to their home communities.

Indicators of Low Development

In many respects, the Assam development agenda has eluded Adivasis. Education levels and literacy remain low in Adivasi communities, while health indicators show that the Adivasis, particularly those living in tea plantations, still die from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea and tuberculosis. Assam claims the dubious distinction of carrying the largest number of maternal and infant deaths in the country, largely due to the appalling health scenario in the tea plantations. The maternal mortality rate of Assam for 2011-13 was 300 per 1,000 live births, almost double the national average of 167.

Adivasis’ Constitutional rights to life, minimum wage, health, water, food, and housing are regularly violated. Community members are widely denied decent housing facilities, good communicable roads, electricity connection, subsidised food rations, safe employment, old age pensions, and access to important government programmes. Many of these rights violations are known, but most are unreported to authorities. As a result, these issues do not receive the attention they deserve from Assam society. Adivasi challenges figure rarely as topics of public discourse.

PAJHRA’s goal is to help reverse these challenges, bringing Adivasis’ needs and culture to light, and enabling Adivasis to realize their rights and take their due place as valued leaders and contributors in Assam’s diverse society.