Adivasis In Assam
By Kirti Mishra
12 April, 2005
Assam, the Adivasis (tribals) face multiple deprivations which have
their root in the historic exclusion and denial of tribal status to
the community. The recent spate of violence in the tea estates has to
be analysed within this historical perspective.
The recent news
in the national daily on hacking of a tea grower by a mob of casual
tea garden workers in Dibrugarh, brings one face to face with one of
the violent instruments by which the toiling labouring classes sometime
retaliate, out of frustration when their labour is demeaned and not
its due regard by employers, and anger- of having being historically
wronged. This incident is not an aberration. Over the last few years,
the tension between tea growers and the Adivasis (also referred to as
tea labour communities) in Assam has taken an ugly shape, exacerbated
by the crisis in Assam's tea industry. The root of the exclusion of
these communities from the mainstream however, lies in their non-inclusion
in the Scheduled Tribes of Assam, despite the fact that they are tribes.
This has denied them Constitutional Entitlements which are accorded
to other backward castes in the state.
The tea labour communities,
constitute the oldest amongst Assam's immigrant groups that was recruited
by the British Tea Planters from present day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh,
Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal between
1861 until the early 20th century, to work as indentured labour in tea
plantations in Assam, spread over the districts of Western Assam, Morigaon,
Nagaon, Sonitpur and Darrang in Middle Assam, Golaghat, Jorhat, Sibsagar,
Dibrugarh and Tinsukhia in Eastern or Upper Assam, North Cachar and
Karbi Anglong districts in Southern Assam and the Barak Valley. Belonging
to the tribal groups such as Santhals, Mundas, Oraons, Kharias, Gonds,
Khonds, Kisang and Nagesias, they settled down in Assam at the end of
the contract period, and some left the tea plantations to settle in
the surrounding agricultural lands before the expiration of the contract.
The latter came to be known as the ex-Tea labour community which lives
in villages neighbouring the tea estate and provide casual labour to
it depending on seasonal demand.
The present day
population of the tea labour community in the state is estimated to
be 20 percent of the state's population, which according to conservative
estimate comes to five million. Despite their numerical strength and
long history in Assam stretching more than a century, they remain 'outsiders'
without the tribal status, as has been accorded to them in their place
of origin, and are deprived of benefits availed by the other backward
The local factors
pushing the Adivasis of Assam into poverty are manifold. Alcoholism
is a major drain on income which forces women and children's mobility
outside their village in search of work, resulting in high drop out
rate among the school going children. The community has poor access
anti-poverty, social security and scholarship schemes and is deprived
from agriculture extension services. Often, there is strong beneficiary
selection bias in favour of the politically powerful and the community
fails to articulate its concerns at public forums like the gram sabha.
There are less
permanent jobs available, especially for Adivasi men working in estate
factories due to increased mechanization of the production processes.
Erosion has taken
away small farms owned by them and the ex-gratia from the government
though critical, is insufficient to sustain them for long. Besides,
closure of tea estate (which has taken away both job opportunities from
the people and also facilities such as the tea garden hospital), indebtedness
caused by disproportionate spending on health, stricter enforcement
of rules related to absence from work and suspension that has increased
joblessness amongst Adivasis have compounded their ill-being.
is just a few hundred kilometers from Dibrugarh, where the hacking incident
took place, records a high level of land alienation of the Adivasis.
Such cases of land alienation are closely linked to poor access to institutional
credit of the Adivasis, which, partly, is related to absence of/lack
of ownership of Miyadi patta or land documents. In the last eighteen
years, the average land holdings of the community in Lezai Jagroban,
Dibrugarh has come down drastically from the original 20-24 bigha; most
of them have eventually been lost as mortgage to moneylenders.
There are patterns
of land grabbing by the dominant community which pushed the Adivasis
to work in tea gardens- some of which are now vigorously downsizing
to cut the production costs. This has resulted in loss of jobs for the
tea community and has compelled them to take up daily wage labour in
absence of an alternative. The casual labour in the tea estate are the
worst off and most impoverished as they are not covered under the Plantation
Labour Act, 1951 or Assam Plantation Rules, 1956, and therefore face
severe employment insecurity or the fear of 'Chotai' (downsizing). Their
plight is all the more acute, as they get work only for 5-6 months during
peak season, after which they have to eke out a living by daily wage
labour outside the plantation area. Unlike the permanent labour, they
do not get facilities like quarters, estate hospital, provident fund
and the gears such as plastics, boots, gloves, slippers etc.
There are instances
in rural Assam where Adivasis are affected more severely by natural
disasters than any other social groups residing in the same village.
For example, in one of the villages in Dibrugarh, the Adivasis have
faced greater risks of land erosion as their agricultural lands were
mostly concentrated near the river. Unlike the Shyam community which
had also lost major landholdings in erosion, the Adivasis in this village
did not have any government jobs to fall back on. Natural disasters
have thus amplified the livelihood crisis which these communities face
Most of the political
parties in Assam have merely been using the issue of Adivasis and tea
tribes as a 'political tool'. The urgency of the situation needs to
be understood in the policy making quarters, or else, the cumulative
frustration and anger of the community will vent through greater incidences
of violence-making criminals out of ordinary human beings who struggle
each day to claim a distinct identity and a decent life for themselves
and their families.
(The writer is a
Programme Officer with Praxis-Institute for Participatory Practices,
a Delhi based NGO.)