Ration for Assam Tea Garden Workers to Stop

December 10, 2014

By Debarshi Das

Public discourse in Assam is heating up on a vital issue on which there is little clarity. The ruling Congress party has accused BJP of being more treacherous than the British. The invocation of the British Raj is interesting because tea industry, a British colonial legacy, is in the eye of the storm.

From 1st of January, 2015, tea garden workers would be deprived of the cheap subsidised ration. Rice and wheat are the main food grains they are entitled to at a nominal price of 0.55 rupees a kilogram enacted first under the Essential Supplies (Temporary Powers) Act 1946 and then Essential Commodities Act, 1955 (ECA). Around 12.6 thousand metric tons of food grain per month are distributed this way (5 thousand tons wheat, 7.6 thousand tons rice). They benefit about 1.9 million tea worker households reportedly. The Centre makes bulk provision for Assam tea workers through the Food Corporation of India (FCI). This will be discontinued from January.

Congress has alleged that Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ministry of the Central Government has taken the abovementioned decision. According to BJP MPs, on the other hand, it was a proposal sent by the State Government on which the Centre is merely acing. Apparently, the State Government had proposed that the Centre discontinue the special ration for tea workers. It suggested that tea workers be brought under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) instead. Congress has retorted that although the State Government is for implementation of National Food Security Act, it had urged the Centre to continue with the bulk provision of 12.6 thousand tons for tea workers, which the Centre has refused. According to the communiqué from the Centre, the garden owner has the responsibility to provide cheap food.

This is not incorrect. The wage rate in Assam tea gardens is much lower compared to gardens in South India. This is because the owners here are supposed to provide food and other materials at subsidised price. But the owners instead of paying for workers’ food unscrupulously pocket a part of workers’ wage. According to a calculation of KMSS (Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti), the owner pays Rs. 94 as daily wage after deducting Rs. 75 from the actual wage of Rs. 169. The money the owner spends to buy ration from the government is Rs. 3.60 per worker per day (buying rice and atta at Rs. 8.30 and Rs. 6.10 per kilogram and supplying 3 kilo of each of item for 12 days of work). Thus the owner pockets Rs. 71.40 each day from each worker. This is a staggeringly large amount. If the costs of non-food items – umbrellas and sandals – and food for dependents which the owner provides, are deducted the number will still remain large (these costs have been ignored in KMSS estimate). In short, in the pretext of providing food the owner deducts more money from workers’ wage than what he pays. But, it is reported that without the bulk provision from the FCI the garden owners will not buy food from the market to continue the ration. This is possibly because market food being non-subsidised will not help them to earn the profit they were doing.

Thus, so far the garden owners were buying food at APL (above poverty line) price from the FCI to sell at 0.55 rupees to workers. At least this was what they were supposed to be doing. The fact that incidents of hunger and starvation abound in tea gardens is another matter.

It is important to note that under NFSA the workers would be entitled to far less grain, at a much higher price than ECA. Under NFSA a beneficiary tea worker will have to pay Rs. 3 for a kilogram of rice, instead of Rs. 0.55. Furthermore, the NFSA would provide 25 kilogram of food a month to a beneficiary household of five members (NFSA has provision for 5 kg. per head per month). A tea workers’ household of 5 members comprising of 2 working members and 3 dependents is entitled to 55.36 kilogram of grain under ECA (an adult worker is entitled to 3.22 kg, an adult dependent 2.44 kg. per week; 4*(3.26*2 + 2.44*3) = 55.36). It is natural to wonder what the State Government has in mind to protect workers’ ration given that NFSA is going to be effective soon. At the heart of all this is a simple question. Why are provisions of NFSA being treated as in lieu of the provisions under ECA? Shouldn’t NFSA be treated in addition to ECA? The latter is owners’ obligation, while the former is government’s obligation. Posing the former as replacement of the latter is an old trick of externalising costs and boosting up profit margins.

Why the BJP-led Central government is hell-bent on stopping the bulk food provisions is another mystery. It is true that the garden owner has the responsibility to provide cheap food. But neither the State Government run by Congress, nor the Central Government run by BJP, appears interested to make the owners do so. Willy-nilly the buck gets passed to FCI, that is, the public exchequer. When FCI cuts supply, as it is doing now, it will not be the owner but the labourers who will go without food. Before taking the decision to stop supply and making disingenuous posturing on the duty of the owner the Centre could have gone into deliberations with concerned parties, including workers and owners. On whittling down labour rights Congress and BJP appear to be on the same page.

At present Congress has got a chance to whine that the fund for implementing NFSA has not been released by the Centre. This means, come January, even food under NFSA may not be available.

The state is headed for acrimonious assembly elections in 2016. Increasing religious polarisation is setting an ominous background where the BJP is gaining ground at the expense of Congress. Nonetheless, the showdown on tea labourers’ food depicts yet another instance of unity in diversity between the two parties.

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