There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.
– Nelson Mandela.
A day in the lush green tea gardens – documenting the lived history of tea tribe community in Assam with special reference to children.
The tea garden community in Assam constitutes nearly 20 per cent of the state’s 3.3 crore population. More than 51 per cent of India’s tea – accounting for one sixth of global tea production – is grown in the tea estates, or gardens, of the country’s north-eastern state of Assam.
Savitri – a 15 year old girl had to struggle with her 7 months pregnant belly while she was carrying the basket loaded with tea leaves. Another group of 4-5 boys aged between 13-15 years were busy in making Hariya (local home-made liquor). The tea gardens had all the facilities from hospital to schools within the estates but if we look into the life and lived history of the tea tribes it gives a very grim picture.
It is to be noted that people working in the Tea gardens live a life full of misery and sufferings. These tribal people have been exploited since the ancient times. The worst sufferers are being women and children. The tea tribes had always been kept in distance and they were cut off from keeping any relations with the people of nearby villages and therefore such exploitation over those laborers remains unknown for everyone. They survive with the poorest human development indicators in the state.
I have visited some tea estates in the district of Darrang, Assam during my official duty quite a few times for restoration of rescued children from other states. These children were basically from the category of child labour and child trafficking. During my first visit back in 2016, I observed that the people working there had no access to information and were completely unaware of any government schemes. Moreover they are paid wages which is lower than minimum and mostly paid in kind. The tea garden labour lines have poorly constructed for their basic survival.
As such we tried to conduct few awareness programmes in the tea gardens on child protection. The tea tribe had to depend on the tea management issues with the help of the representatives of union body and some leaders although getting permission from the management was a tough call. But we could successfully conduct few sensitizations and awareness programmes on child protection issues viz; child marriage, child labour, child trafficking etc., and discussed about the JJ systems. Thereafter, I thought that to know about their lives from a deeper angle I should not come officially but be a part of their day-to-day life.
As such in 2019 I tried to get more involved with the children community and visited them frequently. Myself along with my team which comprised of a social worker, a doctor (paediatrician) and a community volunteer from the tea tribe community conducted a survey with 200 children (100 from each tea estate) related to vulnerability faced by children of the tea tribe community. A brief summary report is present in the following points-
- The Tea tribes, being basically labourers, live in villages, inside tea-estates (established by tea-planters). These estates are located in interior places and this contributes to the backwardness and exploitation of them by the tea-planters.
- Non-education, poverty, addiction of males as well as females to country-beer, poor standard of living and health facilities are the main the problems faced in their life.
- During the survey it was found that significant percentage (60 to 70%) of women workers including the girl children (12-18 years of age) stated the presence of violence in private spaces, while 39.30% of workers reported violence in work space.
- Verbal abuse (94.10%) as one of the primary forms of domestic violence followed by physical violence (3.40%). Further, 2.50% workers said about both physical and verbal abuse to exist within their private space.
- It was observed that, 42.00% of boys and 44.60% of girls are not sent to schools in the tea estates surveyed in the district of Darrang Assam.
- Nearly 67% of the teenage girls are married at the age of 15-20 years of age which leads to sexual exploitation and teenage pregnancy.
- Many children begin working in tea gardens from the age of 11 onwards. Boys are often sent for work at an early age of 14-15 years. Some children are often lured to work in tea and coffee garden areas of Karnataka and Kerala where these children are often kept as bonded labour or trafficked to other countries.
- During the survey it was also found that children were at high risk of taking different psycho-active drugs along with country beer. 14% admitted to chewing tobacco, 7% admitted to drinking alcohol, and another 14% said they smoked cannabis. Apart from these dendrite addiction is common in children between the age group of 10-13 years.
- Children have gone missing from the tea gardens of Assam , feared to have been lured by traffickers active in an economically-backward region. And the tea workers have turned out to be the most vulnerable to trafficking, according to activists and the government.
- In the gardens surveyed, around 78 children have gone missing over the past few years, deepening a crisis which has assumed staggering proportions in some other parts of the country. Out of these only 18% missing cases were lodged with a FIR. Due to ignorance of parents many missing cases goes unreported.
- Many children begin working in tea gardens from the age of 11 onwards. Boys are often pushed for work at an early age of 14-15 years. Some children are often lured to work in tea and coffee garden areas of Karnataka and Kerala where these children are often kept as bonded labour or trafficked to other countries.
- During the interaction with children it was also found that many parents themselves exploit the children. Verbal and physical abuses by father especially were reported by 32% of the children.
- Rapes of minor girls in private spaces by own family members are high which leads to teenage pregnancy and mortality rate.
- About 2% cases of HIV/AIDS positive were also reported among the children.
Therefore, it can be concluded that Assam’s tea gardens, famed as the source of the world’s finest teas have a hidden dark side that has only recently come to light which is related to child rights violation. Due to unrelenting poor socio-economic conditions, the children of tea garden workers are forced to stay out of school or drop out of school to help their support their families. Child Rights Situational Analysis in Tea Gardens in Assam’, a study by international child rights NGO Save the Children has found that over 63% children working in at least 70 tea gardens in seven districts confessed to dropping out of schools to earn for their families. Exposure to vulnerable environment, violence and exploitation from childhood, disoriented family system, school dropouts, bonded labours, child trafficking, low daily wages, social exclusion, high risk of substance abuse etc. among the tea tribe community of Assam resulted to have low health parameters, and their mental health aspects are rarely reported especially in case of children.
Disclaimer: Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.