The tea community plays a decisive role in almost 40 constituencies in upper Assam.
The tea garden vote has contributed significantly to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) second consecutive victory in Assam.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won 75 seats and the “grand alliance” led by the Congress 50 in the 126-member assembly after votes were counted on May 2.
The tea garden workers’ community, also known as tea tribe in Assam, plays a decisive role in almost 40 constituencies in upper Assam districts such as Jorhat, Golaghat, Sivsagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Bishwanath and Sonitpur. The BJP and allies bagged 33 of these seats.
The Assam tea industry, which is almost 180 years old, produces more than half of India’s tea through its 800 tea gardens and supports the livelihood of almost 10 lakh workers.
However, low wages, lack of quality healthcare, clean drinking water and education have impaired the community’s development, according to a 2019 Oxfam report.
The community, whose ancestors were brought in from present-day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal among other states by the British tea planters between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries, accounts for roughly 6.5 million, or 18 percent, of Assam’s total population.
Listed as Other Backward Classes (OBC), the tea community has for long been demanding the scheduled tribe status along with five other ethnic groups in Assam.
It was the Congress that had traditionally enjoyed the support of the tribe. However, this equation changed in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when the “Modi wave” swept the country.
The BJP bagged four of the five Lok Sabha seats that have around 40 percent of tea tribe population in 2014. In the 2019 election, the party secured nine seats.
The party could retain this tempo until the 2016 assembly elections and won 18 of the 23 seats with a sizeable tea workers’ population.
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The BJP-led state government launched several welfare schemes aimed at retaining the support of tea tribe, including supply of free rice, financial aid of Rs 12,000 to every pregnant woman and reservation of seats in medical and engineering institutes for their children. Over 45,000 pregnant women have already received the cash award.
The Sarbanda Sonowal government also spent Rs 1,400-crore on infrastructure development that included paving of roads and construction of schools in 199 tea estates.
Ahead of the assembly polls, the government hiked the daily wages to Rs 217 from Rs 167 but failed to implement it after the garden owners challenged the order in the Gauhati High Court.
The opposition Congress, too, tried to woo the tea voters. Apart from promising a daily wage of Rs 365, the party highlighted the various measures it took for the welfare of the tea community during its 15 years of rule. The Congress, led by the late Tarun Gogoi, ruled Assam for from 2001 to 2016.
Party heavyweights Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and others campaigned in the tea garden areas to win back the community.
The BJP also launched a high-decibel campaign in upper Assam led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and party president JP Nadda.
Some of the prominent BJP winners from tea garden pockets include Prasanta Phukan (Dibrugarh), Jogen Mohan (Mahmora), Ajanta Neog (Golaghat), Hitendra Nath Goswami (Jorhat) and Padma Hazarika (Sootea).