ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Need for Restructuring the Tea Plantation System in India

Despite tea being a major plantation industry in India, tea estates are in a deplorable condition. Poor wage structure for labourers, absence of the developmental state, weak unions and worsening of welfare facilities are some of the factors contributing to the sorry state of affairs in the tea estates. The only way to bring a positive change is by dismantling the deep-rooted colonial structure and ethos of the plantations and thereby restructuring them.

Tea is a major plantation industry in India. It is one of the oldest in the organised manufacturing sector and has retained its position as the single largest employer in this sector. Tea is produced mainly in four states, namely Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The total number of permanent workers in tea estates or industry is over 10 lakh and the number of temporary and other category of workers is around 6 lakh. Ironically, even though they are a part of the organised sector, plantation workers remain one of the most excluded and marginalised sections of the society, even today.

The plantation system elsewhere in the world has undergone substantial change. Those who went as slaves and indentured labour, including Indians, say, in the Caribbean islands or Mauritius, are the ones who govern those islands and themselves today. In India, the reality of labour under the plantation system tells a very different story. Though the state in post-independence India did address the problems of plantation workers, the fact is that the old colonial system is still deeply entrenched. There is no presence of the state in the plantation except when there is a law and order problem such as tension and violence or commitment of a crime. The state discharges no responsibility to plantation workers with respect to education, health, poverty alleviation, employment and a host of other welfare measures that it provides to its citizens outside the sphere of the plantation system. Rather, it seems enough for the state to have passed a law in the form of Plantation Labour Act, 1951 whereby all the responsibilities with regard to issues mentioned above are entrusted to tea plantation estates. The implementation of the act is however far from effective and the government hardly monitors it, let alone the enforcement of the provisions under the act. Plantation labourers are the lowest paid in the organised sector; their wage is even lower than the minimum wage paid under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The entry of people from outside into the estate, especially the workers’ hamlet, is generally prohibited. Hence, the space for civil society organisations to work with plantation workers is absent. An exception has been the trade unions. However, as discussed later, they have failed to usher in the much needed economic and social development. The plantation labourers represent a disproportionate share of the population with high illiteracy, malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality and people living on the edge of poverty. What this entails is a need for a radical restructuring of the plantation system in India. This article attempts at addressing the above.

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Updated On : 14th Nov, 2019

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