“No development for us here”: Workers distraught as Assam government clears tea garden to build airport

Workers protest against the clearance of the Doloo tea estate, on 12 May 2022. The estate has given over a large share of its land to the government for the construction of a new airport. The estate’s workers, already facing precarious financial conditions, are concerned that the clearance will take away their livelihood. Courtesy Lakkhindar Teli
13 June, 2022

Aami korbo toh korbo ki?”—What can I even do?—a 45-year-old worker asked. She had been working in the Doloo tea estate, situated in the Cachar district of Assam, for close to six years. Like her late husband, who had died a few years earlier, she had been a permanent employee. On 12 May, her future, as well as that of at least two thousand other workers, was thrown into peril when the Assam government began demolishing the Doloo estate, despite stiff opposition and swelling protests by its workers for several days. Bulldozers entered the estate to make way for a new airport.

Local news organisations shared videos of dozens of JCB machines uprooting tea plants in the presence of police, security forces and officials of the district administration. The action was accompanied by a police crackdown. The previous day, the district magistrate had suddenly imposed orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in the area, prohibiting people from assembling. “There was a probability of breach of law and order, so it was done as a precautionary measure by the government,” Ramandeep Kaur Dhillon, the superintendent of police, told me. The administration also deployed close to a thousand personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force and the police in the area. 

The videos showed hapless labourers agitated and crying, urging the government to kill them before destroying tea plants. “This will create a lot of hardships not just for me but for so many of us from our community,” the 45-year-old, who lives with her daughter and son near Lalbagh, a division of the tea estate, told me. According to news reports, over 3 million plants were to be uprooted to construct a greenfield airport—one built from scratch. 

The workers are afraid that the move will cost them their jobs. “Most of the labourers in the garden are uneducated, but we want to educate our children,” the 45-year-old told me. “Tea garden work is the only work we have got.” She broke down several times during our conversation. She spoke only on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution. “How else will we feed our children? How will we send them to school?”

After facing widespread criticism for the clearance drive, on 29 May, the Assam government announced that 1,263 families associated with the tea estate would be awarded Rs 1 lakh as compensation for their cooperation in the process. However, the workers’ employment prospects remain uncertain.

Tea estate workers had been protesting against the clearance drive since April. On 7 March, the owners of the Doloo Tea Company signed a memorandum of understanding with the district administration, the assistant labour commissioner and three registered trade unions: the Barak Cha Sramik Union, the Akhil Bharatiya Cha Mazdoor Sangh and the Barak Valley Cha Mazdoor Sangh. The MoU stated that the government wished to develop a new airport of “international standard” in place of the old airport at Kumbhirgram, which had been acquired by the defence ministry. A Facebook post by the district administration stated that a study conducted by a team from the Airports Authority of India and officials of the state government found that the Doloo estate was the most “feasible site” for a new airport out of all available sites near Silchar. 

According to the MoU, the government had asked the company to relinquish 2,500 bighas of land—around six square kilometres, a little more than a quarter of the estate’s total area—in exchange for compensation for the cleared tea bushes and trees. Supriyo Sikdar, the estate’s deputy general manager, told me that the state government was to pay the company Rs 50 crore. He claimed that the acquisition was par for the course. “Tea garden land is always government land,” he said. “They can lease it for a period of 99 years and can also take it back whenever they want for national interest.”

The MoU did not specify the workers’ share in the compensation. When I asked Sikdar how the company planned to support the workers previously employed on the land, he spoke only of provident fund and gratuity payments. Sikdar said that the management had cleared the outstanding PF amounts for all workers and the outstanding gratuity for a hundred and seventy workers. “So far, we have received a compensation amount of Rs 2.37 crore,” he said. “From this amount, Rs 1.57 crore was paid to clear the outstanding PF amount, while around Rs 80 lakh was paid to clear the gratuity. We will also clear the gratuity amount of deceased workers once their next of kin submits the necessary documents.”

Several workers spoke out against this, noting that these payments did not constitute compensation. “The PF and gratuity money is our hard-earned money and they are just giving it back to us,” a Doloo tea worker in her thirties told me. “When there is already an airport at Kumbhirgram, why do they have to destroy our livelihood to make an airport here?”

The MoU states that the company will retain them. When I asked Sikdar about this provision, he said that the estate would employ the affected workers in a “plantation” drive for the 3 million uprooted plants, at a new location. However, the workers, who already face precarious financial situations, felt the company’s claims of retention were unreliable. A 51-year-old permanent worker told me on condition of anonymity that many workers like him had not been getting regular work even before the eviction. He said that, on the days he does not get work in the garden, he earns money by selling wood he collects in the forest. With much of the estate cleared, he said, he doubts there will be enough work. “They are saying that there is land to replant bushes, but where is the land?”

Arindam Deb is a member of the Assam Majuri Sramik Union, an organisation working for the rights of tea garden workers. Members of Deb’s union spoke to various labourers at the tea garden, who echoed the 51-year-old. “They are of the opinion that, if 2,500 bighas of land is gone, then there is no other available 2,500 bighas of land where plants can be replanted,” Deb told me. The 51-year-old added that temporary workers, especially women, who depend on the garden to earn their daily livelihood, would suffer even more, as it would be harder for them to travel further away for work.

The 45-year-old told me that many young boys and girls, as well as teenagers, already split their time between school and the plantation. “That is how they pay their fee at schools, because their parents often can’t afford to send them to schools,” she said. “People hardly get a chance to study in the tea gardens. Our community has always been backward and our children will also remain so.” Her teenaged daughter added, “If we have no work remaining, what will we eat? Education ki baat toh chhod hi dijiye”—Don’t even mention education. “Our mother is the only person who works. They are not listening to us, and that’s the reason why so many JCBs have been brought to clear the garden.”

The near unliveable wages of Assam’s tea workers are well documented. According to government figures, the state accounts for over half of India’s total tea production, and about eighty percent of the country’s export. Nearly a million workers are spread across more than eight hundred tea estates and thousands of unorganised small gardens. Workers usually spend seven to eight hours a day out in the fields plucking and pruning the leaves. Despite the physical demands of their jobs, the pay is barely enough to survive.

In addition to permanent workers, tea estates also employ temporary workers, who are brought in when additional labour is needed during the peak plucking season, between April and November. The wages for temporary workers often fluctuate and are sometimes well below the minimum that a permanent worker makes. They are often disparagingly called faltu—useless—even though they sometimes comprise half of the workers in a tea garden. The Doloo tea estate reportedly employs twelve hundred permanent workers and five hundred casual workers. According to the 45-year-old, the number of casual workers is far higher than government figures report.

For years, workers have been agitating for higher wages. In 2021, right before the assembly election, the state government increased the minimum wage for tea workers from Rs 167 per day to a meagre Rs 205. Those in the Barak Valley, where the Doloo estate is situated, get even less: Rs 183 a day. Many human-rights defenders have noted that these wages are barely enough for basic sustenance. A 2021 study by Oxfam India estimated that Assam’s tea workers need a living wage of Rs 884 per day in order to lead a dignified life.

Taniya Laskar, a lawyer and secretary general of the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee, told me that that, even though the MoU had been signed by union representatives, the region’s tea workers—most of whom belong to oppressed indigenous groups—had not been meaningfully represented in the process. “None of the signatories belong to the tea garden,” she said. “A bunch of outsiders are deciding the future of the workers. This means that the garden workers are perceived as people without any agency.” 

Laskar pointed out that the MoU placed unnecessary restrictions on the workers. “Article 19(1)(b) of the Indian Constitution guarantees its citizens fundamental right to a peaceful assembly, whereas, in the MoU, the Adivasi workers are restricted from holding any meeting without intimating the garden owner.” She added that she had filed a right-to-information application to ascertain whether an environmental-impact assessment, which is required for land acquisition by the government, had been conducted for the clearance drive and airport construction. “It is a green land, and now the government has sent so many bulldozers to uproot the trees and tea bushes. This will destroy the environment. I don’t know how the government has done the EIA.” 

Those affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, however, denied that there is any cause for concern. Rajdeep Gowala, a BJP spokesperson and chairperson of the Assam Tea Corporation—as well as a joint general secretary of the Barak Cha Sramik Union, one of the signatories of the MoU—told me that the agreement had been concluded after “various discussions” with workers at the estate. “Now, in the time of possession, there have been some protests,” he said. “They are saying the airport should not be constructed here at all, but they are not going to lose anything. It is just the plantation area which has been earmarked for the airport land.”

On 13 May, Dr Rajdeep Roy, the member of parliament from Silchar, posted a video on Facebook, claiming that the government will ensure that no labourer is affected in the process of land acquisition. “The government has augmented the land acquisition process for a major infrastructure project much needed for Barak Valley,” he said in the video. He had a different solution for job retention. Once the airport was constructed, he said, male graduates from the tea garden would be “absorbed” by the airport authority. Roy blamed “ultra-left” elements with links to “outsider” and “Maoist groups” for instigating workers. 

I spoke to a 19-year-old whose parents and elder brother are permanent workers at the estate. “They are taking the entire tea garden, where will they employ us?” she said. “They are saying that they will give our youth jobs at the airport, but people from our community are not educated, they don’t study beyond Class 10 or 12, and depend entirely on garden work.”

Debabrata Saikia, the leader of the opposition in the Assam assembly, criticised the clearance drive. “The company is a private company and it runs under the Plantation Labour Act, where PF and gratuity are due for the job they have done,” the Congress leader told me. “This should not have been linked to the money the government is paying the company as compensation.” Sushmita Dev of the Trinamool Congress, who has previously represented Silchar in parliament and is currently a Rajya Sabha MP from West Bengal, echoed Saikia’s views. “PF and gratuity are statutory dues,” she told me. “You are not doing them any favour.” She also mentioned the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, which recognises the rights of affected families. “Even if you are a landless labour,” she said, “you have to be compensated, and there has to be a social impact assessment.”

On 31 May, nearly three weeks after the clearance drive, Amit Kumar Jha, an undersecretary in the ministry of civil aviation, responded to an RTI application filed on behalf of protesting workers. He noted that, although 21 greenfield airports had been approved across the country, the union government had not received any proposal for constructing one in Silchar.

Meanwhile, tea worker organisations in Assam have begun protesting against the airport. On 24 May, members of the Assam Tea Tribes Women’s Association and the Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association protested against the eviction drive in Dibrugarh. Workers from several tea estates across Assam and students from the tea community formed a human chain to show solidarity with the workers of the Doloo estate.

 Another employee of the Doloo tea garden, who is in his fifties, told me that the workers are not against the airport, but believe that it should not be constructed at the cost of their livelihood. “The government keeps saying sabka saath sabka vikas”—a reference to the Narendra Modi government’s slogan for holistic development. “Amader toh kichhu bikaash hoichche na ekhane”—There is no development for us here.