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Garden voters look for change

Jorhat, April 7: Its 8am at Heelekah Tea Estate and Bijoy Singh, an executive of the garden, lolls on a sofa in the verandah of his bungalow sipping a cup of tea and watching the stream of garden workers dressed in their colourful best going towards a nearby polling station to cast their votes.

His garden having already achieved the production target for March, Singh’s mood is directly proportional to the enthusiasm among the workers. “Elections are like festivals in tea gardens and the workers never miss the opportunity to celebrate,” Singh said. The holiday that comes along only adds to the spirit. Heekekah tea estate is located along the Titabar-Mariani road, about 20km from here.

Daya Karmakar, a worker of the tea estate, makes an effort to muster enough balance to stand in the queue, tell tale signs of “partying” late into the night. “There was a party at my friend’s place because of the elections and I returned home late. I am feeling terrible now but I will manage. I must vote,” he says. It is people like Karmakar who keep the world’s largest democracy ticking, paying no heed to personal discomfort when it comes to exercising their franchise.

Nearly 15km towards the south, in Cinnamara Tea Estate, the first tea garden started by an Indian tea planter, Maniram Dewan, warning bells ring for the ruling Congress with workers complaining that the party has hardly done anything for them.

“We have been voting for the Congress in all the elections in the hope that the party which is so dear to us would do something. But what have we got in all these years?” asked Opin Gowala, a worker in Cinnamara Tea Estate.

With no drinking water or medical facility, the condition of the Cinnamara tea estate workers is pathetic. The garden is one of the 15 belonging to the government-owned Assam Tea Corporation Limited.

Gowala said the garden workers have to take a tough decision this time. “We want a change,” he said.

Clad in jeans and a T-shirt, Urmila Tanti, a college student from Cinnamara tea estate and a first time voter, echoes the sentiment of Gowala but paints all political parties with the same brush. “We have seen the sufferings of our people. Our community has been cheated by the political parties over the years,” she said.

Most of the 880-odd tea estates of Assam are concentrated in districts under the five constituencies of Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Kaliabor, Tezpur and Lakhimpur, where polls were held today.

Jorhat constituency alone has an estimated 3,50,000 tea garden voters of the 11,87,794-strong electorate and tea voters play a crucial role in the elections.

Congress candidate Bijoy Krishna Handique is aiming for his record seventh time entry to the Lok Sabha from this constituency. He is pitted against BJP candidate and former Assam Tea Tribes’ Students Association general secretary, Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, who hails from Jorhat.

With prolonged dry conditions last year tea production was hit hard across Assam but there seems to be the promise of a better harvest this year with most gardens already achieving their targets.

Mohan Murah, the chowkidar of Samoguri division of Dholi tea estate in Titabor, rests under a tree on the Mariani-Titabor road after coming out of the polling station. “Kiba poriborton hobo ne (will there be any change?),” he asks.