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Drive to counter Maoist threat

A tea garden in Upper Assam

Jorhat, May 29: The Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA), the influential organisation of the students belonging to the tea workers’ community, will carry out awareness drives in gardens to prevent youths from joining the Maoists, who according to intelligence reports, were trying to make inroads into the state.

The students’ union has 46 branch committees across the state in the tea gardens. ATTSA president Prahlad Gowala told this correspondent that the union has decided to take an initiative to create awareness among the youths in the garden areas to not fall into any kind of “trap by anti-national forces or elements”.

Gowala said with top police officials time to time stating that Maoists were trying to establish their roots in the state and targeting youths of backward and remote areas along the inter-state boundary with Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland and also from the tea gardens located in such areas, the ATTSA has a responsibility to prevent youths from joining militant outfits.

According to official sources, Assam has about 850 small and medium-sized organised tea estates and majority of them are located in the Upper Assam districts.

The ATTSA leader said there were many sick gardens where financial liabilities and the resultant non-payment or irregular payment of daily wages, irregular ration supply and PF deposit default were leading to labour unrest from time to time. The workers of 15 gardens under the Assam Tea Corporation Limited, a sick state government-owned PSU, which has been revived by the government in 2004, too, were facing lot of hardships, Gowala said. He said because of the deplorable condition under which several tea workers and their families were spending their lives, the possibility of luring youths from the community was very high.

He said several years back, a few youths were “misled” and had joined the All Adivasi National Liberation Army, a militant organisation formed about eight years ago by tea workers and was active in few districts which shared a border with Nagaland. Currently, it is in ceasefire with the state government.

The ATTSA president said in the next executive meeting of the union, to be held within a week, a resolution will be taken up to spread awareness by union’s units in the gardens by organising meetings or bicycle rallies.

A senior police official confirmed that the security forces were keeping a close watch on the sick tea estates, whose underdeveloped conditions, they believe, could be exploited by Maoists. The official said Maoists were trying to get a foothold in the tea bastion, which holds the promise of a broad support base with its sizeable population.

He said though no official survey was being conducted, they were collecting information on these gardens.

An official of a tea growers’ association said though the condition of the tea industry had looked up in the last four to five years with prices going up gradually, many gardens were still struggling to come out of the crisis created about a decade ago.

ATTSA assistant general secretary Dhiraj Gowala said they would soon submit a memorandum to the new government at the Centre requesting it to fulfil the long-standing demands of the tea tribes of the state. Scheduled Tribe status, improving the living standards of workers, land deeds are some of the demands the union will raise.