Forest last hope of sustenance for tea belt forsaken
Abandoned by the Assam Tea Corporation Limited (ATCL) and doomed by the nationwide lockdown, a hundred-odd families residing by the side of the Jorhat-Mariani road, on the outskirts of the town, are surviving on herbs and shrubs available in the nearby forests for the past few days.
“The lockdown has dealt a severe blow to us. Whatever meagre savings we had are gone. Almost all the families have not had a proper meal for days. Some have taken to begging while the rest are surviving on plants,” Pandey Bawri, a middle-aged man whose father used to work for ATCL, told this correspondent on Thursday.
These families reside in the ATCL’s labour quarters, located near the zonal office of the company which had abandoned them long back after it ran into rough weather. The state government-owned company, formed in 1972, has 14 gardens spread over the Brahmaputra and the Barak valleys.
Some of the workers engaged with the zonal office, mostly holding clerical posts, were transferred to the nearby Cinnamara tea estate, one of the gardens owned by the company. The once bustling zonal office now has only 15 employees, including a manager.
The labour force was left to fend for itself. They have for the past several years been working as daily wage labourers in the town and its adjoining areas while the women work as domestic help.
The lockdown has blocked this sustenance too and pushed the families to the brink of starvation.
“Most of us took to daily wage earning after the company abandoned us and almost all of us live a hand-to-mouth existence. We have never faced such a situation before. With no work because of the lockdown, most of us are starving today,” said Muniram Tanti, another resident.
While all these families are listed below the poverty line and possess ration cards, the amount of rice they get monthly is not enough.
“The 25kg rice my family of five gets monthly lasts only 15 days. I have to buy the rest of our requirements from retail shop at Rs 30 per kg. Shopkeepers have refused to give us food on credit because of the uncertainty of the lockdown period. There is no certainty to when we will start earning,” Muniram said.
Babu Nayak, another resident, said banana plants have become the source of sustenance for many. “My family is having banana plant curry for the last three days,” he said.
Since the Covid-19 lockdown, these families have received 2kg of rice, a pouch of salt and a bottle of mustard oil per family from the occupants of the Central Silk Board official residential quarters nearby. “This is the only relief we have received till now,” Babu said.
Another resident alleged that since most of these families are affiliated to the Congress, the ruling party has turned a blind eye towards them.
An official at the ATCL zonal office, when contacted, said there was no vacancy to recruit the labourers. “We hardly have any work here. Most of the workers have been shifted to Cinnamara tea estate,” he said.
A Cinnamara executive said the tea estate is itself over-staffed and there was no question of recruiting labourers from the zonal office.
Kuilu, another resident, said, “The worst part is that the well-to-do families, where our womenfolk worked as domestic help, have refused to employ them out of fear of coronavirus infection. If the lockdown continues, many people, mostly the elderly and the children, will die of malnutrition.”