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From colonials to corporates: maternal mortality in Assam’s tea gardens

For the women employed in the tea gardens of Assam, pregnancy is a life-threatening ordeal. An interactive exhibition records the struggle of Adivasi mothers across the decades for better conditions.  

Tea garden worker required to pick 24 kgs of tea a day. Credit: Sukti Dhital

In 1894, Rev. Charles Dowding, a missionary based in Assam, India wrote “[l]ow wage-rate and high death-rate are convertible terms,” a devastating statement that remains true to this day. Producing more than 52% of India’s tea, the north eastern state of Assam is home to the largest tea-growing region in the world. While most of it is sold in the domestic market, Assam tea is consumed worldwide, and constitutes a core part of the ‘English breakfast’ blend. Less known, however, is the 175-year history of colonial to corporate exploitation.

Forcibly brought by the British in the 1840s from the central regions of the country -  Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh - thousands of the  Adivasi indigenous people began a journey marked by involuntary servitude.  Left with no option but to live and work on the tea plantations, the workers became isolated from Assam’s mainstream in a structure designed to maintain control and produce profit.

Today, more than six million workers and their families remain socially and economically segregated, dependent on the tea management for their livelihood, health, food, housing, education and cultural life.  Assam’s tea industry employs nearly 800,000 workers who are one of the lowest paid groups in India’s organized sector. The meagre daily wage of Rs 126 (£1.30) is far below the state legal minimum of Rs 240 per day.

A pregnant woman tea worker in Assam. Credit: Rajan Zaveri

It is not by coincidence that Assam leads the country with the highest maternal mortality ratio in India.  Assam produces more than fifty percent of India’s tea, and is the largest tea growing area in the world. It also has the largest number of maternal deaths in India – no fewer than seventy seven percent occur in the tea gardens. 

Comprising more than fifty percent of the labour force, women are largely employed for plucking tea leaves. Plantation managers set a target of 24 kg (50lbs) of tea leaves to be plucked per worker per day, which if unmet results in significant wage deductions. Poverty-level wages are exacerbated by appalling working conditions, with labourers denied access to basic services such as clean drinking water, latrines and crèches. These conditions are particularly dangerous for pregnant women who are forced to endure strenuous work throughout the duration of their pregnancy without access to adequate and timely healthcare. Health facilities in tea gardens are often ill-equipped, lacking adequate electricity, water, medical supplies, ambulances and skilled medical personnel. As a result, the majority of patients have no option but to secure their own transportation to reach better facilities, often located 1-2 hours away. As recently reported in TIME Magazine, once women arrive at a district-level hospital they encounter an overcrowded, highly unhygienic facility, where they are forced to sleep on floors and corridors due to lack of beds and adequate staff. Illegal and unaffordable fees for life-saving services such as blood, medicine and emergency obstetrics care are often demanded from those “lucky” enough to receive assistance.

These barriers to care not only place the lives of women workers at serious risk, but are also in blatant violation of the rights to life and to safe motherhood firmly rooted in domestic and international law. Indeed, the Supreme Court of India has repeatedly held that the right to health is a fundamental right protected by the Indian constitution. Likewise, High Courts across the country have upheld women’s right to safe motherhood.

When working at the Human Rights Law Network in Delhi, we assisted with the preparation of the Laxmi Mandal case in which Delhi High Court held that the right to survive pregnancy and childbirth is a fundamental right protected under the Indian Constitution, and became the first national court decision in the world to recognize maternal mortality as a human rights violation. In addition to constitutional protections, domestic laws such as the Plantation Labour Act 1951, Minimum Wages Act, 1948 and health policies under the National Health Mission mandate free access to essential healthcare, nutrition, maternity leave, decent wages and adequate living conditions such as provision for crèches, water and sanitation.  

While Indian laws protect the rights of women, in practice, workers and right-holders have very little means to seek the implementation of laws and judgments. In a context of poverty and marginalisation, people’s degree of access to services greatly depends on their ability to ensure that the law translates into actual entitlements. This requires knowing the law and using available channels to demand its implementation.

In Assam, Nazdeek, a legal empowerment organisation, working with a local organisation Pajhra, has been employing community paralegals to demand protection of labour and health rights.  The law can be a tool for breaking the cycle of exploitation and marginalization.  For instance, in 2014 we launched the End MM Now Project in Assam – a platform that allows women to identify and report violations of their right to healthcare through text messages. A collective of twenty five indigenous women – many of whom are tea garden workers, farmers and housewives – use their mobile phones and a basic knowledge of the law to demand a more accountable healthcare system for tea garden workers. To date, more than 130 cases of health and nutrition violations have been reported through the platform, providing crucial data to identify gaps in healthcare delivery. The data has been analysed and a report submitted to local authorities with evidence-based recommendations to improve health service delivery.

An under equipped hospital in Assam tea growing region. Credit: Carlo Ghidin.

The outcomes of our collective efforts have been significant. Paralegals observed improvements in healthcare services ranging from better ambulance coverage, a reduction in informal fees paid at health facilities, the appointment of medical personnel, and more than 27,000 pregnant and lactating women and children receiving supplementary nutrition rations. In addition, authorities agreed on the establishment of citizen grievance forums where women can discuss issues with the health infrastructure.

Local actions have been combined with state-level efforts to obtain more just working conditions. A local youth organization sought to mobilize thousands of workers across Assam and launch a campaign calling for tea companies to pay a living wage. Nazdeek supported the campaign by making sense of the law, and disentangling the legal technicalities around the wage structure. Six months after the campaign was launched, tea companies and the trade union agreed an unprecedented increase in wages  - from Rs 94 to Rs 126, with previous increases not having exceeded Rs. 5.  

While positive inroads in the lives of people have been made, the fight for dignity within tea gardens is far from over. A colonial hangover endures, with the passage of economic, social and political power from British rulers to today’s corporations.

Challenging such a powerful system of exploitation requires a multi-faceted approach, including raising awareness outside the borders of the tea gardens. As part of this effort an interactive installation called From Colonial to Corporates, An Adivasi Mother’s Visual journey Through the Assam Tea Fields of Yesterday and Today is now on line. Using photography, video and interactive technology, including 360 virtual tours, the installation honours the struggle of Adivasi mothers across the decades. In the need for dignified conditions for workers, the exhibition endeavours to create space for understanding, reflection and action.

About the authors

Sukti Dhital is a co-founder of Nazdeek a legal empowerment organization committed to bringing access to justice closer to marginalized communities in India. Nazdeek was awarded the Namati Justice Prize in 2015.

Francesca Feruglio is a co-founder of Nazdeek, a legal empowerment organisation working to bring access to justice closer to marginalised communities in India. She is also a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK.


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