COVID-19 in Assam’s Tea Gardens

COVID-19 in Assam’s Tea Gardens

COVID-19 cases in Assam have started picking up gradually and as on 12 May 2021 the positivity rate hovered around 8.04%; 85 people had died in the last 24 hours*. The deadly virus has reached Assam's tea gardens as well.

Nearly 200 tea garden workers have reportedly been infected with COVID-19 in Zaloni Tea Estate, in Dibrugarh district of Assam**. This is the peak plucking season; this is the period of second flush when one gets the best tea, sold, sometimes, at record prices. This year the pre-monsoons arrived late in the state, so that makes the next 3-4 months very crucial for the tea industry. The rising cases in the tea gardens at this crucial time is definitely not good news for the industry or for the workers. The news of positive cases have started pouring in from tea gardens in Tinsukia district as well.

In case of COVID-19, patients are advised to isolate themselves at home but in the labour lines in the tea gardens it is almost impossible. In these quarters, where almost 6-7 members stay together in a couple of rooms and share one toilet, home isolation isn’t an option. Though few gardens have been sealed and declared as containment zones, there is lack of quarantine centres inside the plantations and workers have to stay at home if advised self-quarantine.

Like the rest of the country, the tea gardens too were not prepared to face the pandemic of this proportion. Most garden hospitals do not have the facilities, the wherewithal, to treat COVID-19 patients. The patients are therefore then referred to the nearest hospitals; the Assam Medical College and Hospital (AMCH), Dibrugarh being the closest has seen an alarming increase in the cases coming in from the tea gardens and the neighbouring districts. The hospitals are getting over crowded.

Vaccination had started but only in a few tea gardens; in most places it had to be stalled due to lack of availability of vaccines. Moreover, there is apprehension and fear about the vaccines among the workers; they are unsure of its efficacy as few of them were infected after taking the vaccine shots. The fact that a few workers developed symptoms like fever, body ache and nausea post-vaccination too has kept many away from the vaccination drives. This perhaps is a reflection of the lack of information and awareness and the need for a robust system of communication. Moreover, most people are either unaware or are unable to register on the CoWin app.

To tide over the current crisis, the Assam Tea Tribes Student’s Association (ATTSA) has submitted a memorandum to the Labour Commissioner, requesting for a special SOP for the tea plantations. Assam Chah Majdoor Sangh (ACMS) — a workers union — have started putting pressure on the state government to start vaccination drive in the tea gardens and set up more testing centres within the plantations. Besides, they have also urged the garden management to not break COVID-related protocols to cope with the pressure of the peak plucking season.

Apart from the second deadly wave of COVID-19, the workers are also fighting for their wages. In February, just before the elections, the government declared a Rs 50 hike in the daily wage of the workers from Rs 167 per day to Rs 217 per day. But, as expected, the Indian Tea Association and 17 tea companies went to the High Court, which stayed the order on the grounds that the companies had not been consulted.

The tea workers are, thus, back to square one and worse with low wages, poor healthcare system, and a raging pandemic.




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