The British, in the first half of the 19th century, had set up the Indian tea industry as an alternative source of the brew to that of China. It was the capitalist ethos of acquiring maximum profit with minimum investment that had been the guiding motive of the industry in colonial times. Such crass commercialism had resulted in anomalous consequences whereby tea plantations took on the shape of insulated islands incapable of playing any tangible, beneficial role in the economies of the locales they had been set up in. The biggest victims had been, without doubt, the tea workers, originally conscripted from regions of central India to work in the plantations, and subjected to the harshest of work conditions by white planters who had been driven less by altruistic and more by mercenary motives. With India’s independence, work and living conditions of the tea worker community have improved to an extent, but not to the desirable level. This had been because the industry had remained a capitalist one, a situation which had made successive Central and State governments leave worker welfare to the owners of plantations and adopt a hands off policy. While progressive tea companies and some proprietorial concerns tried their best to provide health, housing and education facilities to their workers, commercial compulsions had ensured that such facilities remained a far cry in many tea plantations.
The State BJP Government in its first term had tried to address the issue by having workers open bank accounts and assist them with cash handouts. But such a method does not really contribute towards a holistic amelioration of their core needs which include health, housing and education facilities. It is in such a context that the budgetary provision of Rs 1,000 crore for the welfare of tea workers in West Bengal and Assam made by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman induces such cheer. Tea associations have hailed the provision in the expectation it will ensure that ‘the tea estate population would be provided a more comprehensive coverage on welfare schemes related to housing, education, sanitation and medical facilities’. Since the tea industry is the biggest employer of women in the country, the allotment would also boost welfare schemes for this segment of society. Moreover, allocation for road improvement would develop communication infrastructure which is important for tea gardens located in remote regions. One, of course, must not quibble over the fact that the allocation, coming as it does on the eve of Assembly elections in Assam and Bengal, had been unabashedly made with an eye on netting voters, since similar allocations had not been made for other tea-growing States like Tripura. But, as the saying goes, one must not look a gift horse in the mouth, and if the allocation improves the work and living conditions of tea workers, so be it!