India’s Supreme Court Singles Out 25 Assam Gardens for Failing to Comply with Plantation Act

GUWAHATI, India

Twenty-five Assam tea garden operators have failed to comply with labor laws drafted to protect the health and welfare of workers, leading the Supreme Court of India to threaten punitive action.

Citing the Plantation Labour Act of 1951, the Supreme Court last week asked the Assam government to file within a month an affidavit leading to changes in management practices in Assam.

State Labour Commissioner Tapan Chandra Sarma told The Sentinel of Assam that the apex court considers it a “matter of serious concern” that the provisions of such important legislation are yet to be enforced by several tea gardens in the state.

According to the newspaper, “The tea industry has always been under fire from various quarters over alleged non-implementation of the Plantation Labour Act. Several organizations representing the tea community have blamed both the previous and present governments in Dispur and the industry for not abiding by it.”

The BBC and more recently Al-Jazeera have aired investigations into mistreatment of workers. The networks revealed extensive child labor and trafficking. Guwahati is estimated to be home to as many as 5,000 street children, according to Save the Children, India. The Al-Jazeera report states that one of the main causes of poverty in Assam is the failure to properly implement the labor act which sets minimum wages, requires plantations to provide proper sanitation, water, cooking fuel and subsidized grain.

The Sentinel reports, “Former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi warned plantation operators and constituted a judicial commission to study the working conditions and suggest measures for improving housing, health, education and other facilities in the gardens under the act. But recommendations of the judicial commission were never implemented due to lack of political will,” a source in Dispur said.

Atuwa Munda, Assam’s welfare minister for the tea tribes, told Al-Jazeera, “Even when they don’t provide medical and education facilities, the legal system fails to penalize them strictly for violating the act. There are many loopholes in the act that the companies are taking advantage of and we’re trying to amend it to ensure that the situation in the tea gardens improves.”

The Supreme Court acted to draw attention to these problems.

In April Assam’s State Planning Board convened The State Innovation and Transformation Ayog (SITA) to discuss various problems, challenges and opportunities faced by the tea industry. Assam’s Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal chairs the group which last met on Aug. 18.

“Noted entrepreneur and socio-cultural activist Dipok Kumar Barthakur, who is now vice chairman of SITA, said his organisation wants to chalk out a roadmap to revive the state’s tea industry,” according to The Sentinel report. While attending the Friday meeting, Gauhati University Vice Chancellor Mridul Hazarika, Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association secretary Abhijit Sarma and well-known tea planters Ranjit Chaliha and Kalyan Phukan offered advice and suggested various measures to SITA for futuristic development of the tea industry.

Sources: The Sentinel, Al-Jazeera

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