Dev Kanta Barooah, the Congress president during the Emergency, had no qualms about saying that the party depended on Ali-Coolie-Bangali for votes.Ali stood for migrant Muslims, Coolie – a British pejorative – for tea plantation workers and Bangali for migrant Bengali Hindus. Together, they are more than 60% of Assam’s 21,760,604 voters.The Congress received its first jolt in 1985 when the Asom Gana Parishad, riding on sentiments generated by the Assam agitation, secured votes of the indigenous communities, while the migrant Hindus and Muslims chose the now-defunct United Minorities Front.Plantation workers, casually referred to as “tea tribes”, brought from central India’s Chhotanagpur Plateau remained loyal to the Congress until most of them shifted allegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014. That year, the BJP bagged four of the five Lok Sabha seats – Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Tezpur and Kaliabor – where the votes of the tea plantation workers matter.Tea plantation workers constitute 35-45% of the voters in these five seats where elections would be held in the first phase on April 11.A majority of the 800 tea estates and 65,000 small tea gardens are in the districts covered by the Dibrugarh and Jorhat parliamentary seats.“The liquor tragedy a month ago, the failure of the BJP government in granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to plantation workers, and non-revision of wages of tea workers will bring them back to the Congress,” Rupesh Gowala, general secretary of the Congress-affiliated Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha, said.Illegal brewersBrothers Avinash, 10, Mahesh, 8, and Mangal Pujor, 5, lost their parents to toxic sulai (country spirit) that eventually claimed 159 lives at Halmira and Borhola tea estates in Golaghat and Jorhat districts on February 21. Currently lodged at a children’s home in Bokakhat near Kaziranga National Park, they want to go back home to the labour lines of Halmira.“Their orphanhood would not have been noticed had this tragedy not been on a large scale. Otherwise, liquor and various diseases have been killing labourers for ages,” said Bablu Bhumij, head of the labour section where 47 people died that day.“The Congress had tried to control drinking among tea workers but the pro-industrialists BJP relaxed norms for running liquor shops and became lenient toward illegal brewers. We intend to make Assam’s tea belts dry areas,” Pawan Singh Ghatowar, five-time MP from Dibrugarh, seeking to regain the seat from BJP’s Rameswar Teli, said.“The government was quick in taking action against illegal brewers. The Congress is making this an issue because they have nothing else to tell the people in the tea gardens since the people are happy with beneficiary schemes and cash incentives,” Mr. Teli, the BJP candidate, said.Both Mr. Ghatowar and Mr. Teli belong to the tea community.The top contenders for the Jorhat seat are State Minister Topon Kumar Gogoi of the BJP and Sushanta Borgohain of the Congress. The latter hopes to cash in on the perceived resentment among tea workers against the BJP for replacing incumbent Kamakhya Prasad Tassa, a tea community leader, with Mr Gogoi.Seeking ST statusOne of six communities seeking ST status, the “tea tribes” constitute about 20% of Assam’s 3.3 crore population. According to the Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association, the community comprises 112 ethnic groups.But the Assam government submitted ethnographic reports of only 36 groups to the Union Tribal Ministry for granting ST status. “Leaving out the 76 groups will be an injustice,” a spokesperson of the association said.But the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam has justified the government’s move. “The others cannot be included in the ST list as they enjoy the Scheduled Castes and OBC status. But yes, the government has to fast-track the case of the 36 groups,” its leader Stephen Lakra said. “The BJP government has advanced the process of granting ST status that the Congress sat upon for years. We will definitely take it to a logical conclusion if voted to power again,” Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s campaign strategist, said.Low wagesThe Congress and other opposition parties feel that incentives in cash and kind provided by the Sarbananda Sonowal government might impact the tea workers.“We are happy with the Rs 5,000 put in our bank accounts some time ago, but we would be happier with a higher daily wage,” Rabul Turi, a labour leader across a chain of estates in Golaghat district said.The current daily wage of a plantation worker in Assam is Rs 167. The minimum daily wage for tea workers in Rs 310 in Kerala, Rs 263 in Karnataka, and Rs 241 in Tamil Nadu, labour union leaders said.The newly-floated Adivasi National Party Assam, supporting independent candidates in Dibrugarh and Jorhat constituencies, has demanded payment of Rs 350 as proposed by the State advisory board for tea workers.Planters, though, say wages are already on the higher side. “Cheaper teas produced by Sri Lanka and Kenya have eaten into our markets. We cannot sell below a certain price as we have to factor in high wages, which comes to more than Rs 350 if free or subsidised rations, firewood allowance, housing, medical, free electricity and other benefits are taken into account,” a planter, declining to be quoted, said.
The seemingly unending group stage of the upcoming World Cup has attracted some criticism from players like England’s Kevin Pietersen. But for Virat Kohli, the format is not a problem as it allows the teams to plan and comeback if there are any reversals.Virat Kohli”I feel the format now is better than before. Anyhow, it shouldn’t be a problem. When you are playing well, the format of a tournament shouldn’t matter. In this World Cup, all teams will have the chance to plan for every match and also stage a comeback if there any setbacks,” Virat said here on Thursday. “We are well prepared for the World Cup. Playing at home, there will be pressure but we will try to avoid all the outside pressures.”The one factor, though, which will weigh heavily on the minds of the players, would be the spate of injuries that has plagued Team India with just two weeks left for the mega event to begin. Virat, however, refused to brand it as a lapse in fitness management and said it was just a case of bad luck.”Injuries don’t happen intentionally. With the amount of cricket being played nowadays, injuries are bound to happen. Unfortunately, it happened to us at a very wrong time. Just unlucky for us. The injury management is not bad,” he said.The entire nation is hoping that luck would be on India’s side, more so for Sachin Tendulkar, who many feel would be playing his last World Cup. For Virat, a win would be a great gift for India and Sachin.advertisement”We need to win it for India and Sachin. What he has done on the field for the country, I don’t think anyone ever has or will ever be able to replicate. So it will be great if we can win not only for our fans but also for Sachin.”Virat will take the form of the ODI series in South Africa, where he was the most consistent Indian batsmen and seemed at ease on the pact wickets, to the World Cup. Even though the conditions would be vastly different, the Delhi batsman felt that he would have to make quick adjustments for the sub-continent wickets.”In South Africa, I just played on the merit of the ball. I didn’t make any special adjustments. It’s just that my upright stance and back-foot play helped me on those wickets. But coming to India, the wickets will be different and I will have to make quick adjustments,” the 22-year-old said.Decision reviewThe Indian team has not been a big fan of the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS) and captain MS Dhoni categorically said he didn’t have full faith in it. But now that the system has been enforced by the ICC for the World Cup, the Indians will have to adapt to it and Virat is confident that the hosts will not be caught off-guard while dealing with it.”We know how the system works. It is going to be the same for everyone and there is no advantage or disadvantage for anyone. Personally, I have no problem with it.”