Silchar (Assam): Standing in her village, with lush tea gardens stretching to the hills on the horizon, 19-year-old Sharmila Gwala explained why she was angry and upset: her only source of income—planting tea bushes and picking leaves off them for Rs 183 a day—was about to end.
On 12 May 2022, as security forces massed to prevent protests from Gwala and about 2,000 dismayed, anxious workers of the Doloo tea estate watched—some pleading with officials to stop—as a line of bulldozers began flattening parts of the plantation to build a new international airport, about 20 km from the city of Silchar in southern Assam.
“We do not accept the airport on the tea estate,” said Gwala, a petite young woman with a clear and loud voice, evidently not afraid to speak her mind. “We are not against the airport, but we will not support it because it is being built on land in which we have put in our sweat and life.”
More than a century after being brought in by the British as indentured labour, the mostly illiterate workers, largely tribals from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, still live in primitive conditions with no water supply or sewage. The new airport threatens their livelihood, their dismay more acute because most are voters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won state elections in May 2021.
Nine months after elections in February 2022, chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma of the BJP announced that part of the Doloo tea estate would be used to build a new airport, supposedly part of the union government’s plan for 21 greenfield airports nationwide.
But the union government appeared to have no knowledge of the plan’s for the airport. In a 31 May reply to a right-to-information query, the union ministry of civil aviation said it had received no proposal for the Silchar airport, the Hindu reported, a fact confirmed on 8 June by India’s minister of civil aviation, Jyotiraditya Scindia, in a widely quoted letter to a member of Parliament.
Silchar is in the eastern district of Cachar, 420 km east of state capital Guwahati, the only city in northeastern India with an international airport with services to Bangkok, Singapore, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Yangon and Kuala Lumpur. It is unclear what destinations a new international airport at Silchar—which already receives domestic flights at an airport run by the air force—would serve and if there is a demand for international services.
The Assam government paid about Rs 50 crore for 870 acres—the size of about 658 football fields—of the tea estate’s land, about 28% of the proposed airport’s 3,058-acre area, and announced a Rs 1 lakh each to 1,263 families of tea workers “as a goodwill gesture”.
The Doloo estate hires permanent and casual labourers and the compensation appears to be only for those on the company’s rolls.
But workers were incensed with the decision of the current owners of the Doloo tea estate, director Deepak Chakraborty and deputy general manager Supriya Sikdar, to sell the land. Article 14 sought comment from Sikdar over whatsapp, but there was no response. We will update this story if he does respond.
Workers alleged the land was sold in violation of India’s resettlement law and that three unions representing them—together aligned with India’s leading political formations, representing the government and the opposition— fraudulently provided the owners their consent.
Many workers said they were only aware of what was happening when a convoy of bulldozers streamed in on 12 May.
Workers Unaware Of Agreement With Unions Representing Them
It was on 7 March that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the Doloo tea estate and the unions representing the tea-estate workers.
“Labour associations informed the government in writing that they have no objection if the government wants to take over the tea garden,” CM Sharma said on June 11. He added that the decision to build the airport was taken after consultation with trade unions and tea garden management.
But workers said they were unaware of the agreement with the government. Workers said the unions persuaded them to sign on a blank paper, which the unions denied.
“They (the unions) should have come and discussed this with us,” said Krishna Teli, 25, a Doloo tea worker. “But we did not know about the project till the time bulldozers were at our gate.”
There were three unions involved, the Barak Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), affiliated with the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) linked to the Congress party; Akhil Bharatiya Chah Mazdoor Sangha, affiliated with the Left’s Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU); and Barak Valley Cha Mazdoor Sangh (BVCMS), affiliated with Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), aligned with the BJP and the labour wing of its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
The MoU was signed in the presence of state and district officials and not made available to workers, many of whom told Article 14 they had no idea of its contents or that it was being signed. Local unions described the MoU as “shady” and “unethical”.
Agreement Signed On Workers’ Behalf Not Available To Workers
“Although the agreement was signed in March, it was not in the public domain till late April,” said Mrinal Kante Shome, district president and state secretary of Asom Majuri Sharmik Union (AMSU) of Cachar, the union leading the Doloo tea estate protest. “The objection is not on the construction of the airport, but the loss so many labourers will have to face.”
According to Shome, it was after they demanded that district officials release the MoU, that a notice was pasted for a day on 25 April outside the district commissioner’s office.
One of the unions that signed the MoU now opposes the airport plan. Sanatan Mishra, assistant general secretary of the Congress-affiliated BCSU said their main objective was to secure the future of the workers, including provident-fund dues and job security. In the MoU, the estate management said no workers would lose their jobs.
“We told the authorities that we are concerned that the proposed airport is a section where around 300 to 400 labourers work daily. If you remove the tree roots where will the people go,” he said.
“It was us who raised concerns about the workers,” said Mishra. “We told the government that their livelihood will be affected, so we demanded the government to do something about the situation.”
Mishra blamed the other two unions, affiliated with the Left and the RSS respectively, for agreeing to the terms of the deal. President Somit Mishra of the BMS was not available for comment when Article-14 called and texted him.
Calling the allegations of workers “baseless and ill-informed”, Supriyo Bhattacharya, general secretary of the Marxist CITU union said that a “particular union”, meaning the AMSU, was “trying to create confusion among the workers”.
“The MoU has been signed for the interest of the workers,” said Bhattacharya. “We agreed to the MoU after we were told that the workers' lives will not be affected. The person who has given this statement (Mishra, blaming the other two unions) does not know anything.”
‘They Did Not Give Us Time To React’
On the morning of 12 May, as a steady rain came down, workers of the Moynagarh and Lalbagh division of the Doloo tea estate woke up to the news of tens of backhoe excavators coming their way to clear their part of the estate.
“There were hundreds of JCBs (brand name of a backhoe-excavator company) on our estate, and we saw them bulldozing thousands of bushes,” 45-year-old Dilip, a frail looking permanent worker, said.
Shumawati, a 25-year-old permanent worker from the estate said that they were not given any time to react. Standing with a group of other workers, Shumawati was short with a soft voice. “We are in shock and scared of what has happened. They did not give us any time to react.”
The workers said that the uprooting of tea bushes took place in the presence of a massed police and security force and other government officials.
Krishna Teli and other workers said they feared their modest homes would be next in line for demolition.
“Have you ever seen tribal communities or people living near an airport?” said Krishna Teli. “Our houses are going to be next.”
Local reporters, quoting officials, said over three million tea bushes were to be uprooted to construct Silchar airport.
The AMSU lobbied the government on behalf of the workers after the excavators began their work, putting forth a list of demands on behalf of the workers. Those demands included exploring alternative locations for the airport: two other sites were considered for the airport project.
If that could not happen, and that does appear unlikely, the AMSU demanded that workers be re-employed, re-housed and rehabilitated. A nine-year-old law requires anyone living on land being taken over to be rehabilitated, the provisions of which were ignored, labour organisers said.
‘Goodwill Gesture’ But Law On Rehabilitation Ignored
The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency of Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, or LARR in short, requires a “humane, participative, informed and transparent process for land acquisition for industrialisation, development of essential infrastructural facilities and urbanisation with the least disturbance to the owners of the land and other affected families”.
The law requires “just and fair compensation to the affected families whose land has been acquired or proposed to be acquired or are affected by such acquisition and make adequate provisions for such affected persons for their rehabilitation and resettlement”.
It says that the “cumulative outcome of compulsory acquisition should be that affected persons become partners in development leading to an improvement in their post acquisition social and economic status”
Often seen as a hurdle to land acquisition, the law is frequently violated by state governments, as Article 14 has reported (here, here and here).
Section 11 of the LARR, relating to an inquiry into objections by the district collector and the fixing of compensation, and section 25, which requires that the compensation amount fixed by a court shall not be lesser than that fixed by the collector, were violated, according to Arindam Deb, a member of the AMSU.
Article 14 sought comment from district collector Keerthi Jalli, visiting her office, where she was not available. We reached her over the telephone but she said she was busy with floods in the region. We will update this story if she comments on the issue.
Apart from the Rs 1 lakh as a “goodwill gesture” that the state cabinet announced to some workers, there was no word about any other compensation. “These things are mandatory to mention on the notice board (of the district collector’s office) and a copy of that must be shared with beneficiaries,” said Deb.
‘They Are Giving Us Our Own Money’
Workers told us that no company representatives or government officials discussed the takeover of the land for the airport. Before the protests in May, two public hearings were held on 25 April and May 2, attended by the state labour minister and the local superintendent of police.
The meeting “failed”, the workers said, because their main demand was that the airport be moved elsewhere, something the government will not countenance.
Since the airport now appeared inevitable, discussion has moved to compensation and rehabilitation, which, too, does not appear to be on the government’s priority list.
Casual workers, who comprise 40% of the roughly 2,000 workers, were more tense than workers on the company rolls.
“Unlike permanent workers, who are now also struggling, we were already in crisis,” said Kamaljeet Teli, a casual worker. “According to Doloo tea estate, we are not given ration if we do not work for at least five days. If someone works for three days, they are not given ration. Now, for casual workers, food is also a crisis.”
Doloo tea estate managers did not respond to queries sent over email by Article-14.
While the MoU says “many workers would be deployed in new development activities like new plantation, infilling, drainage etc,” workers said there was no mention of how many workers would be used. That is relevant because the same number of workers would now have to work on land that is a fourth of the size of it was before the takeover.
“They have destroyed so much of the estate, how are they going to deploy, say, 400 workers over 280 acres?” said Krishna Teli. “They have already destroyed more than 1500 bighas (496 acres).”
The 7 March MoU says all outstanding provident funds and gratuity claims of “retired or deceased workers” will be released within one month.
The local administration, after consulting with the tea garden owners, did distribute provident fund (Rs 1.57 crore) and gratuity (Rs 80 lakh) dues to workers, who said this was the money that the estate owed them anyway.
“They are giving us our own money,” said Gwala. “This is no compensation. Forget compensation, give us back the land that they have destroyed and we will forget everything.”
Police Intimidation, As Protests Continue
At the Lal Bagh and Moynagarh divisions of the estate, tense and angry workers alleged they were being intimidated by the police, who they said beat them when they protested the uprooting of the tea bushes.
Gautam Bhumish, a 22-year-old college student, tea worker and activist with the Cha Jan Jaaati Chatra Sanstha, a student organisation, alleged that his door was broken by the police, as his union was protesting the demolition on 13 May.
“We are being forced to not protest and intimidation techniques have also been used on us,” said Bhumish, who alleged “flag marches” or shows of strength by the police, even, in one case, a denial of ambulance services.
A worker had fainted, said Bhumish, but the police refused to allow the ambulance into the worker’s colony. “We had to somehow carry the person,” said Bhumish. “The ambulance stood there for hours before the patient was allowed in.”
Silchar’s superintendent of police (SP) Ramandeep Kaur said police deployment ensured work on the airport could be carried out without any disturbance.
Women said they had been beaten on 12 May. “We might not be that educated or have social status, but we have self-respect and that day all that brutality was uncalled for,” Shandhiya Mridhya, a permanent worker from Lal Bagh said.
SP Kaur dismissed allegations of police brutality. “Not even one lathi was used on the workers,” she said vehemently. “You can go to the public and ask them about this. I myself was there on the field.”
Kamaljeet Teli, said that he was in what he called the “red zone”, or marked by the police, because he had been speaking to the media frequently. “But I will not stop speaking,” he said.
Some reports said that workers had agreed to the MoU, with SP Kaur quoted as saying that the “misunderstanding” had been resolved. The workers deny any such resolution.
“They brought some people from outside to help with the removal of wood during demolition and later the officials alleged that it was us,” said Bhumish, as others around him nodded. “We have been and always have protested against the airport.”
The Desperation Of Tea-Garden Workers
Assam’s tea estates produce more than half of India’s tea and employ more than a million workers, and their dire economic condition and ill health has been frequently chronicled (here and here).
Conditions at the Doloo estate are no different. Workers live in mud houses with no toilets and drinking water. Their daily water needs are met by a pond that dries up in winters. An anganwadi or government creche that we saw in the Moynagarh division was a one-room mud shanty with few medical facilities.
A labourer, whether on the rolls and casual, gets Rs 183 per day. The rural poverty line in Assam, which is one of India’s poorest states, is Rs 816.
“With this money we look after day to day life, our children’s education and food,” said Dilip Gwala, a tea worker. “This all will stop if this airport is constructed here.”
With tea workers entirely dependent on their employers, said Gautam Mody, general secretary of New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), with whom AMSU is affiliated, it was important that the owners of the tea estate looked after housing, schooling and medical care even in normal times. , “Any shut down of the tea plantation should address all these issues and it's our contention that these are what the issues are here,” said Mody.
Although the tea workers are tribals, they are categorised under other backward castes (OBC) rather than scheduled tribes. For 15 years, the workers have been agitating for a re-categorisation because that would allow them access to reservations and government benefits.
“Our fight for rights has not been new,” said Bhumish. When this story was published, the region was battling record floods, half of Silchar city was under water, and their miseries had only grown.
The coming of the airport has only added on a new battle.
(Mohd Abuzar Choudhary and Nikita Jain are independent journalists from Delhi.)