Tea Children Struggling As Parents Languish in Prison

Oppression on the tea garden workers, as often as not, leads to labour unrest, leading to gruesome killings.

MAHESH DEKA

For 17-year-old Joyram Tanti Sunday is the most-awaited day of the week. Every week he eagerly waits for this day because he, already overburdened with works, at least does not have to work in the tea garden. He, however, does not get much relief as he has other household chores as well to do.

Apart from working in the garden, he has to do almost every household chore, regularly. He also has to take care of his siblings too.

Joyram is the eldest among their five siblings. He has been bringing up his two younger brothers, aged 14 and 11, and two little sisters for the last five years.

Joyram's mother, Jaimoti Tanti, 53, a widow, has been languishing in Golaghat district jail since 2012. Jaimoti is one of the 13 convicts serving their life terms as sentenced by the Golaghat District Sessions Court on June 27, 2012. They are convicts in the killing of Govindapur Tea Estate proprietor Rupak Gogoi.

On February 11, 2005, around 250 labourers beat up Rupak, and later burnt him alive following a dispute over daily wages. Gogoi was the son of former State finance minister Late Jibakanta Gogoi, and the husband of former State Cultural Affairs Minister Bismita Gogoi.

Oppression on the garden workers, as often as not, leads to labour unrest, leading to gruesome killings. In 1990s, the owner of Socklating Tea Estate in Jorhat district, Gerala Kalita, was killed along with his family members by an irate mob of workers.

Planter Mridul Kumar Bhattacharya and his wife Rita at Konapathar Tea Estate at Bordumsa in Tinsukia district were also burnt to death in December, 2012. Joyram's father predeceased his mother by two years. Soon after his mother had gone to jail permanently, who was out on bail for some years, Joyram, dropped out school. He was at sixth standard while leaving school.

"There was none to take care of us. Our uncle's family helped us little bit, but their condition is no better either. They're not rich enough to afford some bucks for our education. I had no way out but to leave school and start working for a pittance. Since I was young, I didn't get full wage as adult workers got," Joyram said.  Joyram's two younger brothers also dropped out school and now they pluck tea leaves in the garden.

"With my meagre income, it's impossible to run our family. So the only option left for us is to work in the garden," he said.

The future of these children is bleak, so is their health. A sense of failure continues to haunt them

The likes of Jairam number at least 25 in Govindapur Tea Estate. They are school dropouts for no fault of theirs. Their parents are lifers in the Rupak Gogoi murder case.
Govindapur Tea Estate, Golaghat
Image: Govindapur Tea Estate, Golaghat


After the ghastly incident, 250 workers had surrendered at Numaligarh police outpost. Police also arrested eight workers later and the total number of accused went up to 258. The police, after investigation, had filed charge sheet against 79 accused. During the trial nine of the accused died, leaving the number of accused to 70.  While 57 of the accused were acquitted, 13, including four women, were awarded life imprisonment.

Of the four women convicts one passed away in jail.   The remaining three--Jaimati, Kanak Orang, 50, and Rina Orang--are behind bars. 

"Either the fathers or mothers of these children are in jail. They have been suffering a lot in the absence of their parents. Workers of the garden financially help them a little, but that is far from what they need. Many of them have left school and engaged themselves in garden works," said Madhab Mahili, a local tea garden leader.

Madhab's elder brother, Dimbeswar Mahili, is also in jail in that case. His sister-in-law Renu Mahili, who was also arrested by police in the case, however, was acquitted by the court. She now runs her six-member family, working in the garden. Two of her four children dropped out school and work in the garden now.

While their mothers or fathers lead bleakly predictable lives behind high walls, these youngsters are battling the harsh reality of life amidst turmoil and insecurity.

"The future of these children is bleak, so is their health.   A sense of failure continues to haunt them," said Deba Prasad Sarma, programme officer of Save the Children.

"The pattern of their lives changes overnight, but very little is known about the emotional, physical and financial trauma they experience," Sarma said.

They are deprived of social and emotional insecurity because of no fault of theirs. Two such children in the garden had fallen prey to human traffickers. Two minor girls, Sudipta Oraon and Dipti Kharia, of the tea estate were rescued in 2013 from the house of one Iliyas Nagbongshi at Nagabat in Jorhat district. 

Nagbongshi was allegedly involved in women trafficking.

(This write-up is based on a study done by the writer on Education of Plantation Workers' Children as part of National Foundation for India (NFI), New Delhi's Media Award Programme, 2016.)

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