JORHAT, Assam – India’s central government, mindful of the horrors of starvation that killed millions of its poor 50 years ago, has for decades provided tea garden workers subsidized cereal grains including rice, wheat and millet.
Tea garden distribution of subsidized food may end in Assam on January 1 according to Assam Industries and Commerce Minister Pradyut Bordoloi. Last Wednesday he said “the NDA government issued a notification informing that the Food Corporation of India (FCI) will not be providing food grains, mainly rice and atta (flour), for our 1.9 million tea garden workers and their families.”
The announcement was met with furious response from labor leaders and workers.
“At a time when the Centre is about to implement National Food Security scheme across the country to ensure food for all, it is hard to believe why the Centre is taking steps to make things difficult for tea workers in Assam,” ATTSA president Prahlad Gowala told at a press conference. An angry Gowala said that if the state goes ahead with the decision, “over 10 lakh (one million) tea garden workers will take to the streets and the government will face a serious situation.” The Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association represents tea workers throughout the state of Assam which is the world’s largest tea growing region.
The approved last year gave the states one year to identify eligible households and consolidate distribution. Assam is one of 25 states that have not met these requirements. All were granted an extension to April 7, 2015 to comply. Until then Assam will distribute food through its Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), India’s principal domestic food aid program which serves 820 million people. Garden workers who qualify would be forced to travel to TPDS distribution centers.
“The Assam government is very concerned about this move. This practice has been there since pre-independence time. Initially, it was done under Essential Supplies (Temporary Powers) Act in 1946 and later under the Essential Commodities Act 1955,” said Bordoloi.
Firms operating tea gardens receive the grains in bulk to distribute as food subsidies for tea workers. In some instances workers are charged as little as 1 cent per pound. Rice for example is sold for INRs 3 per kilo or about 2.5 cents a pound. Wheat is 3.2 cents per kilo and coarse grains are 1.6 cents per kilo. Each adult tea worker gets 3.26 kg of rice or wheat every month, while 2.44 kg is allotted to an adult dependent. A minor dependent gets 1.22 kg of rice or wheat. Pregnant and lactating women qualify for additional food benefits such as prepared midday meals as will some children.
The NFSA groups all government of India food programs in an attempt to provide food security to 75% of India’s rural population and 50% of the urban population. It combines the Integrated Child Development Services, the Midday Meal program and Public Distribution System entitlements guaranteeing at least 5 kilos of grains per month: Almost 40% of India’s children are undernourished.
Assam’s ministry for food and supplies estimates 2.52 million will qualify including 84.17% of those living in rural areas and 60.35% of those residing in urban areas.
The bill has been highly controversial.
Allocations to the 11 States and Union Territories that qualified began Nov. 28. These include: Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Rajasthan.