Priyanka Sona and Bhanumati Baraik have been excited after getting admission to the brand new highschool on the Samdhang Tea Property, the place they reside. Whereas Sona will begin Class 6 in Could, Baraik shall be in Class 7. Earlier, highschool would have been unthinkable for them. “We needed to journey six kilometres to succeed in the highschool,” stated Sona, who needs to be a nurse. “Now, this faculty is simply 5 minutes away from my dwelling.”

Their mother and father work on the tea backyard in Assam’s Tinsukia district, incomes Rs 205 a day. Sona has two sisters who have been solely capable of examine until Class 6 – her mother and father couldn’t afford to ship them to highschool after that. She now hopes to have the ability to go as much as Class 10 as her mother and father won’t need to spend cash on her training anymore.

“Earlier, we would have liked to pay Rs 500 for admission,” she stated. “However within the new faculties, every little thing, together with books and uniforms, are free.”

Assam’s tea estates will now have excessive faculties providing free training as much as Class 10. The Samdhang Tea Property faculty is amongst 119 new “mannequin faculties” being arrange by the federal government.

Based on authorities officers, most of those faculties are anticipated to open their doorways to college students this month.

“After Independence, that is the primary time that prime faculties have been arrange [in tea gardens,” said Dhiraj Gowala, president of the Assam Tea Tribes’ Students’ Association president. It was a “revolutionary step”, added a pleased Gowala.

“This does not happen in one day – we have been fighting for high schools for the last 30-40 years,” said Sandeep Naag, president of the local wing of the Assam Tea Tribes’ Students Association at the Samdhang and Hahsara tea estates.

But the joy over the new schools is mixed with concern – that the tea garden management will be involved in running them.

The Tarajan Tea Estate model high school. Picture credit: Rokibuz Zaman

Model schools?

Roshni Aparanji Korati, mission director of the Axom Sarba Siksha Abhiyan Mission, told that the new “model schools” were meant to create a better academic environment and reduce dropout rates in the tea garden areas of Assam.

Each institution will be run by a school management and development committee. Members include representatives from tea garden workers and from trade unions as well as a social worker nominated by the deputy commissioner and the school’s headmaster. The committee will be chaired by the manager of the tea garden where the school is located.

Assam’s tea garden workers objected to this last condition, that the tea garden management will also manage the schools. “They want us to always pluck tea leaves,” said Depen Tanti, a tea garden worker in Tinsukia district. “We are not ashamed of plucking leaves but they have suppressed our voices so we cannot demand our basic rights.”

Like Tanti, many workers say that tea garden managements did not encourage education and made it difficult for their children to go to school. If the new schools are to function properly, they feel, they should be managed by local student bodies, parents and other members of the local community.

A long way to school

For decades, the children of tea tribe communities, who live and labour in Assam’s sprawling tea estates, have had limited access to higher education. Even if a few estates had primary schools, there were no high schools.

Students often had to walk five to six kilometres to reach the high schools, Gowala pointed out. Besides, chronically low wages meant few tea garden workers could afford to send their children to high school.

Baldev Teli, a leader of Adivasi Suraksha Samiti in Dibrugarh district, said the expenses of a tea worker were higher than their earnings. For years, workers have agitated for higher wages. Last year, the government pushed it up to a paltry Rs 205 per day for tea garden workers in the Brahmaputra Valley, up from Rs 167. Those in Assam’s Barak Valley get even less, Rs 183 a day.

Teli is sceptical of the promise that education will be free in the new schools.

“The government is saying admission is free in government educational institutes till graduation,” he said. “But we have seen school administrations charging Rs 500 as an admission fee.” For people earning such meagre wages, even Rs 500 was a lot, he pointed out.

Back to the gardens

Not surprisingly, dropout rates have been high among students from tea garden areas.

Twenty-year-old Dibyani Dhanwar, who lives in Sonitpur district’s Thakurbari tea garden, studies in Class 11. Out of the eight girls who studied with her till Class 8, only two made it to Class 10. Poverty had forced them out, she said.

Dhanwar’s own sister is 28 and made it to Class 10 but still works in the tea garden. Her neighbour, 21-year-old Sibiyani Aind, dropped out because she did not have the money and the nearest school was in Rangapara, about six kilometres from where she lived. Now it is back to the tea estate for Aind, who works as a daily wage labourer to help support her family.

Assam’s tea gardens are filled with similar stories – of students being forced to drop out and work to help the family make ends meet. With little education, there are few other sources of livelihood apart from the tea estates.

‘If we study, we will ask for our rights’

Tea garden workers argue that the dropout rate is not incidental. According to Teli, tea garden owners and companies have never supported the idea of education as they require workers and “want to create a labour class”. “When they [tea garden families] are educated, no person will work as tea pluckers for such a low wage,” stated Teli.

Hari Sona, who works at a tea backyard in Tinsukia district, stated the administration there had not taken any initiative to supply instructional amenities. The first faculties run by the tea backyard have been poorly managed and had only one instructor for 300-400 college students. “In most faculties, there is just one instructor for all the faculty,” Sona stated.

At Samdhang property, Naag claimed the administration had been reluctant to supply land for the brand new mannequin faculty at first. “They don’t need the unfold of training,” he stated. “They simply wish to exploit us. Their story shall be over if our kids examine. If we examine, they will’t suppress our voices. We’ll increase our voice for our rights.”

Dipok Teuri, secretary of the tea backyard employees’ commerce union at Tarajan, stated earlier than the brand new mannequin faculty, there was no highschool inside a seven kilometre radius of the property. Image credit score: Rokibuz Zaman

‘Lecturers guilty’

Many employees and scholar leaders alleged that the academics appointed to the colleges run by tea backyard managements have been usually compelled to work within the gardens themselves.

It’s a declare that tea firms emphatically deny. “This isn’t true,” stated Seemanta Kumar Das, an official of the state-owned Andrew Xmas and Co Restricted who has labored within the tea trade for 3 many years. Das claimed that it was the academics who have been guilty for poor training amongst tea backyard employees and never the administration.

“They discover the job of a instructor in a tea backyard faculty is a soft job as a result of there isn’t any direct intervention of the supervisor in class functioning,” stated Das. “The academics take pleasure in all the advantages and wage of the workers, however hardly do something.”

Das additionally claimed that the excessive dropout price in tea backyard space faculties was as a result of “lack of motivation” amongst college students. “They know they’ve the backyard – Why [do] they should examine?” he remarked.

He denied that tea firms didn’t need the kids of their employees to be educated and discover jobs exterior the backyard. “I belong to Assam and have a social accountability that tea backyard employees ought to get training,” stated Das.

Bidyananda Barkakoty, adviser of the North Japanese Tea Affiliation, echoed Das – tea backyard house owners didn’t wish to preserve employees and their households uneducated. He agreed, nevertheless, that communities within the tea gardens deserved higher training and welcomed the brand new authorities faculties.

“Issues are altering for good,” he stated. “[The] tea trade as an entire shall be benefited when an increasing number of educated youths are employed.”

Das stays sceptical of the brand new initiative. “Making a constructing won’t serve the aim, it’s the high quality of the academics who’ve the power not solely to show but in addition to encourage individuals,” he stated. Whereas Das didn’t touch upon whether or not tea backyard managements must be a part of the college committees, he felt the colleges must be run “in an expert method” by a government-appointed physique.

A vote financial institution

Whereas tea backyard managements might have been recalcitrant all these years, the federal government has additionally uncared for the training of tea backyard communities. Some argue the brand new faculties could also be pushed by electoral calculations by the Assam authorities, at the moment led by the Bharatiya Janata Get together.

Most tea backyard employees belong to Adivasi communities known as “tea tribes”. Such communities have historically supported the Congress however began shifting to the BJP after 2014, when Narendra Modi grew to become prime minister. Since then, the BJP has swept elections within the state, from the meeting polls of 2016 and 2021 to the Lok Sabha elections of 2019. The tea backyard neighborhood, unfold throughout about 1,000 estates in Assam, play a decisive function in electoral outcomes.

Walter Fernandes, a Guwahati-based social scientist and director of the North Japanese Social Analysis Centre, stated that tea backyard managements and the state authorities have been below stress to begin faculties as the employees are an essential vote financial institution. “Nonetheless, as much as what level they’ll succeed or how far will they take it severely, I’m ready to see,” stated Fernandes.

Teli, the adivasi chief, echoed Fernandes. “We now have to assume for what function the mannequin faculties have been established,” he stated. “Is it to safe the vote financial institution or their real concern for enchancment in training among the many neighborhood?”

Rajib Konwar [right], principal of the Tarajan highschool, writes letters to neighborhood leaders and tea backyard employees to ask them for a gathering. Image credit score: Rokibuz Zaman

On a hopeful observe

Regardless of the considerations, in Dibrugarh district’s Tarajan tea property, a brand new highschool has given rise to new hope. Based on native estimates, the property has a inhabitants of roughly 3,500.

“Earlier than the mannequin faculty was constructed, there was no highschool inside a seven kilometre radius of the property,” Dipok Teuri, secretary of the tea backyard employees’ commerce union at Tarajan.

The model new faculty constructing has trendy school rooms, workers rooms and washrooms. Benches, tables, cabinets, instructing boards, computer systems and bookshelves have additionally reached the college. Rajib Konwar, the college principal, stated the federal government would implement the mid-day meal scheme there and supply free uniforms and textbooks. Konwar stated 85 college students had enrolled on the faculty and 7 academics had been appointed. He hoped to convey extra college students to the college quickly.

Konwar can also be optimistic that the colleges will profit not solely the tea tribes neighborhood but in addition different communities residing shut by. “The excessive dropout price shall be decreased on this space,” he stated.

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