Moonshine and blankets to win polls in Assam

Jorhat (Assam), April 19 (Inditop) Shakuntala Murmu was seething with anger to find her husband returning home inebriated late in the night. She was all the more furious as she knew he would be coming home drunk for at least a week as, come election time, Assam tea garden workers are much wanted and politicians go out of their way to entertain them.

The second and final phase of parliamentary elections in Assam is scheduled for April 23, while the first phase was over April 16.

In constituencies surrounded by lush green tea gardens, politicians need not do any hard talking to convince the male voters – all they need to do is to get a few casks of paint-peeling moonshine brewed from fermented rice to keep the men happy in the run-up to the polls.

“Whenever there is an election most of the men here are spoiled by politicians who offer them free haas-pani (fermented rice beer),” Shakuntala told IANS at a tea plantation in Jorhat in eastern Assam.

A severe hangover prevents her husband Santanu from going to work in the morning. Both of them are both daily wage plantation workers and earn about Rs.100 per day.

Shakuntala, a mother of two, sets out early in the morning with a bamboo basket and for the rest of the day her nimble fingers crop through the bright flush on the tops of the bushes, milking the buds from the plants.

“I hate elections as the politicians never keep their promises. They give some free alcohol to the men and maybe a few blankets and forget us once the results are announced,” she said, flicking her wrists to wipe the sweat running off her forehead before dropping the leaves into the bamboo basket on her back.

“If I don’t work my children would starve.”

There are an estimated one million workers in Assam’s 800-odd tea gardens. They are a deciding factor in at least three parliamentary constituencies in Assam. Most of them have traditionally been Congress supporters.

“Exploitation is what our people have been facing ever since the British started growing tea and now even the politicians treat the tea community as a potential vote bank during elections,” said Kamakhya Tassa, a tea community leader.

Tassa is contesting the Jorhat Lok Sabha seat on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket.

“We have been campaigning hard in the area, asking our people not to allow politicians to vitiate the atmosphere by distributing liquor during elections,” Tassa said.

There are at least a dozen candidates belonging to the tea community, three of them have been put up by various national and regional political parties, while others are independents.

The condition of a majority of the tea garden workers and their children is far from satisfactory with illiteracy, alcoholism, and poor healthcare facilities still remaining a cause for concern.