About 300 tea garden workers of an estate in Assam have left their jobs and gone back, along with their families, to their ancestral places in Telangana in search of greener pastures. Captains of the 180-year-old tea industry in the State are worried that such reverse migration is likely to aggravate the problem of shortage of labour, which the industry has started experiencing.

Chariman of North Eastern Tea Association (NETA) Bidyananda Barkakoty revealed this trend during his speech at the 15{+t}{+h} biennial General Meeting of the association held in the upper Assam town of Golaghat on Saturday.

“Shortage of labour is going to be a major challenge for the tea industry. We have already started to feel the pinch. Absenteeism has already been an area of concern. We have taken up this issue with Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) at several meetings. Absenteeism and shortage of labour, though inter-related, are two different issues. Shortages in many gardens are felt even without absenteeism. Reverse migration is taking place in some areas. About 300 families have left the tea estate and gone back to Telangana,” said Mr. Barkakoty, who has been re-elected NETA chairman for 2011-2013.

Mr. Barkakoty, however, declined to divulge the name of the tea estate, but confirmed that migration of tea garden workers from Assam to Kerala had also been taking place.

To overcome the problem of shortage of manpower and absenteeism, the NETA chairman stressed the need to adopt a multi-pronged approach of mechanisation and setting up a Human Resource Development (HRD) institute.

“The changing lifestyle and modern living standards require an overhaul of the traditional management styles of this vital industry. Hence, the Assam tea industry needs a skills development and training institute for the grass-root worker and the managerial level executives to meet the challenges in these aspects and move forward with systematic analysis and formulation of strategies for sustained development,” he added.

The NETA also urged the Assam government to declare tea as the “State Drink of Assam” and also to persuade the Centre to declare tea as the National Drink of India. Tea is the National Drink of Britain and China.

The Assam tea industry employs about 5 lakh permanent workers and 5 lakh seasonal workers. Another 10 lakh people are dependent on the industry, be it employment or services. Assam produces more than 51 per cent of India's tea and contributes 13 per cent of global tea production. The total turnover of Assam tea industry is 5,000 crore.

After the annexation of Assam from Burma (Myanmar), the British colonial administration started tea plantations on a large scale in the region. The first tea committee was formed in 1834, and the first tea garden was established in 1837. By 1900, there were 804 tea gardens. The industry soon began facing a shortage of labourers. With the native people of Assam engaged in independent farming, a labour class seeking wage employment on a regular basis was not available locally.

It, therefore, became imperative for the planters to import labourers from outside the State. The Tea Districts Labour Association, constituted under the Tea District Emigrant Labour Act, 1932, started recruiting labour from six labour-surplus provinces — Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Central Provinces, United Provinces and Madras. The first batch of tea garden labourers were recruited from the Chotanagpur division of Bihar by the Assam Company in 1841. The industry continued to import labourers until 1960.