Sukhmait Oraon works on daily wages when West Bengal Assembly is not in session
Bangalore: As a 14-year-old girl, Sukhmait Oraon was told to lie about her age by the managers of Mangol Khata. The employers at the tea estate in Jalpaiguri knew that children under 16 were not permitted to pick tea.
Now at 42, Sukhmait says she cannot remember feeling particularly resentful at not being able to go to school. "My family are Adivasis, they simply could not afford to send me to school," she says. She was, however, determined that her younger brother get the education she never had. "I decided I was not going to get married. I knew I needed to work," she says. Her parents accepted her decision more easily than she thought they would.
Sukhmait's involvement in politics was perhaps inevitable. Her parents were always political, both members of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), and her father, she recalls, spent several months in prison during the Emergency.
Sukhmait joined the Tea Garden Workers' Union as an 18-year-old, and rose in the ranks of the CITU to become its district vice-president. She did not anticipate, however, her thumping victory in the elections last year in West Bengal, where she was elected Member of the Legislative Assembly from the Sola Nagar Khata constituency. "My friends were overjoyed," she says, "that a woman and a shramik (worker) should be elected as MLA."
The new responsibilities at her constituency have, however, not been able to keep her away from Mangol Khata. Sukhmait continues to visit and work as a tea plucker on daily wages. "When the sessions are not on, I go home. I cannot bring myself to sit in Kolkata like a VIP," she says.
Back home, Sukhmait returns to a routine she has been familiar with almost all her life. Her eight-hour work at the estate begins at dawn, and if she has worked hard enough, her basket of tea leaves can fetch her up to Rs. 50.90 paise, she says.
"I want to be able to go back home, to work and to meet the women. It is even more important now, so I can know their concerns and address them at the sessions," she says. "But my concerns must not be limited to the tea estates," says Sukhmait, adding that one of her main agendas will be to establish more schools in her constituency.