Transforming the Lives of Adivasis in Assam through Gana Chetana Samaj
Mr. Anand P.Hans
My grandparents had great hopes of seeing brighter days, when the British brought them to Assam, to work in the tea gardens. They did not really see a better life but they worked hard and did not starve. I did not see them. My father was born in Assam and never saw the birthplace of his parents in Jharkhand. But he narrated many stories of hardship and deprivation that he had heard from my grandparents.
I was born and grew up in a Tea Estate called 'Tarajulli' in central Assam. Being an only child, I got chance to go out of the garden for my education and see a different world, as a result of savings made by my grandparents and parents. I came to know more about Assam and the different types of people living in Assam; known as Pragjyotishputra (Land of Eastern Lights) in ancient times and Kamrupa in medieval times. Assam is the anglicized name for the state. It is one of the largest states in the north eastern region, with thirty-two districts. It is surrounded by high lands and plateaus on three sides except the western one, where the Brahmaputra valley merges with the Gangetic plain. Assam by its very name brings to one's mind the delightful blend of culture, heritage, faiths, and beliefs of the many ethnic tribes and sub tribes residing in this region.
After finishing high School, I went to Tezpur town for my Higher Secondary and graduation. There were only a few adivasis (tribals) in Tezpur, who had come there for studies. Here I came to know many more realities, which I had never known and experienced. The very first thing I realized was that very few Adivasis were in Colleges. They are looked upon as second class citizens, and are not recognized as tribals, whereas my grandparents were tribals in Jharkhand. Educated Adivasis were hardly found in any place. I remember that the uneducated Adivasis who went to the bank or post office, had to pay other people money to fill forms or withdraw money for them. There were middle men who had made that their occupation outside the Bank or post office.
Gana Chetana Samaj (GCS) which means "People's Awareness Society" was founded by the Jesuits of Kohima Region in 1999. It is a voluntary non-profit rural development organization committed to the empowerment and emancipation of women, children, youth, farmers, tea garden workers and disadvantaged rural people. It visualizes a just, humane, equitable and harmonious society irrespective of caste and creed. The Ranchi province in 2006 took over Kohima region with a goal to empower and to make the poor Adivasis and marginalized communities there self-reliant.
GCS works in Sonitpur, Tinsukia, Kokrajhar and Baksa districts of Assam with communities such as Adivasis, Assamese, Nepali, Garos and Bodos. However, Adivasis are the main group needing help as they are the most marginalized and neglected. The Adivasis are tribals from the Chottanagpur plateau of central India who were brought to Assam from 1831 onwards as indentured laborers to work in tea estates, as the local inhabitants were unwilling to work in tea gardens. They were kept illiterate so that they had no other options. Tea cultivation produces enormous wealth but the labourers see very little of it. Assam contributes about 52% of country's total tea production, which is 20% of the world's tea production. About 17% of Assam's population work and are dependent on tea plantation. The Adivasis have made a significant contribution to the economy of Assam, as they are the mainstay of the Tea Industries' labour force. Due to their poor economic status and illiteracy, other communities look down on them as the most backward class in society.
The Samaj helps Adivasis and marginalized women of other deprived communities through the formation of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) to help them become self-sufficient and self-reliant through income generation training programmes from specialized departments. For Tinsukia district, the Samaj started a project to help people have their own tea gardens and become self-employed. They supplied tea saplings to many people and many villages who had land of their own and were ready to join this movement. Many villagers joined and now have their own tea gardens. The Samaj has made agreements with them that, as they succeed, they have to return the investment and also that they must educate their children from the income.
I had always been hoping of fulfilling the dream of my grandparents, parents and the other Adivasis who came here in the hope of a better life. I joined the GCS in September 2002. Being in GCS, I feel I am doing my part in uplifting the life of the Adivasis in the Assam tea gardens. I work for my own people and give them a hope for a better life and education for coming generations. In Central Assam the farmers have adopted alternative sources of income through piggery, poultry farming and fishery. Training in tailoring and weaving is run at Bandarhagi village in Missamari area to help and guide the trainees in production of traditional Adivasi "gamosa" (a towel) and saree. Thus, by creating awareness and self-employment among the Adivasi we help to uphold their cultural heritage.
An important development is that many women in the tea estates are interested in getting educated. The Samaj is working in the field of adult literacy and has also been conducting supplementary education for Adivasi, tribal and marginalized children in different villages and tea gardens. The children are taken care of through study centres where, apart from academic courses, extra curriculum activities are given importance, to enhance, build and boost their confidence. Special care and support are rendered for the Adivasi matriculation students through coaching classes to help them do well in the examinations. In continuation, career counselling programmes for college students are organized, where they are helped with reading material, information regarding different job opportunities and online filling of application forms. As a preparation for interviews, Spoken English classes are conducted to enhance communication skills. Computer literacy is another campaign undertaken for rural youth through basic computer training.
My grandparents had great hope and made many sacrifices to improve their lives and that of their future generations. With the same hope and sacrifice, my parents educated me and with the knowledge I have gained I am now transforming lives by working with the Gana Chetana Samaj.