Our project in the Assam Tea gardens with the North East Women Religious and Network (NEWRaN) is now into its second year. The first year was coloured by urgent work in response to India's second wave of COVID-19, which strengthened the network considerably for anti-trafficking projects ahead.
Tea garden closures
The pandemic struck certain informal sectors especially hard in India, including the tea sector. For many tea garden workers, the pandemic disrupted and often suspended their incomes. Tea gardens were subject to lockdowns and many reopened with low staff levels to encourage social distancing. As a result, crops were not harvested on time, and many tea crops perished. The knock-on effect was the immediate loss of income for thousands of families who rely on the tea gardens to survive.
Relief and resilience
In the Assam Tea Gardens, and with the support of Arise, NEWRaN ran an exceptional community response to the pandemic, including various humanitarian relief programmes and vaccination campaigns.
Free dry rations were distributed, supporting 150 families across 10 villages, with enough food to survive in the face of little government support.
In the words of the leaders of NEWRaN: ‘It is well known that these people are always victims of exploitation, slavery and apathy. Both the civil society and the different agencies of the government have so far failed to address the issues that affect them on a daily basis’. As a result of this vulnerability, it was hugely important for Arise and NEWRaN to act swiftly and provide lifesaving supplies to families who had lost their livelihoods.
The vaccination drive was conducted simultaneously to pandemic awareness-raising programmes. Special emphasis and care were given to the elderly and disabled. This included a 101-year-old lady, Sundri, and a number of other very elderly citizens, some with age-related disabilities. There was positive coordination with the government - specifically the Immunisation Department for the state. In the Bhagjan tea gardens, 2782 people were vaccinated. This drive was aided by a WhatsApp education campaign about the vaccine - which reached over 700 people.
The pandemic highlighted the significance of Arise programmes in the region. As NEWRaN write, families in the region face ‘living in poor working conditions with no provision of quality drinking water facilities, sanitation, health benefits etc.’. These challenges were exacerbated during the pandemic. With fewer economic opportunities, and potentially higher debt and unemployment levels, there is a pressing danger of trafficking, which feeds off desperation and vulnerability.
This first project with NEWRaN continues to the end of 2023. Arise is committed to the protection of tea garden communities from trafficking and exploitation.
We extend our gratitude and congratulations to Sr Annie, Sr Rose and Sr Betsy for their phenomenal commitment and progress.