While these women are doing their bit with full enthusiasm, the challenges ahead of them are multi-dimensional. The high maternal mortality in Upper Assam is a result of a host of financial, historical and cultural reasons.
With over 800 tea estates and 1,00,000 smaller tea gardens, Assam is the second largest tea producer in the world after China. Which means, a large population of Upper Assam works in tea estates. The violation of labour rights on these estates, in terms of the lack of water and proper pay, has been widely reported. This leaves women and girls with poor sanitation facilities and inadequate nutrition, making their growth delicate and pregnancy fragile.
Adding to this, the tea workers drink saltwater and salty tea, locally called ‘nimokh sah’, multiple times a day to fight lethargy and dehydration. This habit was introduced by the British and has been detrimental to the health of the tea-farming communities. “As a result, high blood pressure, abnormal haemoglobin levels and weight loss are common in this region. During pregnancy, the problem of hypertension and anaemia aggravates,” says Sumi Dowarah, who’s a project consultant with the said NGO.
So acute is the salt tea-drinking habit that the Assam government in its 2019-20 budget had proposed to distribute free sugar to the lakhs of its tea workers to help them transition.