HC Deb 03 March 1890 vol 341 cc1632-6
MR. SAMUEL SMITH (Flintshire)

I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for India whether his attention has been drawn to the high rate of mortality among the coolies employed in the tea gardens in India; whether his attention has been drawn to the Report of Dr. Eteson, late Sanitary Commissioner of Assam, that— The ratio of sickness and mortality among the tea garden labourers as a class has been always very great, and that— In many gardens it is above what is counted a frightful epidemic in civilised countries; that In 1886 the largest death-rate in any garden was 270 per 1,000, while in the following year even this terrible figure was far outstripped, for in one garden the chances of life and death were almost equally divided, there having been a mortality of 465.9 per 1,000; that the Civil Surgeon of Debrugurh, in his Report for 1884, states that— The conditions of child life in a tea garden are altogether so unfavourable that the wonder is how so many children succeed in passing childhood's stage; whether his attention has been drawn to a case which happened in 1886, in the Mesaijan Garden in Lakimpur, in which the Deputy Commissioner states that— A large body of coolies left the garden, and came to the station complaining of ill-treatment. They stated that both men and women had been flogged; in the case of women, that they had been tied to a post in the porch of the manager's house, their clothes lifted up to their waists, and that they had been beaten on the bare buttocks with a stirrup leather by the orders of the assistant manager; whether he is aware that in 1886 there was in existence in some tea gardens a dungeon in which refractory coolies were confined and tied down with ropes; and whether he can state that such abuses are now prevented; whether he is aware that, although by Section 116 of the Act the coolie is entitled to one day of rest every week, there is a tacit understanding between employer and labourer that the rights of the latter under the section would not be claimed, and that the Government is believed to support the planter in this arrangement; and what measures the Government propose to take under these circumstances?

SIR G. CAMPBELL (Kirkcaldy)

Perhaps the right be n. Gentleman will, at the same time, answer a question which I have placed upon the Paper on the same subject. I beg to ask the Under Secretary, with reference to the employment of coolies in the Assam tea gardens, whether the Inland Emigration Act of 1873 limited the term of labourers under contract enforced by penal laws to three years, with many provisions for the protection of such labourers, and at the same time, with a view to the gradual substitution of free labour, provided an alternative system of free recruiting under ordinary engagements, not enforceable by penal methods; whether the more recent law has extended the term of enforced labour to five years, whether complaints have reached him that the provision in favour of free recruiting and free labour has been evaded by a system under which labourers enlisted without the safeguards of the labour law are brought to the nearest part of the Assam territory, and there, when far from their homes and when they have not the means of returning, are induced to sign long labour contracts, before they have seen the gardens where they are to be employed or have had any opportunity of offering their labour in the free labour market; whether he is aware that of late years the labourers compulsorily employed on many gardens have suffered terribly; and whether any steps are being taken to mitigate the severity of the system introduced under the last law?


In answering these questions the Secretary of State wishes me to say that questions on the condition of the coolies in the Assam tea gardens are frequently asked in this House. They are based on facts picked out of the official Reports for many years past, and calculated to give an exaggerated impression. They are suggested to hon. Members either with the object of procuring the substitution of a system of free recruiting for the safeguards of the Act of 1882, or with that of stopping migration from Bengal to Assam. They give a most incorrect impression of the general condition of the coolies. As to the specific allegations contained in these questions, I may say, in answer to the first question of the hon. Member for Flintshire (Mr. S. Smith), yes; the mortality has engaged the most anxious attention of the Secretary of State and of the Government of India for many years. My answer to the second paragraph of the hon. Member's question is that the Report of Dr. Eteson refer to byegone times and particular districts. The death-rate on an individual garden is often frightfully enhanced by an epidemic of cholera. In answer to the third paragraph of the question of the hon. Member, I have to say that I was questioned on this case last year, and I then stated that the manager in question was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to 10 months' rigorous imprisonment and a fine. My reply to the fourth paragraph of the question is that the Secretary of State has no reason to suppose that any such abuse exists now. In answer to the fifth paragraph, the Secretary of State is not aware of any such tacit understanding, and is certainly not supported by the Government. In reply to the questions of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir G. Campbell), my answer to paragraphs 1 and 2 is in the affirmative. As regards paragraph 3, such complaints have been made, and have been carefully investigated by the Chief Commissioner of Assam and reported by him to be greatly exaggerated. This question illustrates one of the difficulties to be encountered in doing away with the safeguards of the Act of 1882. In regard to the general question asked by both hon. Members, I have repeatedly stated to the House that the Government of India has been for some time engaged, under the direction of the Secretary of State, in making the most careful investigation into the condition of the coolies in the Assam tea gardens, and the working of the Act of 1882, with special reference to the question whether that Act shall be continued any longer. As to the general condition of the coolies, the House will perhaps like to hear the evidence of an entirely impartial witness, the Rev. Isaac Row, Secretary to the Anglo-Indian Evangelization Society. He writes in the Indian newspapers as follows:— I am much interested in the correspondence in your columns with reference to the tea planters of Upper Assam, and their treatment of the coolies under their charge, and I shall he glad if, in the interest of the cause of truth, you will kindly allow me to give my testimony on this subject. I think I may fairly claim to speak with some authority, as during the past two years I have spent nearly 12 months in the Brahmaputra Valley, and during that time travelled very widely over the country. My observations, therefore, have not been superficial and confined merely to a few gardens in the more settled districts; but my work as a Minister of the Anglo-Indian Evangelization Society led me to visit a very large mumber of out-of-the-way gardens, seldom, if ever, visited by strangers, and my testimony is that of an impartial witness, equally the friend both of the coolie and of the planter. As a rule, all the coolies that I saw, numbering tens of thousands, were remarkably well cared for by their employers, and I could specify many instances of special kindness and consideration on the part of the latter, of which I was myself an eyewitness. I am quite sure that there are hundreds of starving poor in England to-day who would be most thankful if they could only he as well fed and as well housed as are the great bulk of the people employed on the tea gardens of Upper Assam. I say this the more emphatically, because, informer years, I laboured much among the destitute poor of London. The misrepresentations so persistently made with reference to this subject are a great wrong, not only to the planters, but to the coolies themselves, of whom there are tens of thousands half-starved in over-crowded districts, in Bengal and elsewhere, who should be encouraged and helped to emigrate to Assam, where they might readily find lucrative and easy employment.


As the right hon. Gentleman has thought fit to read a long passage from an advocate of the continuance of the system, may I call his attention to the 4th paragraph of my question— Whether he is aware that of late years the labourers compulsorily employed on many gardens have suffered terribly. No doubt the hon. Member for Flintshire did quote statistics which are three or four years old, but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether during the last three or four years there has not been an excess of mortality in some of these gardens?


The question of the hon. Member is whether I am aware that of late years the labourers compulsorily employed on many gardens have suffered terribly. In the opinion of the Secretary of State that statement is the result of a misapprehension.


I think I am bound to say that, personally, I have made no such statement. The words are not mine. All I ask of the right hon. Gentleman is that he shall tell me whether the fact is so or not. I repeat that I made no statement on the subject.


made no rejoinder.

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