The recent incident in Assam where 10 tea garden workers were fired upon by the owners of the Bogidhola Tea Estate in Golaghat on December 13 should bring to focus the issue of the tea industry in general. The tea industry, like most plantation industries, is highly labour intensive. A scene from the documentary "Silence Flows" - The Life in Margaret's Hope Tea Garden, Darjeeling has a tea garden manager instructing the ‘pluckers’, ‘only two leaves and a bud’. The tea must be plucked by hand, each ‘plucker’s’ basket is weighed and noted against the name in a register. Often, if the tea that has been plucked does not meet the individual quota, the wages for the day are foregone.
During the 1840s, the then superintendent of Darjeeling, Dr Campbell and Major Crommelin, introduced tea in Darjeeling Himalaya on an experimental basis with seeds from China. The first commercial tea gardens were planted in 1852. People from the neighbouring regions, mainly Nepal, were brought in as labourers of the tea gardens. By the year 1866, Darjeeling had 39 tea gardens producing a total crop of 21,000 kg of tea. In 1870, the number of gardens increased to 56 producing around 71,000 kg of tea harvested from 4,400 hectares. By 1874, tea cultivation in Darjeeling was found to be a profitable venture and there were 113 gardens with approximately 6,000 hectares. At present, there are 144 tea gardens retaining 141056.02 acres with 74843.82 acres under tea cultivation.
Darjeeling Tea is both a brand name and a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag, the record price for a kilogram of Darjeeling Tea was set in 2014 by Makaibari Tea Estate at Rs 1.12 lakh per kilo. The average cost for a kilo of Darjeeling tea can cost between Rs 550 and Rs 600. Though outside the budget for the average Indian tea drinker, this tea is auctioned internationally.
As a result of the 2017 Gorkhaland agitation which saw a shutdown of 104 days, the Darjeeling tea industry was reported to be staring at a loss of Rs 400 crore. This was due to the agitation lasting two plucking seasons. Many of the tea garden workers actively participated in the agitation, as they saw the agitation as a link to their demand for better wages and working conditions. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung grew up in a tea worker family. As reported by The Wire, the GJM spokesperson at the time, Swaraj Thapa, said that a worker can be paid as low as Rs 98 for a full day’s work in the tea gardens.
The Documentary Gold Rush highlights the plight of workers in the tea gardens run by the Alchemist Group, a conglomerate headed by a Trinamool Congress (TMC) nominee to the Rajya Sabha, Kanwar Deep Singh. The tea garden had gone through severe labour unrest in 2015 over non-payment of provident fund dues, gratuity and wages.
Though not as well known as Darjeeling Tea, in the 1870s tea was introduced to the Dooars from Darjeeling district in the north. Dr Richard Haughton established the first tea garden in the Jalpaiguri district, at Gazilduba in 1874. Within two years from 1874, there were 13 tea gardens. By 1881 the number of gardens increased four times and the acreage under cultivation of tea seven times. By the 1900s the Dooars had 235 gardens with 81,338 acres under tea cultivation. This growth of the Dooars tea industry was built on the backs of labour from Chota Nagpur and the Santhal Parganas.
In 2014, Al Jazeera reported on the conditions of the workers in these tea gardens. The tea gardens had been facing losses for years due to mismanagement, and the sufferers were the workers. Amid closure, more than a hundred workers died from starvation within a week. The then state Health Minister Chandrima Bhattacharya denied that there were any starvation deaths in the Dooars, he instead attributed it to ‘prolonged malnutrition’ according to Al Jazeera. As per the report, a study conducted by the United Tea Workers Front (UTWF) in the Dooars found that 1,000 workers died over the past decade. Earning an average Rs 90 a day, the tea garden labour had no savings, let alone any use for bank accounts. Often their diet consisted of tea flowers, bamboo shoots, jungle leaves, even snakes and rats.
In 2015, the Government of West Bengal announced a relief package of food an water for the workers. Yet, in April 2017 tea garden workers launched a protest amidst Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s state tour. The workers demanded the payment of the monetized value of food grains and that the state government brings normalcy in closed and abandoned tea gardens.
In Assam, tea was not brought in through trade with China. The Singpho people of present-day Arunachal Pradesh traditionally cultivated tea. Instead of keeping the tea as a bush, they allowed the plant to grow tall as a tree. In 1823, Robert Bruce first encountered this local variety of tea when he was offered some to drink by the then Singpho Chief. The Assam Company was the first tea company to commercially grow tea in Assam. The labourers for the tea plantations in Assam, like in the Dooars, were brought from the Chota Nagpur area and the Santhal Parganas. At present, there are around 28,000 small tea gardens in Assam and over 800 medium to large-scale plantations. On average, the total tea produced by Assam is 480 million kilograms a year. The highest price recorded for a kilogram of Assam tea in an auction was Rs 402 per kilogram from Halmari Tea Estate.
The working conditions for the tea garden workers in Assam are equally bad, on average they earn Rs 115 a day. There is no sanitation, housing is dismal, and a majority of workers suffer from ‘diseases of poverty’ such as diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections, skin lesions, TB, and meningitis. The tea garden owners, however, suffer from the ‘disease of affluence’ such as being subjected to extortion notices from militant groups operating in the area. TATA Tea was famously involved in a scandal in 1997 when it was discovered that they had paid the medical bills of Pranati Deka, the Cultural Secretary of the United Liberation Front for Asom (ULFA). TATA Tea had managed to avoid having to pay extortion notices when they made a deal with ULFA wherein they would set up hospitals, schools, adult literacy centres, childcare centres and a technical training school. They later even launched a scheme by which people of Assam could get speciality medical care outside the state at TATA Tea’s expense.
On the face of it, dismal working conditions, dismal wages, and malnutrition are the mainstay of the tea industry workers. Earning wages that fall below the minimum wage in their respective states, the tea garden workers are born into perpetual poverty. Some who are born in the tea gardens migrate to find work in big cities elsewhere. But for many, they grow up to become the next generation of tea garden workers. In the case of Assam, pressure from militant groups cuts into the revenue of the tea gardens, but with militancy nearing its end in the Northeast, the Assam tea industry has a lot to answer for. While the TATA case has been cited as a case for business ethics, it must also be mentioned that it took the threat of armed violence for a tea company to provide medical and educational services to the general population, if not for their workers.