Understandably then, the moment they see their sardar (supervisor) and arhatti (local agent) approaching, Rita Barak and Moni Kharia (names changed), tea workers at the Demdima Tea Estate in Dooars, West Bengal get visibly apprehensive and fidgety. “Itne patte hai, dikhai nahi deta? (Can’t you see the leaves), the men yell at the duo, “Baat kyu kar raahe ho” (Why are you chatting amongst yourself)?
The managers of Demdima — one of the five gardens that got nationalised by the Tea Board and reopened two years ago, after the original owners, the Duncans Goenka Group went belly up in 2015-16 following financial mismanagement — have a clear diktat. Each plucker should daily collect 2-2.5 kg leaves within eight hours during the April to November peak season. Their daily wage Rs 202, an interim hike, gets cut if targets are not met with. Like always, the job routine though has changed this election season as almost everyone gets packed off by their bosses to political rallies and road shows. “We have attended three already this week. We are yet to get the wages for those days, but we got food,” says Kharia.
Like most in their basti, both these ladies wake up in the wee hours of the morning, walk for at least 2 hours daily to fetch water for the household. Their accommodation has no running water. The nearest decent hospital is a four-hour bus ride away. “The owners of the company keep changing,” chuckles Barak. “But our families have been living in the same house for ever. It belongs to the chaa company.”
The company provides subsidised 20kg of rice and 15 kg of wheat every month from the public distribution system. But the bottle of mustard oil has stopped since lockdown. Just like their mothers, most of the tea workers eat only once a day – a handful of rice and salt, mixed with tea flowers and some home-made chutney, but don’t want to compromise on their children’s education. “There are no school buses and only one secondary school. So, dropouts are very high. We are always worried since there have been cases of human trafficking in this area,” says Kharia.
On Saturday, many like Kharia and Barak who work in the estates of Darjeeling voted to change their plight, hoping this time around, promises, at least some, will be kept. With this round, voting across the northern districts and Assam will finally get over.
PM Modi at Kawakhali near Siliguri.
PM Modi at Kawakhali near Siliguri
In bordering Assam, the life of Mariam Varia (34), a tea worker for 8 years in Dhekiajuli, a town in Sonitpur district is absolutely no different. She too is a tribal with roots in Central India. Landless, uninsured, barely literate, with no Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, she has had enough of “matlaabi” politicians across party lines, “who exploit our poverty for votes and our trust to springboard their political careers.”
So on the eve of International Women’s Day, Varia and 2000 labourers took to the streets, in their predominantly plantation centric district, under the aegis of All Adivasi Women’s Association (AAWA), demanding a near doubling of daily cash wages to Rs 351 as against the Rs 50 stop gap upwardly revision approved poll eve by the incumbent BJP government of Sarbananda Sonowal and his deputy Himanta Biswa Sarma.
More than 55% the workforce are women. Almost 100% are anaemic.
They also almost always retire as pluckers not rising through the ranks to assume supervisory positions that have better wages.
“Sarna claimed he was the champion of tea workers when he was in Congress. Now we see him only before elections begging for our votes. His own CM said on TV that even the Rs 167/day that we received till recently was high. Why doesn’t he run his own household and show us? When was the last time he bought vegetables? Is he even aware of the price hikes?” asks Varla, a single mother of a Class IX student, while simultaneously gobbling her meagre bhaat-papaya sabzi during lunchtime on a working day at the gardens.
Unfortunately, BJP’s political “master stroke” boomeranged on them within weeks after the announcement with Guwahati High Court putting a stay on the decision when a rankled Indian Tea Association along with 17 tea companies moved court in opposition, claiming it would have a debilitating impact on their financials.
Rahul Gandhi has seized on this opportunity, promising a wage hike to Rs 351/day, to try and capitalise on the rising disenchantment and anti-incumbency, much like BJP’ promise in 2016. “But unlike BJP, we don’t rely on rhetoric,” says Manuj Dhanuwal, Congress candidate from Lahuwal, Vidhwan Sabha constituency, in Sivsagar district. “We have a blueprint for both reviving the tea industry and its workers. People know we have always been humane. From schools to hospitals and even the Food Security Act, its UPA that has driven positive change.”
Doles for Democracy
Varla, an AAWA office bearer since 2014, says, many from her tribe, have not received any free gas cylinder under the Centre’s Ujwala scheme. Even the Rs 3000 direct cash transfer for 750,000 tea workers as promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a recent rally in her town, is yet to hit her bank account. “Our provident fund, other benefits get cut unilaterally by the garden. Our children are starving. Life of a temporary worker is even worse. (15%-20% of the workforce in each of the 1400 gardens of North Bengal and Assam). We believe, based on current inflation, we should get paid Rs 525/day.” Outside the plantations, Assam’s minimum daily wage for unskilled labour is Rs 287.73; and Rs 419.63 for skilled labour — both much higher. Tea worker wages have been regulated separately from others since before Indian independence.
“The state of the tea workers are like bonded labour who are completely at the mercy of the companies who often cut PFs but don’t deposit them in the workers accounts. So many in their eighties and nineties still waiting for their money,” rues social activist Anuradha Talwar, of Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, that has been fighting to improve the living standards of these workers “Every tea garden is supposed to have doctors. But most don’t… Their housing is in a state of a shambles.”
A study by the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition in the tea gardens of Alipurduar in 2016 concluded that many pregnant women from the gardens suffer from nutritional anaemia and eclampsia and a high number of them die due to labour complications.
In Assam — that produces over half of India’s tea — the ‘bagani’ or tea garden population is 20% of the total, thereby guaranteeing both voice and political clout. But in Bengal historically, the near 25 lakh block represents only 3% of Bengal’s 7.33 crore voters, concentrated in sparsely populated northern hill districts. But ever since the violent Darjeeling Hills agitation of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha demanding a separate state catapulted Bimal Gurung and wiped out about 72% of the production, the belt has become politically super charged.
“Mamata Banerjee has always empathised with the tea workers. Under TMC’s 2 terms, their wages have seen a 200% hike (Rs 202/day in 2021 from Rs 67/day in 2011),” argues Ritabrata Banerjee, Secretary, West Bengal, TMC Committee, who has been camping in Alipurduar for several months since summer of 2020 to oversee his party’s campaign in the district. “We have announced several schemes for their welfare, so everyone knows it’s not lip service.”
Of course, it is, argues Banerjee’s main opposition, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
“We have made budgetary allotment of all the welfare schemes meant for tea workers and planned a North Bengal Development Board.” We have a section in our manifesto dedicated to them. We are not only looking at economic upliftment but also making them eligible for reservations,” says BJP co-in charge for West Bengal Arvind Menon.
In this season of political blame game, while the Congress has pinned the BJP government in Assam for not fulfilling the 2016 promises of providing land pattas and ST status, in Bengal, BJP is seeking to stir a potent brew. “Giving housing without ownership of land is fruitless… It took them 10 years to provide them even basic housing?”
On the surface, such dole deluge (see gfx: Doles for Democracy) announced by both the states, every 5 years, may seem to have sugar coated the harsh realities of the tea “tribes” of the region, but dig the surface of the undulating terrain of Terai and Dooars, and the collective incredulity becomes stark.
Younger voters, several of whom, have now quit the gardens for better opportunities across the country as security guards or kitchen staff and other blue-collar jobs, want to uproot their “self-serving leaders” altogether. Their simmering discontent is reaching boiling point.
In private conversations, even tea estate owners admit successive state governments have only flogged this “usually gullible” indigenous workforce for vote share gains. “They all have roots from the Santhal parganas (modern-day Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Telangana) who were imported by the British in the 1830’s to act as coolies in the tea plantations. They don’t speak Bengali or Assamese so are never considered locals but gets reductively clubbed as tribals,” says an owner of one of the largest teas growing companies with a global footprint on condition of anonymity, circumspect of the political backlash for his views. “Why do you think successive governments have left their education, health, ration, housing and other social responsibilities at the mercy of the industry, relying on an archaic, 70 Plantation Labour Act of 1951?”
In 2016, when close to 1000 tea workers had died due to acute starvation, Banerjee’s nephew Abhisekh Banerjee, a TMC Parliamentarian, toured Alipurduar to extol the ‘janata’ (people), ‘khamata’ (power) and ‘Mamata’ (compassion, or his aunt’s name) to a bunch of hungry people. It worked then but in 2019, BJP swept North Bengal. Its candidate from the same Alipurduar district John Barla trumped his TMC rival and sitting MP, by a huge margin of 2,43,989 votes.
OF LOAN SHARKS, ASSET STRIPPERS & OVERSUPPLY
Some politicians might have genuine intentions but what most young and restless voters see is an unfinished agenda. “TMC did create a Rs 100 crore tea directorate in North Bengal but even now the heavy lifting has not been done,” says Samir “Babloo” Mahato, whose family works in Balasun Tea Estate in North Kurseong. “They (TMC) is promising free ration to be delivered home. What’s the guarantee that party workers will not usurp it midway?”
Moreover, former loan sharks who have taken over the gardens have stripped the assets and grabbed the land. Welfare is least of their concerns. The Duncan gardens had been ignored for so long that tea bushes were chewed up by termites. Those leaves are worthless.
“Very few are as passionate and forthright as the earlier owners,” accepts Dilip Ray, former NDA Cabinet minister turned leading hotelier in eastern India. “Tea tourism can revive a lot many gardens, but the policy is not clear.”
“The small tea growers don’t even get any of the Central benefits other farm labour gets in micro irrigation, Kisan credit cards or crop insurance,” highlights Bijoy Gopal Chakraborty, President, Indian Small Tea Growers Association. In a recent meeting with finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in Siliguri, stakeholders like Chakraborty have been assured that a “holistic solution is in the works.” Chakraborty too feels unless the Centre and the state works in sync, policies will be half baked. “Why is the Tea Board part of the commerce industry and not agriculture,” asks a Guwahati based tea industry veteran. “Because of sloppy efforts even Kenya and Sri Lanka have stolen a march ahead of us. Our exports to smaller countries like Egypt, Azerbaijan or Iran are also going down.”
Revival of the industry therefore needs a coordinated thought through strategy. Prices have remained flat in the last decade except for 2007-09 and 2020 when they rose sharply since crop yield fell 10% and prices jumped 25%.
“A combination of excess supply, fragmentated ownership and concentration of buyers have hampered the growth of this beverage,” feels Rudra Chatterjee, MD, Luxmi Tea, that also owns the prized Makaibari Estate of Darjeeling: In a 2014 auction, one kilogram of its famous brew sold for $1,850, around Rs 1.3 lakh, still a record. “Today the fixed cost of setting up a factory is not aligned to the prices.”
So, any cost push, like salary hikes, inevitably face resistance from large organised owners who control near 60% of the total produce. The wage bill is 70% of the total costs. So any disruption has huge commercial impact,” adds a Kolkata based tea auctioneer. Last year’s lockdown led to a Rs 2100 crore revenue loss to the two states, as per the June 2020 calculations of the Indian Tea Association, a planter’s lobby group.
The colonial masters have given way to democratically elected ones who continue the exploitation in tandem with several unscrupulous industry players. But just like the Assam government’s scheme of free sugar for tea workers to replace the salt that were used by them to drink a cold, stale and unhealthy concoction while working, small, incremental steps remain half measures.
That tea is still undrinkable.