The brew darkens

shreevatsa nevatia | Updated on January 24, 2018

Long and winding road: Tea garden workers return after a day’s work in Darjeeling. - Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Desperate measures: On February 6, workers at the Gandrapara Tea Estate gathered for a hunger strike to demand a rise in their wages. - Photo: Shreevatsa Nevatia

Let me out: Workers in Darjeeling’s Singtom Steinthal Tea Estate confess forsaking their daily wage for work in the city. Most encourage their children to leave the hills and find a better living elsewhere. - Photo: Shreevatsa Nevatia

Struggle for survival: Devaki Naik hasn’t been able to stand straight for 18 months. Like many others on the Red Bank Tea Estate, she says that food andwater are often scarce. - Photo: Shreevatsa Nevatia

Even after an agreement to revise wages, the muted signs of an impending cataclysm in the tea gardens of Bengal can no longer be ignored

Sarita Rao had not eaten all of February 6. Huddled with 50 other tea garden workers, Rao sat on a hunger strike, demanding that her daily wage of ₹95 be instantly revised. “It is not easy to bring up your children in this age of television. They watch fancy advertisements and demand omelettes for lunch. I cannot afford cooking oil, let alone the eggs.” Her remonstrance rippled through the makeshift canopy. Sheela Dorjee complained that it was impossible to educate her children beyond the primary level. “Our children are only 10 or 15 years old. They have to work so that our families can survive,” she said. Sumitra Topua insisted that workers like her should be paid a minimum wage of at least ₹300 a day. “We need that to cover just our education and medical costs. Our bosses have cars. We don’t even have a cycle. Are birthdays, funerals or weddings not important for people like us?” Deepa Vishwakarma finally summed up the mood in Goodricke’s Gandrapara Tea Estate that day. “My father-in-law worked here, but I will never teach my two children this work. There is too much hardship in this trade.”

Located in North Bengal’s tea-growing Dooars region, Gandrapara was not the only garden to have witnessed a 48-hour relay hunger strike. Similar voices of protest emerged from a large section of West Bengal’s 273 tea plantations. With workers in Darjeeling being paid a daily wage of ₹90 and those in the Dooars and Terai regions earning a marginally higher ₹95 a day, there was a growing clamour for the introduction of a minimum wage. In an unprecedented move, 24 trade unions with disparate political leanings came together under the umbrella of a Joint Forum. Representing the workers in tripartite meetings, the forum tried to persuade garden owners and the state’s Trinamool Congress government to depart from their practice of negotiating wages once every three years. They wanted a minimum wage of ₹322 to be announced instead.

Pointing to south Indian states, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where tea plantation workers are being paid a daily minimum wage in excess of ₹200, Ziaul Alam asked, “Why should there be such a status quo in West Bengal? It cannot just be a question of literacy.” General Secretary of the All India Plantations Workers Federation, Alam insisted that the Joint Forum would not back down from its demand of a minimum wage declaration by June. Held on February 20, the ninth tripartite meeting saw a breakthrough. In its role as a conciliator, the state government was able to get owners and the unions to agree on a long-pending revision of wages. Staggered over three years, workers in Darjeeling were to see an increase of ₹42.50 in their daily pay, while those in the Dooars and Terai regions were to be given a hike of ₹37.50. The meeting also saw the formation of a minimum-wage committee, which has been given two years to present its conclusions. When asked if the Joint Forum had been forced to back down from its June demand, Alam sounded sanguine. “The committee has two years, yes, but we’ll try our best to ensure that it gives in its recommendations within four or six months.”

Political observers believe that this recent settlement might just have something for everyone. A window of two years gives the state government some leeway to announce a minimum wage at an opportune moment before the 2016 Assembly elections. Since Trinamool-affiliated unions had stayed away from the Joint Forum, the party’s opponents can use its haste (or the lack of it) to underscore their own hard-fought victories. Owners now needn’t worry about strikes that threatened to paralyse their gardens in March, when their high-value first flush tea is plucked. “This brings closure to a vexed issue,” says Monojit Dasgupta, Secretary General of the Indian Tea Association, India’s oldest association of tea producers. “The important thing is that the new wages will help beat inflation. That’s what the workers wanted.”

Impromptu celebratory marches by tea plantation workers in the Dooars region demonstrated their satisfaction, but for some the relief of this settlement was nothing more than temporary consolation. Suraj Subba, General Secretary of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union (DTDPLU), said, “We are happy that a minimum-wage committee has been formed, but you cannot expect a worker to survive on these current wages. The increase is far from sufficient.” James Kashyap drew attention to the plight of his mother. “She labours so hard in the garden through the year and there are months when she is paid only ₹1,200. How will a slight raise in her daily wage help her?” Like his mother, 26-year-old Kashyap was born on the Dooars tea plantation. “If I could get a good salary, I would have loved to stay back with her. Someone, though, has to run the household. It is unfortunate that I had to move away.” Kashyap now works as a chef in a Kanyakumari hotel and is able to earn at least ₹18,000 a month. “My father left for Dubai. He never came back. I don’t blame him. Who would want to come back to such poverty?” Kashyap’s story of adversity and ambition seems common enough, but for an industry that has relied heavily on a generational inheritance of knowhow, his disavowal of tea might well be the first muted sign of an impending cataclysm.

The new teatotallers

Owners of 13 tea gardens in Darjeeling, the Chamong Group is one of the region’s largest employers. Group Chairman Ashok Lohia emphasises the aspect of job security that plantations promise. “Workers and their children are all ensured work on the same property, generation after generation. There can be no greater security than that.” Lohia, however, does admit that in recent times this arcadia has been disturbed. “An education in English, greater job opportunities and a higher standard of living — these are all factors that have led to a few exceptions finding work elsewhere.” While education and diverse employment opportunities have played a part in many fleeing the proverbial nest, there are a host of naysayers who criticise the Bengal tea industry for spurning their flock.

Binny Sharma, General Secretary of the Trinamool Congress’ Hill unit, emphasises that the child of a tea plantation worker is never given the opportunities that he or she deserves. “Tea garden workers and their children know everything there is to know about plantations. Yet, despite their education and merits, they are never deemed eligible for managerial positions. The children of workers must be given the first priority, but they are always the first to be neglected.” It isn’t just the lack of rungs on the ladder that is causing dissatisfaction amongst garden employees. While at least one member — of a number of families — finds employment outside the state’s tea-growing areas, domestic life in recent years has altered considerably. PT Sherpa, President of DTDPLU, says that while some houses on tea estates have been fitted with televisions and DVD players, others have remained hopelessly outmoded. “If you have ambition, you’ll leave,” he adds.

Prabir Bhattacharjee, Secretary General of the Tea Association of India, concedes that aspirations are fast driving people away from manual labour, but he goes on to dangle a carrot or two. “Workers should understand that this industry gives them a residence. It provides them land for farming and animal husbandry. They thrive in a unique ecosystem and you wouldn’t get this everywhere.” Bhattacharjee’s sops, however, don’t seem to have many takers. It isn’t only the children of workers, but workers themselves who are now forsaking their daily wages to find contract or construction work, which helps them secure ₹250-400 a day.

Umesh Rakhecha manages the Phoobsering Tea Estate, which has 721 permanent workers. The estate recorded an absenteeism rate of 36 per cent last year. “Law dictates that any worker who is absent for three days or more must be sent a notice. These days any such notice elicits a resignation in response. No minimum-wage declaration will change the situation here.” Proof of what Rakhecha constantly refers to as a “changed mentality” was found on the winding road that passes through the Singtom Steinthal Tea Estate. Kamala Mukhiya, 38, admitted leaving the Darjeeling garden on occasions when she found work in the city. “Though the tasks are menial, I earn ₹300 a day. There are seven members in my family. I don’t have a choice.” Bimla Thapa boasted that her own 18-year-old had just found work with a local mobile phone retailer. Pramila Rai pointed to her torn gumboots. “They cost ₹250. Our employers think that only ₹79 will suffice.”

Between the cup and the lip

Rai’s seemingly trivial plea for better gumboots hints at larger discontent. Provisions of the 1951 Plantations Labour Act stipulate that owners must provide their workers an array of ‘fringe benefits’ in addition to their daily wages. These include housing, supplies of rice and wheat, medical care, umbrellas and even footwear. Darjeeling’s Assistant Labour Commissioner Neil Chhetri says that in many of the 48 gardens under his jurisdiction, workers are not being given their entitlements. “As per the Plantation Act, all tea gardens are supposed to have a functioning dispensary. The few that exist are in terrible shape. The tea industry is deteriorating day by day.”

A 2012-13 government survey of West Bengal’s 273 tea estates affirms Chhetri’s conclusion. Initiated by the state’s labour ministry, the survey concluded that 95,835 workers of the tea industry’s 2,62,426-strong workforce had not been provided housing. Forty-four estates had no latrines, and houses in 12 gardens functioned without any electricity. Only 166 tea estates were found to have hospitals and, of these, 116 did not have a single nurse. Workers in 22 estates were not paid any gratuity, and Provident Fund dues in 55 plantations totalled a staggering ₹33.8 crore. The tea industry, which an observer claimed “is nothing more than a conglomerate of zamindars”, was uniformly defensive in its approach. The Darjeeling Tea Association often lobbies on behalf of tea producers with state and central governments. Sandeep Mukherjee, the association’s principal advisor, said, “It is a fact that not all workers are given these fringe benefits. There are some black sheep, but the industry is largely responsible.”

Having paid the sum of ₹21 crore to the West Bengal government, the Ambootia Group recently added three more Darjeeling tea estates to its already substantial kitty. Group Chairman Sanjay Bansal believes that the very idea of a fringe benefit is archaic. “These laws were first made more than a hundred years ago,” he says. “They are entirely obsolete, and all such benefits should now be monetised.” In December last year, BJP MP from Darjeeling SS Ahluwalia used the opportunity of a Zero Hour to apprise his fellow parliamentarians of the suffering that plagued plantation workers in his constituency. “Most tea estates are paying ₹90-95 as daily wages. But the record is shown as ₹190.” He argued that the deduction of ₹100 didn’t always translate into a lawful distribution of fringe benefits. Weeks later, Ahluwalia adds, “The British had first decided to give out subsidised food grains in tea-growing regions during the 1943 Bengal famine. With time, these subsidies were reinterpreted as fringe benefits. The issue gets confused here. Colonial laws never took into account aspects of social security.”

Reading the tea leaves

Ahluwalia argues that the relative remoteness of tea gardens must be factored in by owners and the state government when addressing the concerns of plantation workers. Though some union leaders like Suraj Subba of the DTDPLU insist that the building of new roads has connected distant gardens and markets over the years, making many a fringe benefit redundant, there are still those like Neil Chhetri who believe that their perceived isolation makes Darjeeling’s hills an unlikely destination for migrant labour. “If workers continue leaving, we won’t find new hands to take their place.” A depleting workforce, however, isn’t the tea industry’s only dilemma. With the value of the euro falling from ₹84 to ₹69 in 2015, a number of Indian tea exporters have felt a severe pinch. While Aloke Chakravorty, Working President of the Trinamool Tea Plantation Workers Union, concedes that owners might well be “cheating” labourers by denying them their benefits, he adds, “We must be aware that the industry faces stiff competition from plantations in Sri Lanka, China, Nepal and Africa. The health and future of the industry should concern everybody.”

It only takes a visit to one of Bengal’s nine closed tea plantations to find out that Chakravorty’s warning may indeed be prescient. Abandoned by its owner since September 2013, the Red Bank Tea Estate in the Dooars region appears desolate. An emaciated Devaki Naik sits in the yard outside her rundown house, trying to play with her grandchildren. Naik uses her hands to drag herself on the ground. She hasn’t been able to stand straight in 18 months. “I could maybe get some medicines if there were a doctor here, but we don’t even have food and water. On the days that I am lucky, I get some rice to eat or else I just have to sleep hungry.”

According to head clerk Debabrata Pal, a majority of the 40 deaths in Red Bank since late 2013 have been caused by malnutrition and deprivation. “Our children have dropped out of school. Our women are being trafficked,” he laments. Pinky Ikka says she now travels to the riverbank and breaks rocks for a living. “But there’s one problem. There are hardly any stones left to break.”

However, there are those who continue to hold out hope. As Gandrapara worker Deepa Vishwakarma says — “We’ll take our fight to Delhi if we have to. Without us, there’s no tea and without tea, there’s no India.”

Published on March 06, 2015

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