The gradual decay

  • Replacement of the 1951 Tea Plantation Act and a strong national regulatory authority are critical for survival of Darjeeling tea

Dec 28, 2016-

Darjeeling tea gardens located in the core of the Eastern Himalayas are one of the oldest and most famous tea ventures in India. Darjeeling brand which adorned Harrods in England to Kinokuniya in Japan and Beijing-Frankfurt-Yangon-Chicago airports to Thamel in Kathmandu, consistently fetched the highest international price, earning millions of hard currency for India for more than 155 years. Today, this orthodox darling of connoisseurs is dithering and wavering even to survive. It is fatally sick with problems ranging from low yield to poor health of workers; steadily falling prices to fleeing management; old and fledgling tea bushes to competition from other sources including nearby districts of Nepal and falling production due to militancy among the workers. All these have not only dislocated thousands of workers but also brought about very visible social and political tensions in the region. Its decay is a classic case of mulching to death by the estate owners, governments and the trade unions. 

An enigma

Once famous for “ winter pause and spring growth phenomenon”, land under tea cultivation has gone down from 20,247 hectares in 1905 to less than 14,000 hectares, the number of tea gardens from 148 to fewer than 85 and the yield per hectare from over 600kg to less than 400kg. Its labour productivity is the lowest in the entire tea map of India. The most worrisome is the fact that the ownership has mostly been usurped by the merchant capitalists and petty traders who have no knowledge of, attachment to and long-term interest in the tea estates of Darjeeling. In the absence of any regulatory institution, these traders with little idea about the history of tea gardens, cultural and livelihood practices in the hills and local socio-political ethos of ‘lock up’, abandon these gardens at their whims and fancies. Well known tea companies have quietly withdrawn and sold off their stakes.

Over 80 percent of tea bushes would be more than 140 years old.  Replantation is negligible and marginal productivity is negative. Estate owners do not have the patience to cope with the gestation period of five to eight years after the replantation. They literally suck these old bushes through over doses of harmful fertilisers and pesticides. Some buyers in the international market have highlighted strong pesticides residues and restricted imports of Darjeeling tea. It hardly affects the psyche of the new set of parasitic owners. Even after the delicate fingers of  tea-plucking women (‘an art by itself’) are afflicted by cancer, the state and the policy-makers are oblivious of the damage to local environment, flora and fauna and the livelihood practices like bee-keeping and dairying. The entire prey-predator relationship is dislocated.

Except for a few, most of the companies blatantly violated the provisions of the Tea Plantation Act 1951. The workers remained deprived of even basic needs like minimum wages, primary health, housing and education. A maximum number of TB patients is reported in the gardens today. Since these were private properties on a long-term lease, government projects including the national poverty alleviation programmes never reached them. Even after the 73rd amendment of the constitution in the early 1990s, the Panchayat act was never extended in practice. For a worker using a smart phone, prices fetched by the Darjeeling tea in the international market continue to remain an enigma. The provident fund defaults are at their height. Garden owners have started selling forest resources to pay gratuity to workers. Social security remains on paper. Casualisation of workers is an institutionalised practice today. The number of workers, which stood at 60,979 in 1961, are now reduced to less than 25,000. 

Sympathetic political reasons

Political parties exploited tea workers to the extent of making them radicals. This diabolical game so notoriously started by the left parties of West Bengal was heightened during the Gorkhaland movement by Gorkha National Liberation Front and later by Gorkha Janamukti Morcha. However, their contribution to tea workers’ well-being was zilch. British companies under the colonial regime used to throw the workers out of the garden precincts under a very whimsical pretext popularly known as “hatta bahira”. Now the workers apply this practice of “hatta bahira” to throw away the parasitic and part-time owners and management.

Trade unions with varied political and ideological affiliations only fought for fringe benefits to the workers but never took up substantive issues like minimum wages, dividend sharing, land and hearth rights and skill development and productivity improvement techniques. A study Tea Plantations Workers in the Eastern Himalayas ( Atma Ram & Sons, New Delhi, 1987) showed that during 1979-1983, over 75 percent of the total 285 strikes and bandhs in these gardens were caused by “sympathetic political reasons”. However, hardly any strikes took place for the issues directly pertaining to the workers. Laying off workers, the “lock up” syndrome, fleeing management and abandoned tea gardens are very common. Some gardens have changed hands four times in 10 years.

The harrowing experiences of workers in government-owned gardens have been another shattering chapter. In some of them under the West Bengal Tea Development Corporations and Tea Trading Corporation of India, there are reported cases of starvation deaths. Besides, with large scale flights of workers to urban conglomerates in India and aborad, the societies and community life remain fragmented and violent. The response of the State is as usual lacklustre and partisan.

No trade union is possibly aware of the devastating impact of climate change on thiese magnificently nature-driven tea gardens. The Tea Board, and ministries like Commerce and Environment and Science and Technology are busy relocating India in the global world, while the Darjeeling tea is fast reaching a death crevice like the 150-year-old cinchona quinine plantation—once the mother cure for the dreaded Malaria—did in nearby Mugpoo and Lathpanchar.

Unless drastic measures like company stakes in at least five gardens for a minimum of 20 years; banning individual ownership; 2 percent compulsory annual re-plantation; implementation of minimum wages act of 1948; extension of all Central Government development projects and operationalisation of the three-tier Panachayati raj are adopted, Darjeeling tea industry will soon be a museum item. Why does tea trading happen in Kolkata and why are all the companies located in Kolkata?

World-heritage site

India disowned colonialism in 1947 yet internal colonialism proliferated in Bengal. Who will break this vicious nexus? Siliguri in Darjeeling district with its easy access to Mongla and Chittagong ports in Bangladesh will be the most attractive trading centre that can pool together tea from Assam, Dooars, Darjeeling and even from Bhutan and Nepal.  Who will think this way even after the series of India-Bangladesh bilateral agreement and the floating of promising sub-regionalism

concept like Bangladesh-Bhutan-India and Nepal (BBIN) growth quadrangle?

There are scores of buyers and niche markets, particularly in Europe, US and East Asia including Japan that aspire to buy tea directly from the gardens. Fair trading is now talked about. Makaibari and Ambootia experiments with the harvesting of organic tea have been useful. This practice needs to be replicated in a more scientific and organised manner. This will also match the changing nature of global demand. The world is celebrating herbal and varieties of value-added tea sachets, champagnes, wine and aphrodisiacal doses, all made from Darjeeling tea. So why does each garden not have two parallel factories, one devoted to the traditional bulk tea and another to value addition at the garden level? There are scores of foreign direct investors, Like Dilmah tea of Sri Lanka, that are keen to undertake this. The act of the bestowing of Geographical Indicator for safeguarding Darjeeling’s intellectual property tenet has been widely acclaimed. Could we go one step further to get this entire industry enshrined in Unesco’s World Heritage List?

Besides legislation to rejuvenating these gardens, replacement of the 1951 Tea Plantation Act and a strong national regulatory authority are critical today.


Lama teaches in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and, along with Dr RL Sarkar, wrote the first book on Tea Plantation Workers in the Eastern Himalayas in 1987. He can be reached at mahendra_lama1961@yahoo.co.in



Published: 28-12-2016 08:16

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