'Chaay Garam', organised by People's Film Collective, focused on lives of tea garden workers

Chaay Garam: Speaking up for Rights and Dignity of Tea Garden Workers

In the midst of a nation-wide financial crisis following the central government’s sudden demonitisation announcement of 8th November, there came the terrible news that the weekly wages of tea garden workers in Bengal and Assam had been held up because of the cash crunch, adding to the plights of one of the most exploited sectors of workers in the country.

Their plight came to light in ‘Chaay Garam’, an evening cultural programme held on 14th November at Muktangan Rangalaya auditorium in Kalighat. Around two hundred people turned up for the event, part of the “Kolkata Monthly Documentay Screenings and Conversations” series organised by the People’s Film Collective, an independent political-cultural group.  The films and speakers brought out the dystopic ground situation faced by tea garden workers of Darjeeling and Doors in their everyday lives. The discourse went beyond mere phenomenology, in trying to underline the root causes and factors behind the structural violence.

‘In the tea gardens/ the dreams that our grandparents sowed/ are stolen away by whom?’

‘Laali Guras’ (Rhododendron), an energetic young cultural troupe from Darjeeling, set the tone of the evening through renditions of Nepali songs.  The circumstances of the first song (‘Nabolda Naboldai’) came up in the documentary of the same name directed by ‘Canvas’, which was screened later in the evening. They went on to perform ‘Tu Zinda Hai’ (in Hindi), followed by the rebellious English tune, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’.

'Laali Guras', a young cultural troupe from Darjeeling, performed songs.

‘Laali Guras’, a young cultural troupe from Darjeeling, performed songs.

Samik Chakraborty, activist and documentary film maker, gave a historical primer on the emergence of tea estates, their demography and the political economy of the tea industry, which stretches over a vast area from Aluabari and Islampur to Darjeeling and Mirik, all the way up to the foothills of Terai and Doors.

The Bengal tea plantations first came into existence during the British occupation of India. At that point of time, tea was not organically farmed in India. The British colonisers imported tea plants and seeds in dubious ways from China, where tea was produced in abundance. In the process, vast tracts of agricultural land got converted into tea estates.

A huge workforce of labourers was needed to work in these plantations. The British brought in migrant adivasi workers from the Chotonagpur Plateau, and from Nepal. The migrant labourers, uprooted from the land of their ancestors, settled across this vast area. The Nepali population primarily settled in the hilly terrains of Darjeeling, Mirik, and Doors, whereas migrants from other parts of the country settled mostly in the valley of Jalpaiguri. A significant number of Bengali employees were appointed to manage and oversee the proceedings of the tea estates. Presently, a massive workforce (approximately 4,50,000 people) is engaged directly in the tea plantations, and another 11-12 hundred thousand people are indirectly dependent on these tea plantations for their livelihood.

A bloodied chapter in the 150-year old Margaret’s Hope Tea Garden

A scene from 'Beneath the Bud'

A scene from ‘Beneath the Bud’

Mainak Guha’s short documentary ‘Beneath the Bud’ gave an empathetic observational overview of the open and closed gardens in Doors. The hour-long documentary ‘Nabolda Naboldai’ aimed to juxtapose the occasion of the Goodricke Tea Company’s lavish 150 year anniversary celebrations of the Margaret’s Hope Tea Garden, against the starkly grim picture of the condition of the workers in that plantation. A forgotten and shameful chapter in the history of the garden emerged to tell a back-story that sets the historic context to the present.

A scene from 'Nabolda Naboldai'

A scene from ‘Nabolda Naboldai’

During the colonial rule, there were no labour laws, and tea workers were literally coerced to work without any stipulated work hours or fixed payments. In 1951, the Plantation Labour Act came into existence, the clauses of which defined the way labourers were to be paid, as well as the social security benefits they were entitled to receive for their work. Although the Act was in place, the cup and the lip never came anywhere close. As a result, the labourers revolted, raising their voices against estate owners with demands for time-off from work, bonuses, maternity provisions, and other basic rights which they had been denied. In 1955, to suppress the revolting voices, police opened fire into an assembly of protesting workers in the Margaret’s Hope Tea Garden. Seven workers were shot dead. After this incident, in 1956, new Plantation rules were introduced, with the classification of labourers, minimum wages, whether to be paid in or cash or in kind, and so on.

Denial of Minimum wage and Labour rights

A section of the audience

A section of the audience

In 1991, when India implemented the L-P-G (Liberalization, Privatization, Globalization) economic model, a lot of funds were pumped into the tea estates. Many new plantations cropped up which concentrated on paying the least possible wages, and extracting maximum productivity from the labourers. The workers who were employed in these ‘Naya Bagans’ were more oppressed, as they had to produce more against a daily wage of Rs. 132. For their bare subsistence, the workers had to join part-time in construction sites, or perform menial jobs at other establishments adjacent to their locality.

The workers of tea estates which recently closed down, such as the Goenka Group-owned Duncan Tea Estates (which owned 15 tea gardens), are now getting a meagre wage of Rs. 1500 per month as unemployment ‘benefits’, and are forced to perform the menial jobs to fill the bellies of their family members.

In 2014, the West Bengal state government conducted a survey on the conditions of the tea estates and their workers, but the report was hushed up as it contained much uncomfortable information. Facts were subverted, as the central as well as the state governments have always been hand in gloves with the big tea companies, rather than voicing the demands of the workers.

In another recent case with the Alchemist Group, several tea estates were acquired and, following the path of Duncan’s Goenka, closed down after few months without paying any heed to the fate of the workers. They are now living in the same area – with unkempt tea gardens turned into jungles – without any basic necessities such as electricity, water, food, education and healthcare.

Samik addressing the audience

Samik addressing the audience

Migrations, Myths, and the Movement of 2014

In recent times, many newspapers have reported the stream of malnutrition deaths in the closed tea gardens. Most often these are aged workers and elderly family members. who have no option to leave. However, in mainstream news media we seldom hear about mass migrations. Many have heard the popular song “Chol Mini Assam jabo, Deshe baro bhukh re” (Come, Mini, let’s go to Assam/There’s hunger and starvation in the countryside), but how many know that at present, songs are being written in the gardens on desperate present-day migrations to Kerala and other states, in search of a survival wage? The speakers highlighted this issue, which was also connected with the reported rise in human and girl-child trafficking.

In 2014, an inspiring and popular workers’ movement broke out for implementing minimum wages and labour laws. Eventually, in spite of its great potential and the spontaneous participation of workers, the movement fizzled out untimely, as a section of the Trade Union leadership faltered on the ground, leading to dilution of the much-anticipated ‘Long March’ through the entire region, as well as failure to coordinate mobilisation for a ‘Mass Hunger Strike’.

A section of the audience

A section of the audience

Professor Ajit Kumar Ray, former professor of Operations Research at the University of North Bengal, pointed out the differences in the pattern of production in India vis-à-vis countries like Kenya. Drawing upon facts and figures relating to the production and consumption patterns of tea in domestic and international markets, and emphasizing the patterns and distribution of wages and benefits which the workers are continuously being denied for generations on end, he at once destroyed the myth that the Tea Industry in Bengal was in any sort of crisis from the owners’ point of view; at the same time, he showed that the scaling profits of the industry owners were accruing at the appalling cost of exploitation of the workers.

The programme ended at 9 pm. Many queued up at the books and films stall to collect books on the topic, as well as CDs of the films screened. Biju Toppo’s earlier film ‘Kora Rajee’, on the migrant tea workers of Bengal and Assam, was among the many documentaries available at the stall.

The books and films stall

The books and films stall

Article by Sayan Sanyal 

Edited by Siddhesh Gooptu

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