Tea And Death

Plight of Plantation Workers

Vaskar Nandy

In West Bengal, the tea question is discussed politically only when there are reports of starvation deaths. Usually the number of deaths is trotted out to put the state government of the day, the Left Front earlier and the Trinamul Congress today, to the sword of ignorant criticism. Very little attention is focused on successive Union governments who, empowered by the enactment of the Tea Act (1953), have had almost absolute power over the management and functioning of tea estates. The state governments have very little power in those domains and these are limited to granting or cancelling land leases, prosecuting violations of labour and workers' welfare laws and not much else. Planters are registered and licensed by that creature of the central ministry of Commerce and Industry, the Tea Board, that was brought into being by the Tea Act. The real power to punish planters, such as those who indulge in the most egregious malfeasance, is contained in Section 16 of the Tea Act and rests with the Tea Board and ultimately with the central commerce ministry.

Tea labourers have always in their thousands because of management. When the gardens of Assam and the Dooars were being set up in the mid-nineteenth century, the labourers came largely from the Jharkhandi cultural area of West Bengal, Jharkhand proper and Orissa. These tribals, dalits and lower OBC peasants were lured to the gardens once the Permanent Settlement zamindars and the moneylenders seized their lands and created famine conditions. Some 80 percent of the recruits to Assam alone died in transit (Amalendu Guha) comparing not unfavourably with the conditions in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Conditions within plantations were rife with Malaria, Kalazar, Pneumonia, Dyssentry, Diarrhoea and other local diseases, all taking their toll from famished bodies in their thousands. When news filtered back to the villages from where the first recruits came, the people started beating, sometimes killing, the recruiters who would come bearing the much rehearsed and glad tidings of paradisaic conditions in the tea gardens. The recruitment scene then shifted to coastal Orissa and contiguous tribal belts of the Madras Presidency, now in Andhra. Here the methods were really sinister. The government deliberately engineered famines and transferred the hungry and the dying to the gardens of Assam and Bengal.

Those wonderful humanitarians here and in the West, and the new-grown capitalists of China who gloat over the famine in China blaming the Great Leap Forward solely, and parenthetically socialism itself without mentioning the pertinent fact that Kruschev was punishing China by withholding promised grain supplies on ideological grounds, should pause over how capitalism, from its very, inception, and the recently sprouted capitalists such as people see in India today, create famines in their accumulation.

So it was that right from the day of recruitment, managements and the British imperialist government, which colluded and encouraged the former, the tea worker was fated to die in droves. The same story continues even in the new, semi-colonial, dispensation, except that the new ruling class has embellished old, British legal initiatives with humanitarian honey, such as in the case of the Plantation Labour Act of 1951 and the Tea Act, and they have, it is true, reduced preventable deaths from millions to thousands, but the facts are distorted by "management speak" taught by the US imperialists.

Cut to for a well-recorded story of starvation deaths before one comes to the ongoing 21st century example. Unilever, which controls nearly 40 percent of the Indian retail trade in tea, began a stand-off with the government of India with a fairly sound India government foreign exchange regulation which the multinational had blatantly flouted. When the Indian authorities insisted on compliance, the multinational withdrew from the tea auctions in India (1999). The price of tea at the auctions collapsed. It was a full-scale crisis. Thirty-two Gardens in the Dooars eventually closed shutters. But the stand-off continued. And the auction prices remained very low but, in spite of the lies told in the media by the crude Marwari managements, still above all costs, the internal demand for tea being still so strong. Unilever returned to the auctions in 2004 only after the Government of India capitulated to its flouting of regulation.

Not all gardens closed, less than 20 percent of them. The closed gardens were already "sick". The reasons for this so-called sickness should be investigated so that the wider labour movement and the progressive public can realize fully the extent of the causes that account for so many working class deaths, both now and earlier. Most of the closed gardens had received huge grants from the Tea Board, always generous to the planters, and facilitated even greater monies from pliant state-owned banks at low interest rates for various improvements and, especially, to replace tea bushes which should have been uprooted and replaced by new plants. Only a miniscule percentage of bushes were replaced, mostly in healthy gardens managed by genuine planters and not Marwari traders who received the Tea Board's largesse and transferred the monies to other accounts as part of their all-pervading practice of asset-stripping in their plantations. Naturally, with bushes that are sometimes ninety years old—leaf production in bushes begin to decline in quality roughly after 30-35 years—production suffered. Loss of productivity due to bush ageing is only a part of the story of the still continuing story of the sick gardens. More relevant is the massive and continuous asset stripping in the gardens. The principal vehicle for asset stripping is ex-garden sales. Such sales were not permitted during the British raj and for decades afterwards. Compulsory sale at auctions was a means of finding the price and maintaining quality for so heterogeneous a product as tea—the quality of tea varies in bushes from season to season and even in the various flushes of leaves in the same bushes. Auction sales are recorded, and, therefore, the accounts of the garden remain fairly transparent, in spite of the degeneration of the auction system through many corrupt practices. Off-factory sales are recorded by the management. By showing lower prices in their books managements siphon off funds which should have been received by the enterprise. This is the basic truth about most tea-gardens that show  huge losses as the cause of sickness. There are never any losses; the profit is simply siphoned off. The central government's collusion, of both the Congress and the BJP, in this off-factory subterfuge is clear. First, the Congress allowed 25 percent off-factory sales, but without a proper inspectorate in place which allowed the conversion of 25 percent to almost unlimited amounts. Later, the Vajpayee government brushed aside all limitations and allowed the reality to assert itself by allowing up to 100 percent off-factory sales. Apart from off-factory sales, then is also the matter of only four major auctioneers (owned wholly or substantially by big tea interests), and rampant corruption in which both the small and the big planters participate.

Finding the price at auction becomes very problematic in view of the structure and functioning of the auction system. It would be worth quoting from a memorandum by Paschim Banga Cha Bagan Sramik Karmachari Union, submitted (2003) to the Anupam Sen Committee to look into the tea crisis then raging. "When the Commerce Ministry and the Tea Board woke up to crashing prices, they asked A F Ferguson &Co to study the auction system. According to the Hindu Business on line, the Ferguson study 'found the auction system deficient on both fundamental principles and the auction process. The study states that it is possible for a buyer to buy his entire requirement of tea without being physically present even placing a single bid. The same buyer could also buy his entire annual quantity at the auctions without being physically present even on a single occasion. Ferguson & Co apparently thinks that the 'need of the hour is to beef it (the auction system) up through a host of measures... including auction reforms... and liberalization of auction organizers". Over the last few years some reforms have taken place, but crucial and important ones are being resisted, as can be seen in the recent strike at the Siliguri auction.

Meanwhile, the deliberately made sick gardens stop paying their dues to the PF and at the same time, in criminal breach of trust, misappropriate the workers' contributions which they deduct from their wages. Similarly, the deductions from the wages for insurance are also misappropriated. The Plantation Labour Act is totally ignored. Soon the payment of wages (in kind and in cash) becomes irregular and sporadic, until they stop altogether and the managements flee the scene, sometimes literally.

During the 1999-2004 stand off with Unilever and the fall in the auction prices, some 32 gardens closed. The effect was devastating for the workers and their families, especially the workers and their children. The CPI(M) and the RSP had the largest unions in the tea gardens. They and the Left Front government denied that there were any malnutrition of hunger deaths in the closed gardens. But the newspapers continued to report such deaths. A people's tribunal was constituted (April, 2004) with justice Hospet Suresh, retired Bombay High Court Judge, as the Chairperson. The other members of the panel were, Harsh Mander, ex-Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh, K Chatterjee, recently retired chief of the premier planters' organization (ITA) of the region, Manash Dasgupta, Emeritus professor of economics at North Bengal University specializing on the tea industry, several current university professors specializing on the current economy and polity of the region, a senior counsel of the Bombay High Court specialising in local law and a prominent local lawyer.

The tribunal went about its business very thoroughly. It visited six closed gardens where the newspapers had reported massive number of deaths due to hunger, having given prior notice about holding public hearings at those gardens. As one present at those hearings, this writer doesn't think he will ever forget till the dying day the harrowing testimony of the neighbours and family members of those who died from prolonged hunger and its attendant illnesses and the bursting of pent up anger against the planters, the trade union chieftains and the administration. The tribunal then invited all elected representatives from the region, trade union leaders, NGOs, journalists and civil society organizations concerned about the tea industry for a day-long hearing. Left Front MLAs and MPs did not appear. The top administration officials did not take up the invitation, but they met the tribunal separately with the undertaking not to divulge what they said. Prominent among the CPI(M) leaders was a CITU leader who denied deaths due to hunger, but on cross examination by the tribunal conceded that there may have been a few deaths due to malnutrition.

The day after the hearing the tribunal had a long discussion and concluded that many of the fundamental rights of the tea workers had been blatantly violated and that by April 2004, more than eight hundred persons had died of malnutrition due to prolonged hunger.

To these "more than 800" deaths due to hunger, one must add more, because although the death rate decelerated, such deaths continued till at least 2007 due to the extremely tardy implementation of the Supreme Court order (Writ 186 of 2001) regarding food, work, medical care etc. Newspaper reports and this writer's own direct investigations confirm that a conservative estimate would give another 4-5 hundred souls that perished in those three years. That comes to a grand total of nearly 1200 hunger deaths between 2001 and 2007. Others have put that total much higher.

At present, more than 20 gardens remain closed. Some of these gardens had closed earlier also. Their sickness came about much the same way as earlier. But there is a large number of gardens, 16 of them, which hadn't closed earlier and which belong to one family, the famous Goenkas of Kolkata. This was not always so. Till a few years ago the gardens belonged to a company named Duncan Agro-Industries, also owned by the Goenkas. It was said that this was a merger in the name of greater efficiency.

Most of these gardens were at one time managed by the British managing agents, Duncan Brothers. Before the Goenkas took over thee gardens, they were among the most profitable and they produced very high-quality tea. A comparison with the fate of the Duncan Brothers gardens that were acquired by the multinational Goodricke (a subsidiary of the Camellia group, probably the greatest tea conglomerate in the world) shows that the Goodricke gardens are thriving and their record of PLA compliance is almost impeccable. So what was amiss in the Goenka gardens? The gardens had weathered the tsunami of closures between 2001 and 2004 when they were owned by Duncan Agro-Industries. These gardens started on a problematic path soon after the transfer of ownership to Duncan Industries. This company is a large corporate house with many industries and businesses. The profits from the gardens—no healthy gardens can ever go without profit—were absorbed by the new company and very little came back for the absolutely required work of husbandry. A good look at the bushes of these gardens will tell any planter or worker about the sad state of husbandry—pruning, weeding, clearing the drains, irrigation, fertilization etc. Loss of profitability followed, as it always does when careful husbandry is missing. Swiftly, the usual story of sickness came trotting out. Crores of rupees were defalcated from the workers' contribution to the PF; wages (both in kind and cash) were paid irregularly; electricity bills were collected from workers but not paid in to the electricity company—what would the Goenkas say to any one who failed to pay his/her bills to the CESC?—the PLA was forgotten, i.e. housing, health, sanitation etc. All the gardens went sick at roughly the same period because all of them were simultaneously drained of their profits by no doubt some creative accounting at Duncan Industries. The result is there for everyone to see: more than 200 deaths from hunger and thousands dying. Each of these gardens is like a Bosch painting of hell.

The closed gardens other than those of Duncans are the usual culprits. A large number of them were closed in the earlier period. Some of them opened and shut their gardens frequently since then. Now they are closed long term. Some of them will probably not open again, unless large capital investment and non-asset stripping entrepreneurs are found. Cooperatives of workers may be an option but that will have to await the active consent of both the state and central governments. The most successful cooperative, in fact the only one, Sonali, was wrecked by a malevolent minister of the CPI(M) government. The Jalpaiguri district Trinamul president talked for a while about starting a cooperative in a closed garden, but the idea seems to have lost steam. The latest spell of hunger deaths could have been much worse, almost as bad as during the 1991-4 spell when the Left Front was not only in denial but also acted to their own propaganda and did not do much in the way of relief. When the Supreme Court ordered (Writ 186 of 2001) the state government that the families in closed gardens have to be given: (1) 35 kilos of grain at subsidized rates; (2) 15 days of SGRY work per month; and, (3) medical attention with free medicines etc, the state government took months to implement the order. This ensured further deaths and sufferings. In fact the state government tried to get its relief act together only after the Governor came in 2007 on a well-publicised tour of the distressed gardens and saw for himself the horrible lack of compliance with the Supreme Court order of 2004.

The present government's PDS machinery is working fairly smoothly. The hospital and medicines being free have also brought welcome relief. This difference between the Left's performance and the TMC"s has ensured a clean wash out for the Left in the Dooars tea belt. When Jairam Ramesh was in charge of tea as the Commerce minister, he came to the area and boasted that the government had never had to use Section 16 of the Tea Act to take over a garden. A strange boast from a heartless politician after the large number of deaths just as he spoke. This year the central government has ordered the takeover of 7 Goenka gardens (why not all of them?) but has left out Bangalore, the most distressed garden in the Dooars. Ordering is one thing, but implementation is another matter. The Goenkas have gone to the High Court and have got a stay order. This is not unexpected from this court which refused to punish the PF swindlers (clear breach of trust) and allowed the swindlers to return the monies misappropriated in very comfortable instalments. Then there is the very opaque process by which the Tea Board is selecting willing buyers. Moreover, why is the government not running these gardens while they get suitable buyers? It is not as if the government has no experience in the running of gardens. In the Dooars itself run fairly well by Andrew Yule, a central government-owned company. Where there is a will, there is a way but what can be done if the will genuflects towards the hard taskmasters in Washington who may not like even a whiff of nationalism? A worker or any member of his/her family always walks a tightrope between life and death: no safe potable tap water, open drains as sanitation and no toilets, either at home or at work site, housing, inadequate as it is, not undergoing even the minimum repairs for decades and very hard work in rain and cold both for the adults and the children. No wonder the bodies are lacerated in their core by malnutrition and disease. Any irregularity in the payment of wages means terrible hazards, not the least of which is the presence of payday loan sharks, usually trade union leaders or their agents, the goonda conglomerate in all the gardens, so dearly loved by managements for their information-gathering and muscle power. When wage payments cease, the weakest on the tight rope fall off into perdition. Thus the hundreds of dead in closed gardens. Many of those who survive are not better off, lamenting that Yama had not granted his boon. The wages are so meager that savings are almost unthinkable. The children who drink at their mother's breast do not usually suffer from malnutrition up to five years of age. The mid-day meal at school and the supplementary food at the ICDS centre are raising nutritional indices. This is very important, unless Modi attempts to abolish or modify the system or even squeeze the finances. It is important because it is in childhood up to about nine or ten years of age that the brain develops its cognitive and conative powers. Most tea garden children, up to 90 percent in some gardens, are not stunted just physically but mentally. To this mental deficiency is added the further burden of having primary education in one of two, Hindi and Bengali, non-mother tongue languages. This is highly undesirable even for healthy children as all the experts, including the UN, say. The only commission that the GOI constituted in its sixty years of existence, the Kothari Commission, recommended that the mother tongue, when it is different from the official language(s) should he used at the primary level and the transition to the standard language in the area could be done by bridge courses. One recent constitutional amendment has made it optional for the states to adopt this policy. But the Bengali chauvinist ears of the CPI(M) or the TMC do not hear it when millions of Jharkhandis or Kamatapuris demand primary education in their mother tongues, Sadri and Kamatapuri. The CPI(M) spoke the language of guns and the wily Mamata announced the formation of an Academy for the Rajbanhshi language, trying her divisive ideology of dividing up the Kamatapuri speakers. No one speaks for the huge Sadri-speaking population of the tea gardens except themselves. The result of this language policy is clear. The children do not and cannot understand what is being taught; earlier they dropped out but today they do not do that. They wait for the mid-day meal, eat it and then run away. Some children with exceptionally achievement-oriented parents manage to scale the language barrier, mostly in the Hindi medium schools and colleges. So there are now hundreds of boys and girls who have passed the Higher Secondary examination and have graduated. But they cannot get into simple school master jobs because there are no training institutes for the diploma course or a BEd college for Hindi medium students in North Bengal.

The lack of proper education for the Jharkhandi students means that they are only ready for back-breaking physical labour, either in the garden and its vicinity or in remote corners of India. Some of the girls are lured into prostitution.

As long as the tea wages are a pittance, as long as education does not begin with the mother tongue, and as long as there is no strong inspectorate to oversee the off-factory sales and the compliance with the PLA, the workers will continue to suffer. For 33 of its 34 years of governance, the CPI(M) would shout down any demand for a minimum wage.

When the 2011 election came close, it suddenly woke up to the need for a minimum wage, but before any such wage could be announced, the Election Commission's rules came into force. So for 34 years, the "working class party" failed to declare a minimum wage. When the deluge came, the opportunity was lost. The present government formed a proper minimum wage committee before the last election but it has shamelessly dilly-dallied over conducting the committee's business. Recently, the central government has announced that it will demand a minimum wage in the tea industry. That will be a boon as the Kerala tea workers are already getting a statutory minimum wage that is more than three times the wages in West Bengal. On this question at least the Kerala Left appears to be more working class-oriented than their West Bengal counterparts.

At present there are two urgent needs in the gardens: a suitable minimum wage and instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage. Genuine leftists must rally with the tea workers to get what they need.

Vol. 49, No.4, Jul 31 - Aug 6, 2016