From Class To Identity Politics

Plight of Plantation Labour in Terai

Swatahsiddha Sarkar

There is no gainsaying the truth that labour intensive tea plantation industry largely constitutes the economic backbone of the three districts (namely, Jalpaiguri, Alipuduar, and Darjeeling) of North Bengal. The tea producing belt of North Bengal, popularly known as Dooars-Terai-Hill tracts, is spread over 1,62,979.12 hectares of land, comprising 276 tea estates and employing more than 2.6 lakh permanent workers (JLC 2013). Since the last two decades more than twenty tea estates of Dooars-Terai-Hill tracts have either been closed down or abandoned and many others are susceptible to the closure-opening gimmicks. While 'no wages', unsafe migration, human trafficking, malnutrition, health hazards and starvation death underlie the plight of plantation labour in the closed down tea gardens, the so-called running tea estates are not free from the problems of casualisation, non-payment of legal entitlements, low wages, retrenchment, and outmigration. All these unlikely though unavoidable developments render the historical geography of the North Bengal tea zone at a key inflection point in which the political and economic concerns of tea industry are rapidly shifting and the livelihoods of the plantation workers are getting seriously threatened.

No wonder that the immediacy of independence did not challenge or obstruct the class basis of the plantation system although laws (like Plantation Labour Act 1951, Employees Provident Funds Act 1952, Payment of Gratuity Act 1972, Equal Remuneration Act 1976, Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act 1986, etc.) were passed and some degrees of security were emphasized. However, the plantation labour continues to remain at the margin and in contemporary time such courses of marginalisation have taken on new shapes and are subject to hitherto unknown processes. Evaluation of these emerging tendencies in the context of North Bengal tea plantations has long been overdue. Of late such an initiative was undertaken in the University of North Bengal (NBU). On August 29, 2017 the Department of Sociology, NBU organised a one-day UGC SAP DRS II supported national seminar on the 'Condition of Plantation Labour in North Bengal Tea Zone' that was attended by social scientists, activists, trade unionists, researchers and students. The engaging discussions that took place throughout the day registered many empirical and theoretical concerns on the problems of plantation labour of the region.

The attempts made in the seminar to explore the condition of plantation labour were not simply prima facie academic responses to their socio-economic condition, but were more carefully crafted attempts that sought to square the contemporary reality of plantation society with its theoretical and philosophical promises. The common theme of all the seven presentations made in the Seminar centered on the questions of exploitation and oppression. Many a paper presenter while reflecting on the ubiquitous animalistic imagery of a physically degenerated race—the plantation labour—argued that the tea plantations of North Bengal provide the raw, human evidence of capitalist estrangement. To elucidate the true essence of the plantation labour the paper presenters actually scrutinised the many representations of despotism and autarchy currently in practice in almost all important social issues in the North Bengal tea zone.

Using political economy approach as his analytical lens trade union activist Abhijit Mazumdar (General Secretary, AICCTU affiliated Terai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union) in his keynote address unearthed the plausible reasons of plantation workers' plight. There happened to be a change in the entire process of tea production immediately after the cold war, Mazumdar argued. He noted two such processes of change. Firstly, the big corporate houses doing tea business worldwide has shifted their capital from the earlier areas of tea production to new areas (specifically in countries like Kenya, Indonesia, Malawi, and Vietnam) where labour laws are either nonexistent or less stringent unlike India. The relocation of tea producing centres has actually encouraged the big tea capitalists to divest their investments in areas where under conditions of deregulation they went on investing in a big way and thereby affecting the industry at the local level. Secondly, since 2005 onwards the corporate houses like Tata Global Beverages and/or Hindustan Unilever Ltd have changed their strategy to control the entire production process locally. While Tata has made the workers as shareholders—owners in black and white—and shifted their focus from production to marketing, the Hindustan Unilever has sold out their all shares to another multinational company McLeod Russell and lifted their hands off from the process of production. The shift from production to branding—to retailing—to retail trading—is evident. Because the profit is there in this shift but not in the conventional mode of tea production that involves the demands of minimum wages to be met and the burden of other overhead expenses to be borne and ultimately making tea enterprise less rewarding as this process yields very low rate of price realisation. This is how the middle segment tea estates are suffering and will continue to suffer while workers' predicament would continue to increase. Mazumdar was of the view that all the benefits for the middle segment tea estates of this region are now gone and the workers of North Bengal plantations are predestined to find themselves as naked among the wolves.

Using Marx's concept of primitive accumulation and Harvey's notion of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2011: 47-49) Arup Kumar Sen (Serampore College, West Bengal) examined the predatory character of tea entrepreneurs operating in North Bengal vis-à-vis the misery of workers and their families in the tea plantations. He showed how during the last two decades the politics of denial and the ensuing plight of the workers has actually created a category of footloose labour in the fifteen gardens owned by the Duncans Industries Pvt Ltd and in other closed down tea estates like Mujnai, Raimatong, Dheklapara or Ramjhora where the plantation workers are degraded and reduced morally and physically to bestiality and destined to live a life robbed of all humanity and legality.

The break-neck developments taking place in the North Bengal tea zone are not only transforming social relations, destroying the old customs and habits, turning the factories into moribund units but also transmuting the plantation labour into something with equally alarming effects. Concerns of this sort were shared by both Rinju Rasaily (Ambedkar University, Delhi) and Fr L P Tirkey (Director, Human Life Development and Research Centre, Matigara, West Bengal). Based on her Phuguri Tea Estate (Darjeeling hills) study Rasaily showed how the precariousness of employment and livelihood options for the tea garden populace making the hill plantations of Darjeeling not only a vulnerable zone but also an emerging site that calls urgent attention to the nuanced delicacies of what is known as working class politics. She observed that ethnic exclusivity and landlessness among the workers coupled with a significant size of dependent population in most tea estates of the hill region have given fillip to an organic nature of working class politics that transpires through ethnicity. She raised some pertinent questions : How to grasp and to analyse the different shreds and patches of class especially when it is characterised by pre-capitalist relationships? How all these going to affect the political capacity of the plantation labour to act as a class? Rasaily's observations were more in tune with the issues that Dipesh Chakrabarty has pinpointed in the context of his famous Calcutta jute mill workers study (Chakrabarty 1989). The transcendence of working class politics from collective bargaining to identity politics has also been reflected by Tirkey. Tirkey evaluated the emergence of ethnically exclusive leadership from within the marginalised Adivasis of Dooars-Terai tea belt—in the fashion of Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP)—as a political force and examined the context within which the micro-politics of the community identity has evolved, got regimented and continued to feed the domain of resistance politics in the Dooars-Terai tea belt with a distinctive Adivasi voice to be reckoned with. Both Rasaily and Tirkey's treatment of the entanglements between ethnicity (Gorkha or Adivasi cause) and class in the hills and Dooars-Terai region respectively were reflective of the methodological shifts that Resnick & Wolff (2002) or for that matter E P Thompson (1966) have referred to as 'class as a process'.

The tea plantations of North Bengal—be they are open or closed, running or abandoned, healthy or sick—are not spaces of frozen status quo, but rather a repository of hidden transcripts of ceaseless social war. Supurna Banerjee's (Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata) presentation seems to have endorsed this. She dwelled upon such small voices of resistances which are mundane, unorganized, with little or no coordination, and prosaic but a site of constant struggle between the women workers and those who seek to deny them their desires, expectations, recognition, self, respect, chastity, wage, food, and work. For the women plantation workers, scattered across the North Bengal tea belt and facing even more imposing obstacles to organised collective action, 'everyday activism', Banerjee maintained, would seem to be particularly important. Using ethnographic evidences from Dooars plantations, she explored the acts of everyday activism of the women workers and examined how through these the protestors embedded, manipulated and even negated the notions of appropriate gender roles, gender spaces and the gendered body. Banerjee's micro narratives on the politics of chastity or of body duality are conceptually not very different from the micro politics of community identity that Rasaily and Tirkey did explore. In all likelihood both 'everyday activism' and 'micro politics of community identity' opens up provisions to raise claims in the political space created through the trajectory of, what Partha Chatterjee calls, the 'politics of the governed' (Chatterjee 2004). Renuca Rajni Beck (Siliguri Mahila Mahavidyalaya, West Bengal) examined the nature of participation of tribal women of Dooars-Terai tea belt in the democratic political processes and the changes that political participation could bring about in the life of the tribal women and tribal communities. Findings of her study however, showed a dismal picture where much of the tribal women in the studied region were found to be still disempowered even though they were enfranchised as political actors already. This is indeed significant to note that the three researchers (Rasaily, Tirkey and Banerjee) while reflecting on the Hills-Terai-Dooars tea belt observed that the trend of politics of labour among the tea plantation workers in North Bengal is shifting from 'macro issues' like say collective bargaining to 'micro issues' like community identity and gender.

While commenting on the condition of plantation labour Anjan Chakrabarti (University of Calcutta) has gone beneath the surface of liberal claims of freedom, equality, and property to rationalise the methodology of unpacking the tea industry in terms of epochs of capitalism, where each epoch is divided in terms of historically different complex combined effects of mutually constituting economic and non-economic processes. The complex combination is what he names as Tea capitalism and their distinct face as changes in its forms. Rather than seeing tea industry in a static way and hence in a historical manner, it is instead seen as a metamorphosis that keeps changing its form. Tea industry is argued to be best understood as historicised. But then, the complex combination or unity that was referred to needs further elaboration. Moving further, this is done by unpacking the 'hidden abode of (tea) production' through which tea capitalism's exploitative organisation of surplus labour and the division between performers (those who do labour) and appropriators (those who take possession of the fruits of the labour and hence are in charge of its distribution as well) in each historical episode get fore-grounded. While not ignoring the effects of other factors that are important, Chakrabarti did try to draw attention to problems of the plantation labour in the way capitalist tea production is organised. Besides the exploitation question and distributional question that are important for highlighting exclusion and inequality in tea societies, what was also important to Chakrabarti is the question of the absence of economic democracy in erstwhile regimes of tea capitalism. This means the following: what to produce, how to produce, who will produce and how the produce is to be distributed are all decisions in which typically workers have no say. Nevertheless, these are decisions central to the organisation of tea capitalism and tellingly workers typically have no relation to these discussed problems of tea industry even though they are being savagely affected by those decisions. Chakrabarti highlighted and criticised this near absence of economic democracy in the production structure of tea industry and did locate the source of all problems of the plantation labour in the way capitalist tea production is organised. Hence, bringing back economic democracy in tea production could be a way to redress the plight of the labour. Chakraborty's insights are not only helpful in situating the question of plantation labour conceptually in relation to the structure of tea capitalism but also they offer a programmatic view as to how the plights of the plantation labour could be amiliorated. In fact, the space occupied by plantation labour is a precarious space that needs to be captured through scrupulous reflections. The Seminar organised by the Department of Sociology, NBU has made modest attempts to meet such ends. While talking about the condition of plantation labour each presenter of the Seminar has contended with the idea, some even attempted to clarify it by capitalising on it while some others attempted to discover and generate the true essence of it and thereby hinted at the possible directions of transforming it.

References :
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (1989): Rethinking Working-Class History, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Chatterjee, Partha (2004): The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, New York: Columbia University Press.
Harvey, David (2011): The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, London: Profile Books.
Marx, Karl (1977): 'The Secret of Primitive Accumulation', in K Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I, Chapter XVII, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Resnick, S and R Wolff (2002): Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR, New York: Routledge.
Thompson, E P (1966): The Making of the English Working Class, New York: Vintage Books.
Joint Labour Commissioner (2013): Survey of Tea Gardens Conducted by Regional Labour Offices under jurisdiction of Joint Labour Commissioner, North Bengal Zone, Siliguri: Office of the Joint Labour Commissioner.

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Vol. 50, No.21, Nov 26 - Dec 2, 2017