A Survey

Crisis in Tea Industry of West Bengal–1

Aswini Kumar Pramanik & Nityananda Ghosh

The agro-based industries in West Bengal have a long history. Especially the tea and jute industries deserve special mention. These are in the organised sector with thousands of labourers employed therein. Still these have been the most troubled industries in the state for long. History shows that there were good old days for Jute industry attracting labourers from across the country. But recent past witnessed only retrenchment, lay-off, lock-out and all that which tell of the end of its colourful past. However, mill owners' claim about its bad health is not without purpose. The industry is not dead still, though, but only limping and earning profits when in motion. But it is claiming huge government subsidies for its technological up-gradation and survival. The Tea industry,on the other hand, was an export-oriented industry since its inception, owned mostly by colonial masters to cater to their needs in the country of their origin. The labourers were the Adivasis of the Chotonagpur plateau, Orissa, Tamilnadu, Madhya Pradesh and some locals. They were low paid, ill fed from the beginning and tortured to extreme exploitation in an alien land like the plantation areas of Bengal and Assam. History tells of brutal murder of hundreds of them when they secretly attempted to escape the gardens at the dead of night and to go back to their native place. The living bodies were brought back and engaged forcefully to the gardens. The Adivasis have since been there in the gardens eking out a poor livelihood for themselves and their families. Today the colony is over. But their condition has not changed much. They are subjected to starvation deaths and all those related ills that prevail in the tea industry. But why? Simply that very question haunted the present authors and compelled them to undertake a survey in the tea gardens of Darjeeling district and in the Dooars region in the month of November '22 to find an answer ,if at all, to it. Here's what is their study in some randomly selected tea gardens of the above areas.

The study pays attention to a report published in www.dnaindia by Amrita Madhukalya on 7 th December ,2015.The report says that 65 workers died in North Bengal tea gardens owing to starvation. The deaths relate to thegardens as hereunder:

Gardens                    No of deaths
Birpara Tea Estate                           21
Hantapara Tea Estate                     16
Dhumchipara Tea Estate               15
Gargandya Tea Estate                    07
Nageswari Tea Estate                     06

Rajmon Lohar of the Hantapara Tea Estate of the Duncan Group died of severe colic pain for more than 15 days and breathed his last on 15 September 2015.No treatment he got in any hospital or any health centre. And he left behind his wife Behani Lohar and their four offspring. One among them is a physically challenged. The family owes a debt of Rs Ten Thousand. The little ones work as stone crushers to get the family going.

The story does not end with Lohar family only. This was the fate of thousand labourers and their families in the closed tea gardens. There were twenty five closed tea gardens in the Terai-Doors region citing the cause of huge cost of production. The horrific situation drew the attention of the High Court of Calcutta and the Hon'ble Court intervened under the leadership of the Hon'ble Justice Smt Manjula Chellur to get some relief to the workers of the affected gardens. The situation didn't changed much, although.

There is another report of The Centre for Education and Communication, Delhi and the UTUC WB (March 2002–Feb 2003) which reveals that there were thirty closed tea gardens in North Bengal and the number of workers' death was 240 during that period. (ref: Nityananda Ghosh in Parichoy Nov 2005–Jan 2006, pp 29-30).

Again in 2010-11 there was closure of 14-15 tea gardens. ‘Right-to -Food Campaign India’ conducted a survey in some twelve gardens where data were available and found that the total number of affected labourers was 18323 and that of the families was 11196. And the total population distressed was 74190. They further reported that their survey in 14 affected families reveals that the per capita calorie intake of ten families was less than 1800 unit whereas the same for seven more families was even worse–it was less than 1400 unit. The intake of egg and other nutritious food was almost nil. And it is worth mentioning that the most affected were the women workers in any family since they constitute 70% of the workforce.

Apart from the above mentioned organization, other NGOs, Citizens’ Rights Forums, FIAN International and many other conscious and concerned people brought the fact to light that the women workers don't get even 1% of the price of one KG of tea as their wages a day. This type of utter exploitation, low wages, and closure of gardens force the womenfolk to take to prostitution. There is the child labour again–the children were bound to work for more than twelve to fourteen hours a day. The constitutional provision against the child labour does not have access to this wild empire. The child labour is hence, cheap and extremely exploitative. This picture can have its parallel in the western classics depicting the sub-human exploitation in the seventeenth and eighteenth century capitalist development in the UK and other western world. Therefore, the deaths of 65 or 100 or 242 are not more than mere statistics which are quite natural and unavoidable in this garden economy.

But the state Govt, of the period i.e., 2004-05 or 2015 did never admit that there were any starvation deaths in the tea gardens at that time. They rather invented a new theory that no starvation but malnutrition may be the reason for the deaths quoted or otherwise. This is no doubt an innovative definition for the deaths! The workers who could not earn a whole meal for the family members naturally throws the members into so many deficiencies including of nutrition. The issues of nutrition and calorie intake etc. only point to the basic requirement of a handful of rice for the starving members. It becomes a simple joke when the question of rice is overshadowed by the catchy word 'malnutrition'. There was a particular purpose for this trickery by the rulers. They wanted to divert the attention of the middle class people by this oft repeated term malnutrition popular in their parlance and to befuddle the suffering workers by such innovation. Did the workers get convinced? Their experience taught them other bitter truth.

True to say, the Govts., then and afterwards were no different in their innovation and wanted to disown their responsibility of that crucial situation. And they could preach this vulgarism in a democratic system. And again, the irony is that this democratic system also exposed the rulers' hypocrisy by throwing the question of hunger to the sane intelligentsia. The Hon'ble High Court of Calcutta too intervened. The Right to Food Campaign India, an NGO led by Mrs Anuradha Talwar conducted survey among a wider number of tea garden workers and finally took the agenda to the highest judiciary for a solution of the serious issue. It is seen afterwards that the state and the central govt. had to share some responsibility. The rationing system was introduced among the tea garden workers then. The Central Govt. is distributing 5 kg and the state govt. is distributing 35 kg of rice /atta per head per month to the tea garden workers now. This was continued before and after the epidemic period also. This has helped lessen the starvation death count to a large extent. However, there are two opinions about the scheme's coverage and some say that there is misuse of the scheme with particular reference to workers belonging to small and closed gardens. A lot many have remained outside the rationing scheme or are delisted from the BPL category. The trade unions affiliated to ruling party, however, deny there is any such deviation.

This third party intervention viz the State's intervention has contributed to the changed reality but at the same time it has obfuscated the role of the tea garden owners to their workers. To amplify. The owners have the responsibility to ensure that their workers are sufficiently paid to survive for the interest of production. It is of course ,in an ideal situation. Contrary to this ideal situation. the workers are paid only for their survival and not that for the family members. The family members–the womenfolk and the children have necessarily to enroll themselves to earn their own daily bread. This uncertainty in a worker's family life is the stark reality which the present system of production nurtures for profit at the base /factory level and for continuation of the class rule in the State structure. It therefore, becomes incumbent upon the State to come to the relief of the owners whenever any such situation arises. In this case, the rationing system has served that purpose. The Govt. is projected here as the representative of a benevolent State, always at the service of the workers. What a wonderful arrangement! Anyway, the starvation death is brought down to a certain level but not completely eradicated. Thanks to the NGOs. the civil liberty organizations and the intellectuals for whatever relief could be achieved for the workers. Strikingly, the government agencies, namely Tea Board and umpteen departments did play no role or poor role to that end.

Does the prevailing situation augur any better condition now than the ones in 2004-05 or 2015?

The survey undertook that question into consideration and conducted its tasks in the following tea gardens to find an answer:

Happy Valley Tea Estate
Date of Survey : 20.11.2022

Garden Established in : 1854 AD

Founder of the Garden : Mr David Wilson. The Garden was named after him at that time and was titled –Wilson Tea Estate.

The Garden was later on purchased by Mr Tarapada Banerjee of Hooghly District in 1903. He then merged the Windsor Tea Estate with this garden. The Garden again changed its name to Happy Valley Tea Estate in 1929.

The tea plants accordingly are aged nearly 80 to 150 years.

This garden is the second oldest tea garden in Darjeeling District. There are ten more tea gardens under the estate. The owner is Mr Sanjay Bansal of the Ambutia Group since the year 2008. The latest hand over of its ownership had taken place in favour of one Mr Riju Agarwal.

Mr Sanjay Bansal did organize one tea estate namely Darjeeling Organic Tea Estate Private Limited with a view to revitalizing the sick and closed tea gardens of the area. The Ambutia group then undertook the ownership of three tea gardens : Rungmuk Cedar Tea Estate, Pandam Tea Estate and Rangarun Tea Estate. But now the ownership of the Happy Valley Tea Estate itself is ultimately transferred.

Obviously, Happy Valley is much more famous than others. It has an area of 177 hectares (440 acres) and is situated at an altitude of 2100 meter above sea level and three km north of Darjeeling beside 1 Lebong Road.

The number of permanent labourers : 1500. The rest are casual workers.

Since the garden is located at a high altitude, its production starts at a later date. But the demand for its first flush and second flush leaf is worldwide. It ranks among the top international exporters of tea. The FAO of UN among others, has accorded it a rare prestige of a model tea garden. These accolades ,however, don't speak all of the garden. The workers who are at the root of all these good standings are far away from this bright light. The surveyors witnessed on their day of survey that the tea gardens of this group are under a spell of strike since 19.11.2022, i.e. the day before the visit. The Factory and Garden management was therefore, beyond the reach of these surveyors for any data, in spite of local level communications with them. Their Kolkata office too was non communicative despite repeated requests for data.

Cause of the Strike: According to the labourers who could be communicated ,they have not been getting salary for four months since August last. As per official guidelines, the pruning of the tea plants continues from 15 December to 15 February of every year. The first flush starts after 15 February. Now the Management has thrown the labourers in a peculiar situation saying that if the workers want to do the required work i.e. pruning etc, they can do it of their own. The Management is unable to pay them any remuneration for those work. Hence, the call for strike is spontaneous and all embracing. All the 60-70 factory workers and 250-300 field workers have participated in the strike. Even all the other gardens of the group also participated in it.

The surveyors could talk to the spouse of a women worker within the factory campus where they have built their house. He told that,

*    there is reduction of rationing in the garden
*    there is reversal of welfare measures like school facility and tuition fees, health services etc.
*    no construction of houses in the labour lines; neither repairs of the existing quarters are undertaken by the management. They only allow construction of the houses by the workers themselves in a small plot of land fixed for them, at their own cost.
*    the EPF deducted from the workers' salary are not refunded after retirement.

But he remained non-committal as to which organization had given such a big call. He emphasized in reply the role of the workers themselves. Moreover, there was a subtle tone of no-confidence in all existing trade unions. Even the administration was not spared in this regard. However, he admitted that they were not affiliated to any established trade unions.
This emptied the surveyors of the necessary statistics as regards target for production and export which is a very relevant factor for the survey of this garden. The only truth that was laid bare before the surveyors was that all was not well with these export centric big tea gardens where the strike call was for a genuine cause and that it gained all out support from the workers of all the gardens of the group. A unique experience gathered in this survey!

Next to that was the over confidentiality maintained by the management in disseminating information to the media. Statutory information had to be provided to the official agencies for various reasons and interests but not to the media for some queer reasons best known to themselves. This experience is not specific to this garden alone but can be had from some other big garden as the survey work proceeds.

Makaibari Tea Estate
Next target of the survey was Makaibari Tea Estate. It is located not far away from Kurseong. The survey team arrived at the factory on 21.11.2022 at around 1.30 pm. Unfortunately, Mr Sujay Das, the Manager had left the office. Since he was the ‘competent person’ to provide all such required information, his departure left the team without direct information about the garden. Even the identity card of the journalist whatsapped to him on his demand, could not ensure a phone call from him next morning even though that was his commitment. Consequently the team had to depend on some indirect knowledge from a collection of articles published in various newspapers of repute. The data available were

*    the area of the garden : 677 hectares
*    the garden was established in : 1840 AD by Mr G.C Banerjee
*    the factory established in : 1859 AD

The present owner Mr Rudra Chatterjee got the ownership transferred from the great-grandson Mr Swaraj (Raja) Banerjee at some time after 2010. Mr Raja Banerjee converted the Tea Garden into an ‘Organic’ farming garden in the year 1988 and again to ‘bio-dynamic’ phase years later. It is claimed to be the first of its kind in the world. It was a very bold initiative in the tea farming. This is how the Makaibari Tea Estate is commended in an article published in the New York Times by Mr Manish Mishra dt 14.10.2007. But the team's persistent endeavour for further basic information in their Kolkata office fell flat owing to the non-cooperative attitude of a section of top officials. Unfortunately, the office’s search for the ‘competent person’ went on for more than a month to compel the team to leave the agenda.

Castleton Tea Garden
On 22.11.2011 in the morning, the team went to Castleton Tea Garden ,a garden under Goodricke Group, situated at a walking distance from Kurseong town. The admission was restricted and hence a look at the workers from afar plucking leaves in the garden was enough for the team to redirect its destination to the factory office of the garden some yards away. The Manager of the factory, Mr Rajkumar Sinha agreed to provide the information. A very well mannered person did offer a cup of garden tea to the team members.

The data which he provided were:

*    the area of the garden : 318 hectares
*    total no of workers : 550
*    No of office staff : 70  

The leaf plucking workers earn a salary of Rs 3000-5000 every 15 days, This includes their salary of Rs 2000 + additional income.

On an average, the garden exports to the extent of 40-50% of their production. However, the export has got a jerk due to Ukraine War.

Secondly, the cost of production has gone up excessively. Simultaneously, Nepal has thrown up a challenge in the export market. The lower cost of production of the Nepal tea has added an advantage for their export potential over others.

He informs further that there are 300 tea gardens under Goodricke Group of which 12 are in the Dooars region. This is the only foreign company which is in this trade. Eight Sterling companies merged with the Goodricke Group and began its journey from 1 January, 1978 by an order of the Hon’ble High Court of Calcutta. The philosophy of this group is ‘Business with a soul’ The aim is to produce high quality tea commensurate with the high standard of living of the workers. And of course, the environment gets due place in their production process. This particular outlook separates them from others and earns them a unique position in the tea industry. ( This group is part of Camelia plc-UK. They conduct their business with due diligence to FERA.

Mr Sinha confirms that the Goodricke Group as a whole is doing good business and has been in profit. And yet they are maintaining their welfare measures for the workers. Every garden including Castleton Tea Garden has their hospital and doctors. And there are the housing and school facilities for the workers. In a word, the company expends a large amount of money for the welfare of the workers every year.

The tea plants lived on this earth for hundred years or even more. The number of the leaves and their quality deteriorate as a natural law. The law necessitates, therefore, the replantation and new plantation in new lands to maintain the standard. The large gardens consistently maintain this process. The Goodricke group undertakes new plantation every year at a rate of 2.5%—said Mr Sinha. And last of all, he informs that thanks to the Panchayat Raj System, the gardens have now come under the rationing system.

Regarding finance, they don't face any difficulty and are managing their transaction with some big banks of the land.

The team now turns to the plain land gardens of Dooars region. The survey here concentrated on three tea gardens viz. Gopalpur Tea Garden–a little bit away from Birpara, Beech Tea Garden of the Western Group near Hasimara. and Dima Tea Garden of Kalchini.

The visit to these tea gardens was preceded by interviews with some veteran trade unionists attached to the tea industry. Their valuable opinions have been placed latter in this article.

Gopalpur Tea Garden
It is a much acclaimed 'Model' tea garden. The administration utilizes it as such for its own interest and propaganda. But why is it called a ‘Model’?

The management and the trade union leadership both hold that it is a model tea garden because for years there is no industrial unrest and there is peace in the garden. Moreover, its area and capacity for production make it advanced in comparison with other tea gardens in the locality.

The statistics that could be gathered are as follows:

Area of the garden : 1250 acres. The total area of the land is 2050 acres.

Production in 2021 there was a production of 13 lakh kilogram, 90% of which was auctioned in Siliguri Auction centre. The average price per kg is Rs 250/.

No of workforce : 1200 which include both office staff and garden workers.

The top staff structure : 1 Manager, 8 Asst. Managers (field) 3 Asst. Manager (factory).

Present Owner : Mr Ratan Somani (Kolkata).

Total No of tea gardens : 23, scattered around Birpara and its neighborhood.

The garden was established in the year 1912 under the ownership of Mr Biren Ghosh.

Trade Unions: In all these gardens, the INTTUC affiliated trade unions are the majority ones. Once dominated by the left trade unions ,its members shifted two years back to the BMS led trade unions. The INTTUC led trade union secretary Mr Nikhil Baraik had joined these surveyors to have a round of the factory. Thanks to Mr Pranab Mishra, the Manager for providing the above noted data about the Garden.

Mr Mishra also confirmed in the presence of Mr Baraik that the Garden has paid Bonus to the workers@ 20%. He further informed that the garden maintains the welfare measures for its workers like a hospital with doctor and nurse ready all the time. The other measures to mention are provision of school bus although there is no school in the garden premises. The govt. aided school, of course, exists nearby. The residential accommodations in the labour lines are built up by the workers themselves. The garden management doesn't take any responsibility in this regard.

Mr Mishra gave one information that the garden doesn't apply any pesticide which, it seems, is not beyond doubt since the much vaunted exporters of the region claiming identically apply the pesticide in their garden too. But the most important aspect to which he drew the attention of the survey team was that the owner of this garden is not like others. He has a sincere outlook to build this garden a 'model' tea garden in real sense of the term. This very outlook gets reflected in the day-to-day industrial relationship of the workers and the garden owner. The peace has been an important factor in maintaining the ever heightened production of the garden. There is, of course, the role of modernization process in garden farming and the factory machinery. And it also deserves mention that the company has built up twelve new residential quarters for its employees-he added.

The overall opinion he expressed in the end that the tea industry is still a very profitable enterprise.

Mr Nikhil Baraik himself is driver to the Manager's car. The team was advised by the local people to enquire in his house in the labor line about his availability to talk to the team. The team got the opportunity to talk to his elder sister-in-law, Smt Bihani Baraik, herself a worker in this garden. The surveyors got direct knowledge from her about working condition in the garden.

*    The worker gets Rs 232.00 per day as wages and earns 13 days wages in a 15 days' period after deduction of leaves. This accumulates to Rs 2100.00 after statutory deduction of PF.
*    The working hours start from 8 am to 3 pm. with half an hour lunch time at 12 noon. But many are engaged in plucking extra quantity of leaf which may extend their time to 4-4.30 pm.
*    The number of women workers exceeds male workers who prefer being engaged in non-garden works. Even their next generation doesn't want to work in the tea garden. They are going through the education and leaving the garden with some other jobs .This gives birth to a new crisis -the crisis of future worker particularly male worker in the tea gardens. This is a common issue with all the tea gardens. The main reason, she too points out, is poor wages.
*    Smt Bihani, a mother of three children is sending her daughter to college in Jalpaiguri. Though she is not illiterate either. Her education stops at the end of class six level. She now is a member of self help group which contributes in some way to her family.
*    On the other hand, Mr Nikhil Baraik has two children. His daughter is also a college student but his son a student of class eight cherishes the goal of joining the army and serve the country. His wife is also a class eight pass-out. He says that his grandfather came from a place either in Jharkhand or Bihar and now they have been working and residing here for three generations. He mentions that the workers in the plain land gardens are mostly of Modesia group. There are some other people also including some Bengalees. But there is no enmity among them and they live side by side with harmony.
*    One interesting point is that the parents send their children to Bengali medium schools rather than to any other mediums including Hindi.
*    On a question by the team members, Smt Bihani replies that there is no starvation death in or around the garden. The rationing system of both the state and the centre has been of immense help to ward off that menace. She lays this emphasis owing perhaps to her allegiance to the ruling party. Anyway the team thanked her a lot.

Dima Tea Estate
On 24.11.2022, the survey team first visited the Dima Tea Estate of Kalchini. From old Hasimara bus stop one has to proceed towards Kalchini by an auto or a magic car. From there 2-3 km by an auto or by some other mode one has to reach the Dima Tea Estate. On both sides of the road, the tea gardens present a soothing scenery to the eyes. Of course there is another factor. The trains passes on the rails towards Alipurduar through these scenic beauty on both sides.

The surveyors cross the entrance of the garden and face the trade union leader Mr Bimal Kuzur (aged 52) Some reference came to the team's help. And he agreed to talk. He is moreover, a technical staff of the garden which ensured reliability of the data provided. These are as follows:

*    the area of the garden : 750 acres.
*    the number of workers : 1800 plus 600 bigha (casual workers)
*    most of the workers are Modesiyas (75%, Nepali 25%,) some are Bengalees and the rest are of some other states.
*    Wages at par with the ‘‘A’’ class gardens, i.e. Rs 232 per day.
*    producion in the year 2021 : 14 lakh kilograms
*    present owners : Mr Manas Patel, Mr S Patel and Ms Geeta Patel of the Govinda Estate Private Ltd.

The present owners purchased this garden from Buxa Duars Company Ltd in 2003. ‘They promised to pay the workers their due arrear of Rs 1 crore and 77 lakh as a pre-condition of the deal. The promise remains unfulfilled during these 19 years now.

The present condition of the garden is strong and sound which is manifest in its environs.

*    The workers got 16% bonus in 2021 and 18% in 2022.But the bigha (casual) workers are not paid this bonus except their usual wages of Rs 232 per day.
*    The workers get the statutory rationing of 35 kg from the state and 5 kg from the centre every month.
*    The Garden does not have any school facility. The Govt. aided schools are the only hope for the workers.
*    There is a hospital inside the garden but that remains almost defunct. An RMP doctor and four nursing staff are present but no medicine is available there.
*    The quarters in the labour lines are standing in a dilapidated condition. The repairs are done by the occupants themselves. No cost is borne by the authority.
*    The trade union claiming majority is affiliated to INTTUC since 2014. Only a few officers owe their allegiance to the BMS.

The workers joining this conversation were Jaduman Nayak (47), Dilip Rai (54)–all are casual workers. Jaduman was enthusiastic to show his dilapidated residence with some faint hope.

The Kolkata office of the Estate was visited by the surveyors team for some data as well as to seek confirmation of what the workers deliberated. As usual, the reply of ‘‘competent person not available right now’’ was ready for the team. It appears that behind this facade of ‘competent person’ many important information are sought to be concealed from the visiting team. This practice is followed piously by many in the tea garden managements.

Beech Tea Estate
The last of the survey was conducted in Beech Tea Estate–a garden on both sides of the national highway near Hasimara. This is in Alipurduar District and is 4 km away from Hasimara Rail Station on the south.

*    The area of this garden : 750 hectares
*    No of workers : 1500 plus 1000 bigha (casual)
*    Production of the Garden : 17.50 lakh kg in the year 2021
*    Owners of the Garden : Mr Kanisth Sethia. The Bajorias handed over the ownership to the present owners in 2006.

The manager of the Garden is Mr Kamalesh Jha, a resident of Bihar and the Manager (factory) is Mr Pranab Kumar Saha from Nabadwip. The later is in the Garden for nearly nine years.

Mr Saha asserted that the replantation and new plantation in the Garden is an incessant process and the Garden has reaped the benefits of it. The consequence is that the production has reached this level of 17.5 lakh kg from a meagre 7 lakh kg a few years ago. This is no mean achievement.

The benefits goes to the workers as well. The worker earns Rs 232 per day as wages.

They have got the Bonus @ 20% as in all ‘A’ class gardens. All the permanent and casual workers are eligible for it. Moreover, the casual workers too get the facility of PF. In addition to this, there is the statutory rationing system for the workers. He further asserts that there is no starvation death in this garden.

Other welfare measures like Hospital-Doctor-Nurse, one primary School are provided to the workers. There are ,of course, one govt. aided Secondary School nearby.

The overall view of the tea industry as opined by Mr Saha, is that it's a very tough time for the industry. Production augmentation with quality maintenance is the challenge of the hour. Combination of Quality and Quantity is the way to survival.

He also reaffirms the Indian Tea Board decision that up to 17 December the plucking will continue and thereafter the First Flush will recommence on and from 15 February.

[To be concluded]

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Vol 56, No. 1, Jul 2 - 8, 2023