A Survey

Crisis in Tea Industry of West Bengal–II

Aswini Kumar Pramanik & Nityananda Ghosh

The opinion regarding the industry gets different reception by the TU leaders attached to the industry. Mr Basudev Bose of AICCTU thinks that a section of garden owners particularly of non -Bengalee origin is interested in earning easy profit even at the cost of quality. This hampers the plants immensely and undermines the goodwill of the region's tea in the market. It is known to one and all that the First Flush tea is widely demanded for its taste though it's very costly. This requires the time norms to be adhered to scrupulously.

On the trade union front, some new trends are observed.

There is a major shift of workers towards right trade unions for different reasons. For example it has been noticed that a large number of workers have shifted their allegiance either to INTTUC or to BMS led trade Unions. What are the reasons behind this? Mr Bose thinks that the perspectives for shifting to the two unions are different. As for the former, workers think that the wage increase achieved by this trade union is much more than those by the erstwhile left trade unions. The joint demand for the wage increase was Rs 257/ and the Govt. declared unilaterally Rs 232.00 which was accepted by the garden owners. This is an upward jump from the earlier increase of Rs five or ten in any wage settlement.

The management of all the gardens point to the rationing system as a leverage for checkmating the starvation deaths to a large extent. A section of trade Union leaders ,however, present a different picture particularly with reference to small gardens The Govt. of course, utilizes the garden owners' views for its propaganda purpose .

 As for the shifting towards the BMS led trade unions Mr Bose thinks that it has taken place in an indirect way. The workers have first gone from CITU > Adivasi Vikas Parisad> INTTUC> and then to BMS affiliated trade union. Here of course, the political issue has made much more impact on them than the usual trade related problems . In any case this has weakened the left trade union enrollment.

The well known left political leader and trade unionist Mr Abhijit Majumdar adds some new points . He says that the small tea gardens of below 25 acres numbering nearly fifty thousand sell their leaves to the botleaf factories. Surprisingly, these factories don't have any production unit of their own.. Regarding the rationing system ,he throws some light saying that many Terai workers are deprived of ration cards. There are many whose ration cards are transformed from BPL to APL category which ultimately deprives them from getting the benefits of Antyodaya Anna Yojana. Even, he points out ,there are many who are not workers at all are getting ration . He affirms that there are starvation deaths but these do not get coverage in the daily news papers for some unknown reasons.

The team moved to Mr Aloke Chakraborty, a veteran trade union leader of the tea industry. A onetime Tea Board member, he puts forth his opinions on related issues :

*    The tea industry can survive only if the Centre and the State take combined initiatives.

*    The Central Govt. has disbursed Rs 1000 cr. for replantation of the gardens, but the share of West Bengal in that fund is nil.

*    In addition to rationing ,the State Govt. has arranged for crèche, hospital etc. But this cannot be a permanent solution.

*    The tea gardens are not taking any steps for housing , schooling of the workers 'wards.

*    The new generation male descendants are not interested in tea garden works. A section of unemployed youth is drifted towards anti-social activities which signals of future turbulence.

*    One important fact is that the workers' PF contribution is deposited but the garden owners' due share is not.

*    Gratuity amount, a retirement benefit is not paid even after years of retirement. There are many who even don't get it at all even in their lifetime. He proposes that there should be a mechanism like the PF which would compulsorily make the payment of both Gratuity and the PF simultaneously after retirement. He iterates that as a member of the Tea Board in 2008 ,he advanced this proposal.

*    The retired workers/employees should be provided with some land on lease agreement basis so that they can engage themselves in an economic activity where even the unemployed youth can involve themselves for some financial gain.

*    The State Govt. has shouldered the responsibility of sick and closed tea gardens. The Central Govt. on the other hand does almost nothing in this regard while the huge foreign currency out of tea export is taken over by them.
He further adds that

*    The area of the garden has been diminishing gradually owing to various natural disasters.

*    The cost of production has gone up. The cost of machineries also skyrocketed.

*    A lot of Botleaf factories needs to be closed since they are least concerned about the qualitative standard of tea. Rather the well established factories should be permitted to open one or two more new factories. He confirms that 58% of the leaves are provided by the small gardens.

*    And contrary to a popular demand for patta system of garden land ,he opines that this is not a lasting solution for the workers' welfare, rather the lease system is a better alternative.

*    And lastly, the skilled workers should be promoted to higher ranks since it is they who trains the trainee Asst. Managers of the gardens in their works .So the reason demands that they should get the promotions as a natural course.

*    He claims that there is no starvation death now in the gardens.
His assessment of some gardens was very high as was his appreciation of some trade union leaders in the area.

The following are some relevant statistics as per Tea Statistics 2019, issued by Tea Board of India.

Table 1

Gardens : No    All India South India   West Bengal Assam
Large 1569 242 451 765
Small 210225 54262 37365   101085
Total 211794 54504 37816 101850
Total Area (ha) 636557.10    100928.03 148121.74 337690.35
Permanent Worker 702832    60459    242294    391404
Casual Worker     462983      14720  98341 342243
Total Workers   1165815 75179    340635 733647

Out of this total No of workers, male workers comprise 486768 and women workers 679047.
The data for W Bengal and Assam are               

: M - 134506 W- 206129 = 340635
: M - 316420 W - 417227 = 733647

The same for South India:   : M - 29036 W - 46143 = 75179 

Source: Tea statistics 2019 Workers in Organized Sector–Baseline Survey 2018.

It is to be mentioned that India stands Second to China as far as Area coverage and production are concerned.

Country Area
Production upto 2018
Calender Yea
China 30,30,000 26,16,000 44.36% of World Production
India 6,36,557 13,38,630 22.70% of World Production


Table 2
Current State-wise Wages of Tea Garden Workers as on April 01, 2019

Sl. No.
Name of the State Rate of Daily Wages Effective Date
Assam Valley/ Cachar Rs 167/ 145


W Bengal–Dooars, Terai, Darjeeling Rs 176


Tripura Rs 105


Tamilnadu Rs 311.83

April'19- June'19

Kerala Rs 333.56 April'19- June'19
Karnataka Rs 324.62 April'19 - March'20
Himachal Pradesh Rs 210.00 April 2016
Uttarakhand Rs 230.00 June 2016

Source: Tea Statistics 2019, Pp 212

The third and fourth places are occupied respectively by Kenya and Sri Lanka on both counts with percentage share of production remaining far behind India.

However, in exports India lags behind Kenya, China and Sri Lanka in order of ranking with export of 2,56,060 thousand kg sharing 13.78% of world export. In earning of foreign currency too, India ranks fourth with US $ 780340 thousand for the same calendar year 2018.

*    The present rate of wages in West Bengal is Rs 232.00 wef 01.01.2021.

The above data lead the team to come to some observations:

*    Production increase doesn't necessarily ensure wage increase.

*    Even if there is low cost of production ,there may be instances of closure of tea Gardens.

*    The wages are lower in the highest production regions. The rate of wages in Northern Indian region is much lower than that of the Southern region where production is lower. In Assam the wage rate is Rs 167 whereas the same rate in three southern states is more than Rs300.00 each.

*    The export market as well as the domestic market for Darjeeling Tea is highly bullish all the time. The demand is also all time high. Yet an internationally highly rated tea garden namely, Happy Valley Tea Garden remained closed since its workers were forced to call a strike .The reason: they were not getting salary for last two to three months. However ,the strike was withdrawn a few days later.

*    The quantity and the quality of North Bengal tea supersede those of other regions. But the workers of these gardens don't get any extra salary for their labour. On the other hand, the workers of the Southern gardens earn more salary /wages than their counterparts in the Northern Indian gardens. But put individually, this salary is disheartening. The question is whether this salary is justifiable with the status of an organized sector employee. Less than Rs 10000 a month!

Auction Centres
The Auction Centres at some selective points also unfold the vast differences.

The Kolkata Auction Centre brought to auction some 158637 thousand kg of tea in 2018 whose average price was

CTC             :   Rs 156.16 per kg
Orthodox   :   Rs 200.49 per kg
Darjeeling  :   Rs 434.88 per kg

In the same year Guwahati Auction Centre traded an amount of 163402 thousand kg with the following average price:

CTC             :   Rs 244.37 per kg
Orthodox   :   Rs 168.12 per kg

Kochin Auction Centre auctioned in the same period total amount of 47996 thousand kg with an average price of

CTC             :   Rs 120.12 per kg
Orthodox   :   Rs 145.09 per kg

And lastly Koonoor Auction Centre gives the similar picture for the year 2018 with an average price for 62870 thousand kg of auctioned tea:

CTC             :   Rs 88.85 per kg
Orthodox   :   Rs 107.16 per kg

The above data aptly demonstrate that the auction centres in Kolkata and Guwahati trade more tea both in quantity and quality than those of the largest auction centres of the South. It is therefore a riddle as to why the Darjeeling tea workers get so poor salary at least in comparison with their southern brethren particularly when they are adept in procuring quality leaves of world fame.

Mention here may be of relevance that the gardens are leased at very low prices from the concerned Govt. Further, there are several other types of concession given to the tea gardens in West Bengal and Assam.

*    The Government of West Bengal had exempted tea estates from payment of agricultural Income Tax for two financial years 2018-19 & 2019-20.

*    The Green Leaf Cess exemption for several years upto 2021

*    The Government of Assam also exempted the same cess upto 2021 and Agricultural Income Tax levied on 60% of the total income @ 30% .

*    Income Tax on 40% of the total Income @30% plus surcharge. The same rate is charged by WB govt. also.

*    5% GST applicable to sale through auction ,private sale and Deemed Exports etc

*    For Exports 5% IGST and then claim for tax refund. Or without paying IGST under Letter of Undertaking /Bond that goods have to be exported out of India within three months from the issuance of the Export Tax Invoice.

But the above source is silent on similar facilities for southern states.
Now the readers will face one more riddle : Why do the WB & Assam tea gardens get sick ,then?

*    They pay less wages to their workers-less even than the unskilled agricultural workers, which is more than 260 now (approx.)

*    The tea gardens are an agro-based ,organized and developed industry with long historical standing.

*    The market for the industry is wide and its export market is still promising . India still stands 4th in ranking in its exports.

*    More promising is its domestic market . 80% of its production is consumed by the domestic consumers. A very unique position, indeed.

Mr Mishra of Gopalpur Tea Estate was concluding that day that tea industry is still a profitable industry. Right he was in his assessment. The industry doesn't suffer from market crunch, neither domestic nor international. Some garden owners are citing higher cost of production and even referring to the case of Nepal where the same cost is much lower. This, they say, gives Nepal an advantage over India as far as export is concerned. But this reasoning is not strong enough to give others an upper hand. It bears testimony that India still ranks fourth in this regard. Moreover, the workers still get regrettably low wages. This makes essentially the most expensive factor (i.e. wages) less expensive for the garden owners.

The welfare measures, moreover, have become almost non -existent. In most of the gardens ,there are no schools, no hospitals, and of course, no responsibility for housing or its maintenance. The expenses toward coal provisioning have gone off in an environment of gas supply. The only benefit in this count is some quantity of tea leaves every month for the worker's consumption.

Then the percentage of profit must increase. And it vindicates Mr Mishra's assessment rightly.

*    This is the only lucrative factor which attracts the builders/speculators to venture in the tea industry and instead of being planters they turn into builders/profiteers and causes the destruction of industry in no time. And they sell the garden and leave for greener pasture.

*    There is lack of modernization of the garden and industry. The very outlook of the speculators makes the reinvestment of profit a non-starter. The profit walks to some other state ,some other industry leaving the garden in a state of stagnation. Sickness ? It can't be too far away.

*    Transfer of garden is a chronic disease of this industry. The transfer ensures those of the negative conditions too. The case of Dima Tea Estate where the non-payment of workers' dues creates a negative milieu. It has its chain reaction on the production environment also.

*    The provision of rationing may help reduce the starvation death to a large extent. But it has not been extended to all the small and sick gardens where it is needed most. The trade union leaders affirm that all the workers of the fifty thousand small tea gardens have not been categorized as BPL card holders. A lot many have been re-converted to APL card holders. The vast quantitative difference in dole-out of rations and sundry other benefits make the APL card holders less fortunate. The process may add some grease to the propaganda machinery by this re-conversion to prove that so many people have risen above BPL. Ultimately, the government, the garden owners and the political system get benefitted by this act.

*    But the question is-why do the workers of this organized sector industry of nearly two centuries get so paltry amount of wages? And why is this starvation deaths, now and then? Is it not the corporate responsibility to pay at least a salary to its workers enabling them to survive for themselves and their family? Is starvation death, then, their inevitable destiny–sometimes in a slow motion and sometime as an endemic? If rationing provision is stopped owing to certain policy decision of the Government, the starvation death will recur. Since salary is insufficient for survival, and the Government can't enforce a survival salary, they have to be a permanent dole-payer for this industry. Can they avert this role?

* The retirement benefits like PF, gratuity remain unpaid for years and the dilly dallying tactic of the individual garden owner only speaks negatively a lot of this organized sector industry and its owners. This aspect of industrial management exhibits a feudal mindset of the owners and of course, of the Government and deserves bitter criticism from all concerned. The owners are perhaps, reluctant to sever with the shameful colonial legacy of the founding years of the garden/industry.

* The crisis of the male workers in the North Bengal tea gardens may well be a total crisis of the workers in future. But no ad hoc or permanent solution is in sight so far. The poor salary i.e. Rs 5000 to 7000 a month doesn't ensure their enrolment as workers in the garden, nor does it ensure their two meals a day, let alone their future.

The trade union leaderships are demanding a minimum of Rs 21000 pm for a worker in unorganized sector industry. It is beyond conception how much they will demand for a worker in a labour intensive organized sector like tea industry.

*    The modernization of the tea industry should be encouraged with utmost sincerity by the Governments. Different type of incentives should be provided as in Jute industry, for this purpose. The real planters, not the speculative businessman, should be given this opportunity so that urgent modernization particularly in the processing section takes place to streamline the production cost. This is a peremptory precondition for the export based tea gardens to remain competitive in the export market. After all, bulk of foreign currency is earned from this sector and is appropriated by the Central Government.

*    The investment is dependent on Bank loans. The businessman takes the bank loans for this purpose but diverts it to some other industry. There arise the crisis in working capital and resultant sickness in this industry as well as in other ones. The NPA (Non performing Asset) phenomenon derails not only the Banking sector but the whole economy. There is hardly any way out from this situation.

*    The difficulty in assessing the quantum of production in any garden is acutely felt. Had it been the auction process alone, it would have been easier to determine the same from this particular segment. But there are individual sales counters of every garden. In fact, no garden provides a correct picture of their production. How could then the trade union leadership come to know of the production, profit etc on the basis of which they will negotiate in the collective bargaining process. This is one space where the gardens play a mysterious role. Secondly, the auction centre determines one price rate which is different from that of the private sales counters. There is then the difficulty in determining the total sales. However, these are very important indicators of the balance sheet which are not only required for the data base but are essential for salary negotiation too. Whether this data base can be achieved by any Central agency through any mechanism is hard to foretell given the vested interests of umpteen players active in the field for nearly two centuries.

The tea industry has always been haunted by acute problems. The historically underpaid workers have been fighting for the survival of the garden wherein their own survival is involved. The reverse-migration of the workers of the early days did countenance horrific brutality and the ill fated survivors were forced to come back to the garden to face more criminal torture and exploitation of the colonial masters. Their search for a living with dignity has been as illusive as ever.

The problems in the industry persist with no solution in the far sight. The problems in the eighties of the last century are identical with those of the present decade. The speculative business men of the time are still trampling the voices of the workers and controlling the reins of the industry as well. An ardent reader will still hear the echoes of the crises of that time in the green fields of the garden today: " The loss in the industry is not due to the competition among the tea producing countries nor due to the British tilt towards the European Common market, but the entry of the speculative profiteering motive has cost the industry to lose its credibility in the international market .These dishonest business groups have shown fictitious rise of production cost on the one hand, and excessive production without concern for future of the tea industry, export of low quality tea or adulterated tea on the other have contributed to the loss of fame in the international market.... The genuine tea growers have been grossly affected for these speculator businessmen." (quoted from Uttarbanger Adivasi cha shramiker Samaaj o Sanskriti- The society and culture of the Adivasi Tea Workers of North Bengal by Samir Chakraborty pp 59). It seems the time has stopped there in 1981. Otherwise how can the same old hackneyed features find its repetition in the present decade? History waits for its re- writing ,certainly. The 171st Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Trade captioned " Issues Affecting Indian Tea Industry specially in Darjeeling Region"was submitted to the Members of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha with its recommendations. This may herald a positive note for the industry and its labourers, if implemented.

1       Soumen Munshi  : Retd bank Officer, Siliguri
2.      Mingur Dorji : Bank Officer, Darjeeling
3.      Satadal Gupta : Advocate, Siliguri Court
4.      Aloke Chakraborty : TU leader, INTTUC
5.      Nakul Sonar : TU leader, Birpara
6.      Bittu : Bank Employee, Alipurduar
7.      Shankar Ray : Veteran Journalist (expired recently)


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Vol 56, No. 2, Jul 9 - 15, 2023