Two leaves and a bud, a tale of certain exotics

Sayantan Bera chronicles the simmering discontent in the picturesque tea gardens of Assam, Darjeeling

By Sayantan Bera
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Sayantan BeraAt a time when the Assam government declared its plans to develop 22 golf courses nestled in its tea estates, a gruesome incident brought forth the misplaced priorities. On the evening of December 26, an angry mob of workers set on fire the bungalow of a tea estate owner in Tinsukia district. The owner, Mridul Bhattacharya, died along with his wife. The dispute started with unpaid wages and lack of housing facilities for the workers. Tea estate workers are typically paid a portion of their wage in cash and the remaining in fringe benefits like housing, subsidised ration and medical facilities guided by the Plantation Labour Act of 1951. But in most cases, the in-kind benefits seldom reach workers—be it in the largest tea producing state of Assam or the prized gardens of Darjeeling. There is simmering discontent in the picturesque tea gardens, as Down To Earth reported last year when the demand for better wages and facilities in the Darjeeling gardens merged with the demand for a separate statehood of Gorkhaland.

When a young film-maker sets to uncover the secrets behind the famed Darjeeling tea, he chooses two abstractions to tell the story: a fictional narrative and the language of gibberish. The scriptwriter and director of ‘Six Strands’, Chaitanya Tamhane, extracts a promise from the viewer at the very beginning of his 15 minutes short film. ‘I will tell you what I know about her. But promise me you’ll keep a secret. Or else I will get in trouble.’

Speaking from Mumbai, just as I was about to finish writing this piece, Chaitanya told me, ‘the realities of Darjeeling tea industry are far removed from the exotic image that is sold to the West. There is something absolutely wrong beneath the surface.’ The film was made in late 2010 and is presently being screened at international film festivals. But this is no place for a film review. Let’s go back to where I started writing this piece.

At 8’o clock in the morning I was slouching on the open terrace of Keventers café as Darjeeling woke up from a cold night’s slumber. Take it lazy today, I told myself. The last few days had been an ordeal of climbing up and tripping down the steep slopes of tea estates. I was to meet a union leader one last time before leaving for Siliguri. With an hour to go for the meeting, I cud chewed like the proverbial cow.

The hill station of Darjeeling, perched north of West Bengal, resembles little, the state it is supposedly a part of. The ethnic Gorkhas came here from Nepal more than 150 years ago. Along with the tea seeds which came from China during the same time. Both are exotic to this land: while the Gorkhas have made themselves heard in ways political, Darjeeling tea is renowned for its distinct flavour. It is said, the flavour of the tea, attributable to the weather, high altitude and soil conditions of Darjeeling, cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. The organic fair-trade Darjeeling tea, therefore, sells for a bomb in the international market; a kilogramme costs anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 18,000, or even more.

An agitated Gautam Tamang told me the day before, “years ago, the British got us here to work in the tea gardens. Now, wherever we go in India we are called Nepalis. We want a state—a piece of land—to call our own.” At the Kanchanview Tea Estate in Darjeeling, 41-year-old Gautam Tamang works as a photographer. A plucker during his student days, Tamang now shoots tourists who visit the garden, pleads women to wear the ethnic gorkha costume, places the plucking basket behind and prompts a smile for the camera, all for Rs 20.

The garden was closed two years ago due to a minor brawl. A closed tea garden is a rarity in Darjeeling, given the premium price the tea fetches in the international market, and Tamang says, the outstanding dues of the workers made the owner shut down on a flimsy pretext. In an area where tea and tourism is the mainstay of livelihood, Tamang rues on the lack of development. Water and electricity is erratic, it takes two hours on the tattered national highway (NH31) to travel 30 km, and for the youth, joining the army is the sole saving grace. Tamang’s hope rests in the renewed demand for statehood—a separate Gorkhaland. He, among others, wants more than what Darjeeling tea could provide them—a subsistence survival.

The signs are visible: as a show of solidarity or sheer compulsion, local shops place the word “Gorkhaland” on signboards next to their name. At times, the cohabitation borders on humor: a sweet shop next to the Kurseong railway station has a huge hoarding of Lays potato chips. The tagline reads: no one can eat just one. The word Gorkhaland, frowns underneath!

I had come to Darjeeling for a story on the revival of organic tea industry: more than half of the 8 million kg that Darjeeling produces is now chemical-free. Thanks to a brilliant marketing makeover, Darjeeling had found its pride of place.

The intriguing part was no one, be it workers or garden managers, knew the exact price at which the tea was being sold to international buyers. When asked, some owners told me it wasn’t more than 25 per cent of the retail prices, still others maintained retailers mark-up prices by up to 20 times. From what they told, the difference was phenomenal. It meant what is selling for US $100 internationally would fetch the gardens between US $5 and US $25.

In all the gardens I visited women pluckers agitatedly told me, ‘We hear Darjeeling is selling for the price of gold, and we get only Rs 67 as daily wages.’ Their voices culminated in the extreme action taken by the labour union: an embargo on exporting the premium first harvests of February-March, unless the daily wages are increased to Rs 120. The workers were paid Rs 67 and the wage rise in the last 11 years was a pitiful Rs14. Ahead of the state elections, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha had to prove its indispensability among the resident vote bank of tea gardens. Thus, the embargo.

The elderly waiter at Keventers got me a cup of warm and creamy coffee. The tables around me were filling up. A bunch of teenagers discussed feverishly last night’s India-Australia semifinals of the cricket world cup. Girls in school uniforms giggled over a platter of salami. A lanky European changed from his ragged tees to a more agreeable sweat shirt. Oblivious to the sudden burst of life around, the honeymooning couples sat facing the walls.

Removing his shades, Suraj Subba shook my hands firmly and sat down with a wide grin. “What are your plans for today, you’re leaving right?” Suraj is the general secretary of the plantation labour union. On the first day we met he showed me the wage agreement for 2007. Tea garden workers are paid a portion of their salary in cash and the rest in kind (fringe benefits like housing, medical facilities and subsidised food rations). So if a worker was getting Rs 54 as cash wage, the agreement put Rs 5 as “in kind” daily as expenses towards housing, Rs 14 for food, so on and so forth, taking the total wages to Rs 117. Surprisingly, the agreement puts Rs 1.26 towards maternity benefits, even for male workers. Suraj calls it maaje ka kaagaz (a funny document). “Why not visit Makaibari on your way back?” he asks.

Close to the Kurseong station in Darjeeling district, where the heritage steam engine chugs along, carrying a motley crowd of tourists and school children, lies the Makaibari Tea Estate. A 2008 cover story in the Time Magazine, titled the “Best of Asia”, opens with the following lines: “If Darjeeling is the champagne of teas, Makaibari is the Krug or Henri Giraud. At the 677-hectare Makaibari Tea Estate nestled in the eastern Himalayas, you not only taste the finest of its aromatic, amber brews, but experience tea as a way of life. Gurkha tea workers host visitors in chalets attached to their own homes, which dot the seven villages of the estate...”

A lean Praneeta Tamang-, wearing an oversized mans shirt, smirks when asked about home-stay for tourists. Her house has not been repaired since 1952 and cannot accommodate the foreign tourists. Tonk Rai, secretary of the tea estate labour union, says, “only 15 workers houses were renovated as part of the eco-tourism project. The rest, manage on their own.” Praneeta had to spend Rs 3,500 when her 8-year-old son was admitted to hospital with a urinary infection last year. In 2003, when her son was born she spent Rs 6,500 for a caesarian section. The estate never reimbursed her on either occasion. The pending medical bills at Makaibari: a whooping Rs 15 lakh, according to the workers.

When asked about the abysmally low wages in the industry, the plantation owners go on the defensive in unison: free housing, medical facilities and food rations. And when I try the same argument on the crowd around me, the women pluckers laugh sarcastically. Someone from behind retorts: “Tea gardens are like elephants’ tusks. The pretty ones you see from outside are not the ones used for chewing.”

The angst is a consequence of workers being kept in the dark about how much tea is being sold and at what prices. A majority of gardens now directly market their produce abroad, and no longer depend on public auctions. The prices are kept secret lest workers demand a better deal or other gardens poach on buyers in a fiercely competitive market.

The Darjeeling Tea Association website describes the art of plucking in the following manner. “Tea pluckers have strived hard for years, battling against difficult terrain, cold, mist, rainfall and so on, to maintain exacting standards. They begin early in the morning, when the overnight dew is still present. The smallest shoots, comprising of two leaves and a bud are plucked. It requires 22,000 such shoots, all plucked by hand, to produce 1 kg of tea. In attaining this high plucking standard, the hilly terrain, makes the task even more difficult.”

After a month-long stand-off, on March 31, the cash wage was increased to Rs 90 with a condition that it would not be revised the next three years. The temporary pluckers are still paid Rs 5.75 for every kg of tea leaves plucked (in a day she plucks 4-6 kg). The super luxury Harrods store in London sells a 125 gm Darjeeling tea pack for £15.95 (Rs 1,170). By a conservative estimate, the planter earns at least £4 (Rs 300) and the plucker no more than 25 pence (Rs 19).

Radha Thakuri’s was a face not easy to forget. Widowed on a night 12 years ago, when she was three months’ pregnant, Radha turned a plucker in the Phoobsering tea estate. She cannot afford to buy her son books for the school. She has to run away from her ramshackle tin house every time it snows or rains, to benevolent neighbours for a shelter to pass the night. Every time she falls ill, Radha climbs three kilometres uphill to report to the tea estate health centre. Else, the 14 days of sick wages she is entitled to in a year will be deducted. Still a smile lingers on her face and if you ask her for a glass of water, she will give you a warm mug to ward off the chill.

The Darjeeling story, I agree with Tamhane, is not as rosy as it looks from outside. And like the voiceover in the film Six Strands, I feel like saying, “(the workers)… had an epiphany. Their priorities and luxuries were all the same… survival.”

Read also: Simmering discontent over tea


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  • It would be interesting to

    It would be interesting to learn if immobility of labor (since women labors travel less compared to males and transport in Darjeeling is one of the worst in West Bengal) leads to the wage depression. I think in this case labors are just attached to their job and they have no other option other than working at the tea estate which gives the owners the leverage to exploit them.

    I do not know if this is relevant or not. Nancy Qian has a paper on sex specific income and imbalance in child outcomes. She uses variation in price of tea to prove her point.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Another excellent piece from

    Another excellent piece from you Sayantan. I would like to see this in the British media as well, Darjeeling tea lovers must know their sources. You may include the opportunities 'Fair Trade' could provide, but that is perhaps another story!

    I am looking forward to more!!!

    Keep it up!


    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Sisir, mobility of labour is

    Sisir, mobility of labour is certainly an issue. For men the most coveted is a position in the Indian army's gorkha regiment. Several young people told me how a medical or engineering college might have done some good for them. The infrastructure is pathetic. And as a mark of protest no one today pays any utility bills to the west bengal government. Certainly, the planters are at a superior bargaining position. Thanks for sharing the paper.

    Shinjini, I earnestly wish this reaches the tea connoiseurs of the west. And thanks for bringing up the fair-trade aspect. It would be interesting to check how fair-trade standards are impacting welfare practices.


    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply
  • In most cases the price of a

    In most cases the price of a commodity is determined by its cost of production, for instance, gold price is very high relative to other metals because its high cost of production relative to the other metals. But few products are valued high not because of their high cost of production rather these products are rare or scarce, for instance some rare antique photography. Darjeeling tea is rarest among all teas, and so its value is high as expected. But the Darjeeling tea plucker are not scarce in supply, so it is paid more or less as an average agricultural labour gets in an Indian context. It would not be surprising to have a huge mark-up of Rs 1151 (i.e. Rs 1170- Rs 19) per 125 grams of Darjeeling tea pack because of its extreme scarcity, like the antique photography. If you have the only objection of this huge mark-up, you have only one option to reduce it by reduction in the retail price of the Darjeeling tea because you can't increase the wage of tea plucker as they are abundant in supply. We should not expect that the benevolent garden owner would increase the tea plucerks' wage until and unless an effective minimum wage law is implemented by the Govt.
    I don't understand, how would the formation of Gorkhaland be helpful to eliminate the distress of the tea pluckers?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • It is a well written, well

    It is a well written, well researched piece.....has the quality of transporting you to the location and the people that it is talking about. More importantly, manages to rip the mask of glamor that the Darjeeling tea industry has been wearing for so many years.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Amit, thanks for your

    Amit, thanks for your comment. I agree with your analysis that this tea is scarce (limited supply) while the labour which plucks or produces this tea is not in short supply. However, to say that Darjeeling wages are reflective of the average price of unskilled labour would be incorrect. In the last 11 years the wage rise was just Rs 14. Until the recent hike, the wages rate was only Rs 67. And the new wage of Rs 90 would not be revised for the next three years. Compare this to the employment guarantee wages (MNREGA, revised January 2011 rates) ranging from Rs 130 per day per worker for the state of West Bengal to Rs 179 for the state of Haryana. I would belive that MNREGA would serve as the benchmark, at least for an industry which enjoys high government patronage (in terms of grants, subsidies and 60 percent of profits being taxed under the agricultural income category) and a geographical indication status. We are not talking about the migrant labour sitting next to the road side waiting for any odd job to come by- the tea industry very much falls under the formal sector.


    It is also important to note here the proposal by West Bengal governments' own Labour Commissioner (October 2010) for a wage revision for Darjeeling tea gardens to Rs 114 (unskilled labour employed in a garden for over 5 yrs), after taking into account the pecuniary benefits of housing and medical facilities, in accordance with the minimum wage laws. Sadly, the proposal was never implemented.


    Lastly, I never suggested that Gorkhaland is a solution to the distress of tea workers. As a journalist, my reportage is only reflective of the popular sentiment I came across. 

    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Was just curious about the

    Was just curious about the percentage of "fair trade" Darjeeling tea among the total tea marketed with organic certification!

    Also as you mentioned "the marketing success of organic- fair-trade-Darjeeling tea did translate into premium prices", is very true. But I am surprised that despite carrying the fair trade label, a central goal of which is to ensure and equitable livelihoods for the workers, there is so much disparity between the market price of the product and the labor wages and their conditions. I wonder about the transparency, authenticity and oversight of such process!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • a neat job..indeed ! In

    a neat job..indeed !

    In 2002, baburam dewan of chungthung tea garden committed suicide as a protest against the planter's apathy to pay subsistence wages and all other fringe benefits, enshrined in TPLA of 1953.

    fare trade tag although earns accolade and profits for the banerjees of makaibari ilk, essentially fails to earn fare wages for the toiling workmen.

    meanwhile, the Progressive Tea Workers' Union affiliated to Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad has launched a protracted agitation demanding daily wages @ Rs. 250 in the dooars region whereas our calculation is pretty much close !

    keep your investigations further up !

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • This piece puts it straight ÔÇô

    This piece puts it straight ÔÇô the ÔÇÿinsiderÔÇÖ story of Darjeeling tea is no different from Nike shoes or FIFA footballs (made in some unknown village in Peshawar) where the ultimate producer receives a pittance. Production costs are kept at minimum so that large expenditure can be incurred in marketing the product ÔÇô for establishment of the ÔÇÿbrandÔÇÖ. Quite expectedly selling prices are undisclosed, precisely because even approximate profit margins would trigger unrest and tension among labourers. If retail prices in foreign market is some indicator then profit margins are 62 times (1170/19) of what the workers receive. It is quite amazing that this happens in an industry which is predominantly labour-intensive ÔÇô when world prices of brand Darjeeling is skyrocketing workers are talking about (and fighting for) minimum wages. Certainly immediate government intervention is needed on the price disclosure issue or if the ÔÇ£trickle down of growthÔÇØ takes place at this pace ÔÇô soon there would be very few to buy that story.
    Finally no economic theory can explain such skewed distribution of value added ÔÇô more so if factors of production are paid according to their contributions.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Many thanks Srestha, Abhijit

    Many thanks Srestha, Abhijit and Anamitra for taking the time out to read and note your observations regarding the story.

    More than half of Darjeeling now sells with an 'organic' tag and we must appreciate this makeover which will benefit both owners and workers in the long run. The farcical, as all of you have noted, is when it comes to the welfare standards of the 55,000 permanent workers and over 15,000 temporary wokers employed during the plucking season. There is no way one can justify paying Rs 5.75 every kilo of tea leaves plucked by a temporary plucker. As regards government intervention, Tea Board of India is the regulatory authority here and we can earnestly wish they look into these anomalies. Like Abhijit has mentioned even the wage rate of Rs 90 per day is low going by minimum wage standards, further corroborated by the labour commissioner's proposal, especially since hill prices of consumption items are always higher than the average price indices. Finally, many thanks to Anamitra to correct the lopsised economic explanation of low wages. It in no way suffice to point that since we are a labour surplus economy our wage rates will take to abysmal standards! Economists often end up espousing the supply side dimensions in the labour market, while forgetting that labour is often not paid in consonance to their contribution in production.


    But in todays world the value is no longer in the product itself but is in value addition- packaging, labeling and marketing. 

    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Good work Sayantan. Well, I

    Good work Sayantan. Well, I never thought of the gloomy inside facts earlier whenever I had my cup of tea! Thanks a lot for exposing this which mostly remain under the cover of a bright, happy postcard like image of Darjeeling tea and glorification of the aristocratic life-style of plantation owners. Regarding food ration, what can I say after what you have shown me as samples- the worst quality of rice, wheat, tea... And all these samples, as well as your article give us a clear idea about the quality of other ÔÇÿfringe benefitsÔÇÖ these workers get. Simply it exposes the apathy of plantation owners to improve the quality of living of these workers. I think one factor for the cry for a separate state Gorkhaland is the outburst of protest against this kind of deprivation, both economic and social. I must say here that you have really worked hard for this and make us think about something which generally remains hidden behind the unique flavour of Darjeeling tea.
    In this connection I can mention that similar facts regarding low wage and deprivation is also echoed in Sunderbans and other areas of South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, with only two differences- shrimp instead of tea, and absence of a class struggle giving call for a separate state.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sayanten, I

    Dear Sayanten,
    I really appreciate your piece of writing. I have really enjoyed, as if I was just experiencing all those things myself!
    God bless you, dear!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • This aspect of the tea trade

    This aspect of the tea trade was brought home to me when I decided to translate my love for fine tea from the region to an online catalogue. I might be naive, but I feel that if the plantations and traders (and tea is a highly restricted trading arena) are able to command the prices that we see in the market (both wholesale and retail), not to pass on the benefit to the people who grow, pluck, and manufacture it is criminal and it is a matter of time before consequences catch up. There are some notable attempts at changing the dynamics from within the system, such as workers coops and the like, but these are miniscule in the face of the volumes handled by the biggies.

    Fair trade obviously seems to be something practised on paper alone for these people. Very sad.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply