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
Published: Saturday 29 December 2012

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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