At noon, when the siren signalling the end of the morning shift blows across the Mogulkata Tea Estate, 45-year-old Mina Sharma snatches up her umbrella and slippers and joins a lengthy queue of sweating, ragged women waiting for their leaves to be weighed. In front of them, dressed in sleek, impeccable shirts and shorts, two male managers check the weights and scribble numbers onto small pieces of paper, which they then hand over to the pluckers. As soon as she has dumped her load into the waiting trailer, Sharma rushes home to cook herself a meagre lunch of vegetables, which is all that she can afford.
After 90 minutes, when the siren blows again, Sharma will leave her rundown house to finish plucking the 25kg of tea leaves she must collect each day.
“My life is a constant rush,” she says, wolfing down her food. A single mother of one, Sharma started working as a plucker when she was 30, having taken over her mother’s job. Like her colleagues, she earns just 122.50 rupees (HK$14) per day, despite working in one of India’s most important industries.
Sharma was born and bred in Pakka Line, one of several villages dotting Mogulkata, in eastern India’s Dooars region, which straddles the floodplains and foothills of the Himalayas. She lives with her parents in a house that was provided by the tea garden company more than 50 years ago.
“They never mend it,” she says, bitterly, looking at the rusted tin roof. “Every time it rains, we have to use umbrellas inside.”
The house has no toilet and the only tap installed in the area serves 500 people, forcing workers to collect water from smelly, open wells clogged with leaves and dust. Fever and diarrhoea are common, but if pluckers are ill, they get paid only half the daily wage.
India is the second largest tea producer in the world, after China, accounting for 14 per cent of global exports. An estimated 3.5 million people are employed on more than 1,500 Indian tea estates. The nation’s tea reaches every corner of the world, packed inside cheap, instant bags found on supermarket shelves as well as in expensive wooden boxes of Darjeeling. Yet, 69 years after the country won independence, its tea garden workers still live in near slave-like conditions imposed under a system conceived by British colonialists in the 19th century.
Today’s workers, most of them women employed as pluckers, are in many cases direct descendants of the bonded labourers brought into the gardens more than 100 years ago. Their living conditions are no better than those of their predecessors. Housed in isolated colonies lost amid the plantations, workers depend upon their employers for almost every kind of service, from food rations and water to health facilities, schools and electricity. They own no property – the houses they inhabit belong to the companies – and whole families can be evicted if a worker retires and no relative takes their place.
In some cases, tea gardens have closed overnight, leaving workers with no wages, food or water. According to local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), more than 2,000 destitute tea workers have died of malnutrition over the past 15 years.
With their endless rows of perfectly trimmed, dark green bushes, punctuated by tropical trees, tea estates exude an air of tranquillity few other plantations can match. Women work silently, plucking the upper, golden green leaves and placing them in net bags hanging from their heads. Managers still dress in Bermuda shorts, in homage to old British customs, and their whitewashed residences wouldn’t look
out of place on postcards.
Yet, just a few hundred metres away from their offices and the adjoining processing factories stand decrepit houses with no toilets lining unpaved roads. In the schools, one or two teachers do their best for hundreds of pupils, while hospitals are often no more than a couple of stinking, dirty wards equipped with a few wooden beds, leaking showers and a dispensary with empty shelves.
“There are so many tears behind the tea we drink every day,” says Victor Basu, the leader of Dooars Jagron, an association assisting tea workers in West Bengal, from which 25 per cent of the nation’s tea comes.
Home to 276 tea estates, spread across the regions of Terai, Dooars and Darjeeling, the state is notorious for its abysmal working conditions. A 2013 government survey found that only 61 of those estates had proper drinking water systems, 107 lacked health services and 44 had no latrines, facilities tea companies are obliged to provide by law. Almost 96,000 of the state’s 262,000 workers had not been provided housing, while 35 tea estates were in arrears with wages and 41 had not paid anything into their workers’ retirement funds. Several others were classified as “sick”, or struggling financially.
“Tea workers in West Bengal are deprived of the minimum of the minimum,” says Abhijit Mazumdar, president of the Terai Struggling Tea Workers Union. “They are kept in this condition on purpose, in order to provide the industry with cheap labour.”
A few dozen kilometres from the plains of the Dooars stand the green, scenic, misty hills of Darjeeling. In contrast to the areas it overlooks, where production is focused on CTC (crushed and torn tea leaves destined for black tea bags), Darjeeling’s produce is known as the “champagne of tea”, almost all of which is sold abroad. Among the most famous of Darjeeling brands is Makaibari, an estate that sits on a hilly ridge near the village of Kurseong.
An official partner of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Makaibari tea sold at a record US$1,850 per kg last year. Headed by the flamboyant and energetic Rajah Banerjee, Makaibari has long made quality its watchword: the estate was the first in the world to be certified organic, in 1988, and is renowned for its holistic approach to cultivation and the efforts it makes to preserve the surrounding rainforest.
Moreover, Makaibari prides itself on having created a harmonious environment for its workers, thanks to a series of social initiatives aimed at empowering women and local communities. The estate employs women as field supervisors, offers scholarships, provides libraries and community centres for the young and has established homestays, which allow families to earn money by hosting some of the scores of tourists who visit Makaibari.
In a wooden office, the walls of which are covered with travel articles from around the world praising the estate, Banerjee likes to say that those employed at Makaibari “are not workers, but community members”.
Workers at Makaibari do appear to be better fed and clothed than their peers in the Dooars, but just a few hundred metres away from the main road, where most of Makaibari social initiatives are concentrated, in the nearby village of Thapathali, a group of pluckers agree to talk about their living conditions so long as their identities are kept secret.
“From the outside Makaibari looks very nice, but it’s only us who know how we are surviving here,” complains a 40-year-old woman. She explains that houses are not renovated and payments were very irregular up until two years ago. Moreover, Thapathali lacks a proper road and it has no pipes to connect it to the closest spring, 3km away. Ten families set up a private water system with money from their own pockets, but those who can’t afford to join have to walk to the spring every day. With the stony, slippery track connecting Thapathali to the main road almost unusable during the rainy season, the women claim it can take up to four hours to reach the closest hospital, with patients often transported in tractors because ambulances cannot use the road.
“There was one instance when a woman had to deliver [her baby] on the tractor. We have complained to the management several times, but nothing changes. They just don’t care, as long as their leaves are collected.”
Since the beginning of the 1990s, India’s tea sector has been ravaged by cyclical crises caused by lack of investment, low-quality production, renewed international competition and poor management. In West Bengal, 118 estates are currently run by managers with no professional training in tea, often appointed by speculators who have no interest in the long-term development of the gardens. Some estates have not invested in the renewal of tea bushes for more than 100 years, causing yields to plummet.
“A tea plantation requires a lot of investment. It will give you money, but you will have to be patient,” says Amitangshu Chakraborty, advisor to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association. “If someone expects returns in a few days or in a month, then tea is not his business.”
A slump in prices and exports in 2015 caused more closures; about a dozen tea gardens are currently shut, with 22 others classified by local media as either abandoned or non functional (the figures are fluid because some reopen for short periods, when economic conditions permit), affecting tens of thousands of workers. According to local human rights activists, in Dooars alone at least 70 of them have died from causes associated with malnutrition since April.
LOST AMID THE SEA of bright white stones filling the Diana river bed in Dooars, Shoma and Sugi Munda let their hammers fall rythmically on the rocks they have just collected. A few hundred metres away lies the lush Red Bank Tea Estate, where the couple had worked since 1969. When the estate closed in October 2013, an event announced on a bulletin board, its 888 workers and families were left with nothing.
Like most of their former colleagues, the Mundas are surviving on emergency food rations provided by the government. During the dry season, they take themselves to the river every day to break stones for the local construction industry, working 12 hours for the equivalent of US$3.75.
“Before, the company was providing everything: rations, clothes, medicine. Now we have to buy all by ourselves,” says Shoma. When the monsoon rains fill the river bed, the couple try to find employment as seasonal workers on estates that are still in business, which is far from guaranteed.
“There is no hope the estate will reopen anytime soon,” Shoma continues, staring at the white pebbles before him.
Reopening the estate would mean uprooting entire sections of old, unproductive tea bushes and replacing them with new plants, an undertaking so costly it deters most investors. Meanwhile, workers cannot afford to move elsewhere and start a new life because they have no savings and migrating would mean losing their right to a house and a job if the estate were to reopen. While waiting hopelessly for good news, many of them fall prey to traffickers who target closed tea gardens, luring youngsters to other parts of India with false promises of jobs and money.
At the Bundapani Tea Estate dense weeds choke the untended bushes. Home to 1,215 workers and a total of more than 7,700 people, the estate closed in July 2013. Workers continued plucking for a time, selling the leaves to middlemen at a discounted price, but soon the lack of nursery services and fertilisers affected quality, forcing the pickers to stop. In the hope the garden will reopen one day, voluntary caretakers patrol the adjacent tea processing factory to prevent the looting of machinery and other equipment. According to a local social worker, since the closure more than 300 people have been trafficked from Bundapani, with 100 of them still unaccounted for.
“I started plucking at 15, together with my mother and sister,” says Hira Munda, a lean woman of 32, holding 10-month-old Shonali on her lap. The mother of five was a permanent worker at Bundapani. After the closure and the death of her husband, Munda found herself unable to feed her family. When her aunt proposed she travel to Delhi for a job, she gladly accepted. On the day of her departure, however, the relative was nowhere to be seen and an agent showed up instead.
Munda ended up in Batala, in the Punjab region, where she was assigned to a family house as a domestic worker. That’s when her nightmare began.
“The owner forced me to have sex with him most nights,” she says, her face transfixed in an eerie, inexpressive smile. Munda tried to confront the owner’s wife, but to no avail. “No one had the right to question him,” she continues.
Munda managed to escape twice, she says. Unfamiliar with the city and unable to reach a police station, she was recaptured both times. Twelve months later, when she fell pregnant with Shonali, she was finally allowed to return to Bundapani. The whole ordeal earned her just 2,500 rupees, less than US$40.
“If the garden had not been closed, I would have never left,” she says bitterly. Burdened by her infant child, Munda is not able to work and survives on government rations, subsidies and a few handouts from relatives. A complaint filed by the village chief against Munda’s tormentor achieved nothing, the police saying they couldn’t trace his full name and address.
Munda’s is just one of many disheartening stories coming out of the tea estates. And despite the risks and uncertainties, emigrating seems the only way to escape the misery. Almost all of West Bengal’s tea-picking families have at least one member, generally a male, working either abroad or in big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai.
“If I find a job elsewhere, it will pay at least double,” says Chandan Chetri, sitting in the tidy living room of his family house in Mogulkata. The 24-year-old has lived his entire life at the tea estate, where his mother works as a plucker, but Chetri has lost hope of a future here: “I want to get out of here, anywhere possible.”
Chetri, who is in the first year of a bachelor of arts course in Birpara, a city 50km from Mogulkata, will soon follow the examples of his father and elder brother, who are working in a steel factory in Hyderabad and a food-supply company in Kerala, respectively. Lack of opportunities, low-quality services and the difficult relationship between workers and management all informed his decision.
“Everything is bad here, from education to health,” he says.
Despite the difficulties the Indian tea industry is facing, the government body in charge of the sector doesn’t seem concerned.
“Tea gardens became Indian only from 1972. Before, most of them were still managed by the British,” explains K.K. Bhattacharya, deputy director of the Indian Tea Board in the nearby city of Siliguri. “Development can only happen gradually, as in all agriculture-based activities.”
With most of the tea being sold through auction, owners claim they have no control over prices and cannot predict how much they will make, so providing the workers with all the benefits required by law would push many gardens out of business.
“Auction prices are kept artificially low by a cartel of big purchasing companies and brokers, that’s why the industry is suffering,” says Chakraborty. Yet the planters’ adviser is confident the situation will improve in the coming years, thanks to a renewed focus on quality by the owners.
Mriganka Bhattacharjee, the new Mogulkata manager, shares the opinion. “We have all learned a lesson from past years and things are changing for the better,” he says. “Unfortunately, our skilled labour is decreasing by the day because of the low wages.
“How can someone run a family with just 3,000 rupees per month?”
The shortage of manpower is not only a concern for tea companies. As youngsters become less interested in this unrewarding job, tea workers like Sharma are caught between the desire for a better future for their loved ones and the fear of losing the few certainties they have left, no matter how meagre they might be.
“The young generations don’t want to stay here any more,” she says, with a hint of despair in her voice. “They all want to leave.”
Like her parents, though, Sharma will probably grow old here, living in hope that her 25-year-old married daughter will replace her in the fields. Even then, after decades of sacrifice and a life devoted to tea, her only reward would be to continue living in a house that hosts all of her memories but that she will never be able to call her own.