Revamping the Tea Industry in West Bengal: Perspectives on Safeguarding Workers’ Rights

This research paper is part of the collaborative series between The Blahcksheep and the Bengal Development Collective. It was presented during the launch + symposium organised by the Collective at Oxford University on 19th March, 2022. The themes for the symposium were development history and climate crisis in Bengal.

About Bengal Development Collective: A West Bengal-focused think tank, advocacy group and research community that aims to alleviate the developmental challenges in the state through policy-level interventions. The team comprises civil servants, lawyers, public policy professionals and academicians from national and international institutions. You can learn more about their work here.

Revamping the Tea Industry in West Bengal:
Photography by Kelly on Pexels

The colonial phenomenon of the setting up and expansion of the tea industry across the world has led up to tea becoming the second most popular beverage in the world only next to water (Stone, 2021). In India, the four main tea-producing states are West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu (CEC, n.d). Peasants from undivided India were asked to come and settle with their families in and around the tea gardens to facilitate the production of tea, thereby flourishing the tea industry. Today, India stands as the second-largest producer and consumer of tea in the world, accounting for around 25% – 27% of the global tea production (Fernandes, 2021).

However, the industry’s labour force has experienced under-development and violation of rights over the years. This article takes the case of West Bengal’s tea plantation industry to point out the most pertinent issues faced by its labour force and alludes to potential policy directions to resolve the same.

The Tea Plantation Sector of West Bengal

The tea industry has a history of nearly 160 years in India. The cultivation of tea in the northeast region started as an experiment in 1835 and on a commercial basis in 1856. West Bengal is the second-largest producer of tea in India contributing 24% of India’s total production (Sadhukhan, 2014).

Tea cultivation is mostly concentrated in the Northern region of West Bengal, the tea-producing areas being mainly divided into three regions namely the Darjeeling hills, Terai, and Dooars. Out of these, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar of the Coochbehar district coming under the Dooars region are the biggest tea-producing regions in north India. Alipurduar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Dinajpur and Coochbehar lying under the Himalayan foothills form the mainstay of tea plantation cultivation in North Bengal. Out of more than 1 million tea plantation workers in the country, over 250,000 workers are accounted for by the tea belt in West Bengal (Bhattacharya, 2021).

tea 22
Source: Indian Tea Association, LSI Research

Issues of Tea Plantations Workers in West Bengal

Increasing bankruptcy, bleak futures

There has been significant under-development within West Bengal’s tea plantation industry since the 1990s leading up to bankruptcy for the ownership and suppliers in recent times. In June 2021, thousands of workers from Duncan’s tea plantation in West Bengal filed petitions to pay their dues amounting to more than 1500 crores as Duncans Industries limited sank into rows of bankruptcy (PBKMS, n.d).

In the past year itself, the Kolkata-based division of Brij Mohan Khaitan Group called McLeod Russel which is the largest tea supplier in India faced insolvency measures as the corporate insolvency resolution process (CIRP) was initiated against the company for defaulting on a $13.5 million loan (Bolton, 2021).

Illegitimate take over of tea gardens

In February 2021, around 1300 tea garden workers from the Birpara division of tea gardens protested against the illegal takeover of their tea garden by Merico Agro Industries Ltd (Groundxero, 2021). The mandate for each tea plantation owner to make a deposit of INR 2 crores have not been fulfilled by any tea plantation owners. Workers protested against their overdue payments including provident funds which they demanded to be resolved before tea gardens officially opened and that the new management must directly address the garden workers if they planned to take over. The Birpara tea gardens were abandoned by the Duncans in 2015, again taken over by them in 2017 and abandoned again in 2019 (Groundxero, 2021).

Workers are wary of profit-mongering tea garden ownership and government attempts which result in decisions being made without considering the plight of underpaid workers.

Low wages and mediocre facilities for tea garden workers

Plantation workers who are mostly tribals or members of lower castes form the backbone of the tea industry in eastern India. They are fourth-generation descendants of indentured immigrants brought by the colonial planters 150 years back from the tribal tracts of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh (J et al, 2000).

There had been no adherence to the Minimum Wages Act and a lack of financial assistance from closed tea gardens (Chakraborty, 2021). In 2021, the workers had to manage all of their expenses with unremunerative wage rates of Rs. 202 only (Chakraborty, 2021). This is after an increment of their wages from Rs. 176 to a hike of Rs. 26 to reach the current amount (Sinha, 2021). The workers, although eligible for provident funds haven’t mostly received the amounts as the documentation process is tedious for the uneducated tea garden workers (Chakraborty, 2021).

The production of tea is mired in the atrocious conditions of tea plantation labourers, most often staying in mediocre housing facilities provided by plantation ownership. Tea plantations are also typically located in areas with serious issues of human-wildlife conflict (Bhaduri, 2022).

The housing facilities provided by tea plantations undergo no periodic maintenance which leads to poor levels of subsistence. Although tea plantations supposedly provide primary health care and education facilities, these are often overlooked in many plantations.

Right to land and property

In West Bengal, land reforms from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s resulted in land rights for the then landless farmers and sharecroppers. However, workers in northern Bengal, belts of tea production in the state such as the Darjeeling hills, Dooars, Terai regions, etc continued to work in tea gardens without “parja patta” or land rights (Bista, 2021).

The West Bengal government in 2019 sanctioned tea gardens to utilise 15% of the tea garden land for “alternative purposes”. This has resulted in profiteering ventures for tea garden owners such as the setting up of hotels and facilitating tourism and not improving the living conditions of plantation workers (Bista, 2021).

Plantation workers’ right to housing and property is based on an intergenerational transition of tea plantation labour within each household which binds the next generations to take up plantation labour work. Land rights have been demanded as long as the quarters where they live were located on leasehold land. Darjeeling MP Raju Bista demanded a national law granting land rights to tea and cinchona plantation workers (Chhetri, 2021). The West Bengal government launched the Cha Sundari scheme under the ruling Mamta Banerjee government to give free houses and land rights to tea workers in north Bengal (Choudhury, 2021).

Way forward

Tea plantation workers in estates of northern West Bengal have been in a dire state since the 1990s. Increasing bankruptcy needs to be resolved by favourable export and internal trade-oriented policies such as reduced excise duties as in the eighth five-year plan, examination of leasing rights of owners and evaluation of tea production models to understand the financial crises in the industry and formulate economic budgeting policies. The lack of transparency in operations and indefinite authorities to look up to creates a vacuum in accountability for the conditions of garden workers.

The West Bengal tea industry must opt for policies to ensure remunerative wages adjusted with inflation and socio-economic conditions of tea labourers. The labour management system in tea estates is outdated and most gardens do not have facilities mandated for workers such as hospitals, schools, creches etc (Biju, 2022). It is imperative that state-level schemes with financial contribution from the centre to ensure remunerative wages, facilities such as primary health care and education for the children of workers, clean drinking water and nutrition must be ensured for a decent standard of living.

Plantation management must be legally mandated to provide such facilities to workers as well as inspected by government agents to ensure the continuous availability of it across tea estates. This is pertinent as tea labourers reside in interior locations and are prone-to human-animal conflicts. Plantation labourers consisting of a majority of women form the backbone of this labour-intensive industry. This calls for compliance with policies such as the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) Act to ensure the safety of women labourers in particular.

The prospects of the next generations to break out of the tyranny of wage labour in tea plantations are impacted by the inter-generational requirement to take up plantation labour.

Schemes such as ‘Cha Sundari’ are also met with dissatisfaction from the workforce as homes built are congested spaces and workers are used to more expansive outdoor spaces in estates (Biju, 2022).

The status of their households within tea estates is also unclear in the context of newly built homes as part of the scheme. The land and property rights situation would hence require a closer analysis in consultation with the workers which seems to be absent presently. The tea industry is a marker of the West Bengal economy and is the livelihood source for lakhs of workers belonging to lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Policy solutions to uplift the industry must be based on thorough consultation with the workforce rather than on isolated benevolent government interventions seeming fit. Workers’ rights to a decent living standard and inflation-adjusted wages must be upheld as immediate policy targets.


References:

  1. Bhaduri, T. (2022, March 4). Leopard attacks in West Bengal’s tea gardens: Conflict over Habitat. Image. Retrieved from http://dev.thecitizen.in/en/life/Leopard-Attacks-In-West-Bengals-Tea-Gardens-Conflict-Over-Habitat
  2. Bhattacharya, P. (2021, April 12). Why Bengal tea workers feel let down by political parties. Down To Earth. Retrieved from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/governance/why-bengal-tea-workers-feel-let-down-by-political-parties-76424
  3. Biju, A. M. (2022, April 20). Brewing in uncertainty: The lives and livelihoods of North Bengal’s tea plantation workers. The Bastion. Retrieved from https://thebastion.co.in/politics-and/environment/brewing-in-uncertainty-the-lives-and-livelihoods-of-west-bengals-tea-plantation-workers/
  4. Bolton, D. (2021, August 17). India’s largest tea supplier, McLeod Russel Faces insolvency. STiR Coffee and Tea Magazine | Global Business Insight on Coffee and Tea. Retrieved from https://stir-tea-coffee.com/tea-report/india%E2%80%99s-largest-tea-supplier-mcleod-russel-faces-bankruptcy/
  5. Chakraborty, S. (2021, August 5). Battling many woes, Bengal’s Tea Garden Workers seek wage revision from Govt. NewsClick. Retrieved from https://www.newsclick.in/Battling-Many-Woes-Bengal-Tea-Garden-Workers-Wage-Revision-Govt
  6. Chhetri, V. (2021, November 30). Raju Bista seeks national law for granting land rights to tea workers. Telegraph India. Retrieved from https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/raju-bista-seeks-national-law-for-granting-land-rights-to-tea-workers/cid/1841319
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  9. Fernandes, N. (2021, March 27). FNB News – India is the world’s second largest producer and consumer of tea: FNB News. FNB News – India is the world’s second largest producer and consumer of tea | FNB News. Retrieved from http://www.fnbnews.com/Top-News/india-is-the-worlds-second-largest-producer-and-consumer-of-tea-62634
  10. History and growth of tea industry in India and Particularly North Bengal Region. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://inet.vidyasagar.ac.in:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/5304/11/11_chapter2.pdf
  11. J , J., Lahiri , S., A K , S., S N , T., & Sen, R. (2000, March 25). Brewed in the sweat of Forced Labour 2000 – CEC india. https://www.cec-india.org/. Retrieved from https://www.cec-india.org/libpdf/1479194673BrewedintheSweatofForcedLabour2000.pdf
  12. Paschimbanga Khetmajoor Samity. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://khetmajoorsamity.blogspot.com/
  13. Sadhukhan, B. (2014, July 7). Gjra: Global Journal for Research Analysis (GJRA). World Wide Journal – GJRA. Retrieved from https://www.worldwidejournals.com/global-journal-for-research-analysis-GJRA/
  14. Sinha, A. (2021, January 21). Bengal decides on 15% hike in tea wages. Telegraph India. Retrieved from https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/bengal-decides-on-15-hike-in-tea-wages/cid/1804316
  15. Stone, D. (2021, May 3). The world’s top drink. Culture. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/the-worlds-top-drink
  16. Tea Garden Workers Collective resolves to stop illegal takeover. groundxero. (2021, February 16). Retrieved from https://www.groundxero.in/2021/02/15/tea-garden-workers-collective-resolves-to-stop-illegal-takeover/
  17. Tea Garden Workers Collective Resolves To Stop Illegal Takeover. Asian Independent. (2021, February 16). Retrieved from https://theasianindependent.co.uk/tea-garden-workers-collective-resolves-to-stop-illegal-takeover/

Bibliography:

  1. Blogger. (2021, February 16). Tea Garden Workers Collective resolves to stop illegal takeover. 7 STAR TV NEWS. Retrieved from https://7star-tv-news.blogspot.com/2021/02/tea-garden-workers-collective-resolves.html
  2. Choudhury, A. (2021, December 11). Alipurduar: Govt houses under Cha Sundari scheme for tea workers. Telegraph India. Retrieved from https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/alipurduar-govt-houses-under-cha-sundari-scheme-for-tea-workers/cid/1842914
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Ann Mary Biju Photo 1

 Ann Mary Biju

 Ann is a development practitioner currently working as a Program Manager for an ed-tech social enterprise. She completed her Master’s in Development Studies from Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and is a National Gender fellow under IT for Change, Bangalore for which she is researching safety perspectives of the platform economy in her hometown Kochi in Kerala. She is a Changemaker under 8one foundation’s FAIR Project 2022. Her internship experience with Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, West Bengal introduced her to the area of human rights and livelihoods of tea plantation workers. Her interest areas are gender, livelihoods, digital literacy, the platform economy, social perspectives of technology and culture studies.

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