The thing about Tea

One of the visual takeaways of this round of assembly elections is the picture of political leaders framed with tea – Priyanka Gandhi picking tea leaves alongside tea pluckers in Assam, Mamata Banerjee serving tea at what is presumably a roadside stall, Prime Minister Modi sipping tea on a sofa. The brew has significance in this election as among the five poll-bound States, four are the top contributors to the nation’s tea industry: Assam, which is the world’s largest contiguous tea growing area in the world; West Bengal, where Darjeeling is home to the champagne of teas; Kerala (noted for the plantations in idyllic Munnar); and Tamil Nadu (for the Nilgiris).    Puducherry is the only State going to the polls that has no tea production.

It is no surprise that the condition of the tea worker is in focus, with the BJP, which formed government in Assam for the first time in 2016, leading the charge by saying the Congress has done precious little for a sector that is the largest employer in the State.

The tea business has traditionally worked with large plantations, an army of tea pluckers and factories that crushed the leaves into tea, which went for auctions. But as prices fluctuate, and margins are squeezed, what is the way forward in a business that still employs 1.16 million people directly in the task of tea production? As many as 58% of these workers are women.

Additionally, more than six million people derive their livelihood from ancillary activities associated with the industry. The significance of the sector is that it is supposed to be India’s second largest employer.

Sops such as the Rs.1000 crores provided in the Union Budget 2020-21 for “the welfare of tea workers especially women and their children in Assam and West Bengal”, in the words of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, are clearly directed at these workers and the votes they can draw. The fact remains that most of the tea workers still live in squalid conditions, and many do not get the legal benefits guaranteed by the The Plantations Labour Act, 1951, which has since been subsumed in two labour codes – the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 and Social Security Code, 2020.  On the other hand, tea garden owners complain that their business faces unprecedented challenges given the rising input costs and growing competition from across the globe.

For example, the daily wage of the Assam tea worker is Rs 167 per day and at the lowest end of the scale. Though this was upped by the BJP-led State government in February by Rs. 50, with an eye on the assembly elections, it is still abysmal in comparison with, say, Kerala, where the basic daily wage, apart from additional statutory benefits, is Rs. 380. The Congress offer of a daily wage of Rs. 365 may not cut much ice as not much changed in their time though Assam gave the late Tarun Gogoi a record hattrick with three consecutive terms till 2016, making him the longest serving CM.

Given the changing circumstances, the evolving nature of the business and the way the market has moved in the tea industry, the fear is that the entire sector is being squeezed and may turn into a struggling behemoth. This makes it a pale reflection of the days when tea brought a sense of romance and planters led a charmed life. The business was considered rock solid then.

There are changes on the ground now, like the rise of small growers and even backyard tea farming. There has been a “surge” of small growers, and tea cultivation “has come a full circle” as the Assam government puts it: “A sizeable number of small farmers especially in upper Assam have taken up tea cultivation during the last 15 years. Their relative contribution vis-à-vis the big gardens is more than 20% and the big gardens purchase a major part of their green leaf production. Using clone varieties of tea seedlings on small holdings, these small and marginal farmers are dependent on their crop as the main source of income.” This is a huge change from tea, on vast plantations, as  ”the domain of aristocrats with hardnosed British sahibs on horseback supervising them”, as it once was

Yet, it is the traditional picture of tea cultivation that engages most of the labour and is caught in a time warp. What workers in Assam will recall is that successive governments have failed to deliver and have looked away as companies flouted an Act which prescribes good schools for their children, better wages, housing and medical facilities. The accusation may stand that both the State government and the tea company have taken advantage of the “outsider” tag that has marginalised tea workers whose lineage can be traced to the 1800s when the first experimental plantation was established at Gabroo Hills in Assam.

Planters argue that it is difficult to keep pace as margins are pushed. There are 35 tea producing countries worldwide and the race at the top is often described by the industry as “neck and neck”. If India wants to keep its neck in, a lot must change. Planters associations have been pitching for increased government support, and rue the current steep cut in budgetary allocations to Commodity Boards, the Tea Board included. This will cut the development and worker incentive schemes which are currently implemented by the Boards, a recent memorandum to the PM said.

Faced with trouble the tea business has been forced to change. Deep South, when Tata Tea Limited opted to focus on its branded tea business and exited most of its Munnar tea plantations in 2005, the business was already being restructured. Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Limited (KDHP) that was formed, succeeding Tata Tea Limited, is quite unique. Spread over 23,783 hectares in the High Ranges in Kerala, KDHP accounts for 31.5% of Kerala’s tea production making it the largest tea corporate in the South. It is also the largest employee-owned tea company in the world. The Participatory Management System operative here ensures that 99.9% of its employees are company shareholders and hold about 60% of the subscribed share capital.

That carries forward, in somewhat altered circumstances, the legacy of the colonial era, of James Finlay & Co, responsible for the development of Southern tea.

The first British planters who brought the tea plant to the High Ranges, quietly crafted a fairytale, distinct from India and probably Britain. Chill, often misty, green-carpeted hillslopes of tea led to hedge-laced bungalows, manicured lawns and uniformed butlers serving canapes and tea. Angling, golf, scotch, dinner jackets and a social life centred around colonial clubs also clearly defined the totally different worlds of the tea planter and the tea plucker, and may be responsible for many of the problems we see today.  Till automation sets in, the tea plucker at the lowest end of the scale will continue to have the most important task in the business. The leaves and bud that this tea worker “plucks” directly impacts the yield, quality and cost of production that determine the bottom-line of the estates. It is time to better their world.