ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Towards an Alternative Indian Tea Economy

Examples of Producer Cooperatives from Darjeeling

The Indian tea economy is undergoing acute transformations, with the divestment of tea companies from plantations leaving thousands of plantation workers jobless, and small tea growers struggling with a general lack of knowledge and their dependency on bought leaf factories and intermediaries. A review of the current trends in the Indian tea market and two alternative sites in Darjeeling indicates the potential of solidary enterprises and also exposes the difficulties these groups face to emancipate themselves from the colonial-style tea companies.

The author is grateful to colleagues at North Bengal University, West Bengal, namely Swatahsiddha Sarkar, Bebika Khawas, and Viveka Gurung for their kind support, Andri Brugger from the University of Zurich for sharing his findings, and Bea Bardusch for helping with ordering the data. In addition, she would like to thank her husband for support during fieldwork, as also all her respondents for openly sharing their thoughts and concerns. This research was conducted under the Indo–Swiss Joint Research Programme in the social sciences, funded by the Government of India and the Government of Switzerland. This paper benefited considerably from the detailed feedback of the anonymous reviewer.

The Indian tea economy is in a proclaimed “crisis” (Hayami and Damodaran 2004; Anantharaman 2019). Stagnant exports, abandoned plantations and declining or sluggish prices in the domestic and international markets (World Bank 2019; TBI 2018a) suggest that tea is no longer a profitable commodity (Mishra et al 2011). In the mid-2000s, two major tea companies (Tata and Unilever) divested from tea production to focus on more value-generating activities, such as packaging and retail, leaving more than 36,000 permanent workers jobless (Kadavil 2007; Herre et al 2014: 16). More than 11 lakh workers are directly employed in the tea ­industry, especially in remote rural areas, with most of them located in Assam and West Bengal (Bose 2017; Government of India 2017).

While companies complain about low profits, tea plantation labourers are struggling with the closure and abandonment of their plantations, the non-payment or curtailment of wages and other statutory benefits, declining living and health standards and even starvation (Mishra et al 2011; Herre et al 2014; CEC 2007; Biswas et al 2005: 1; Bhowmik 2011). Unable to make a living inside or outside of the plantations, labourers and their families suffer from malnourishment, forced migration and lack of basic facilities. This is especially true for the tea-growing regions of West Bengal, the Dooars (Table 1, p 55). But even plantations in Darjeeling—famous for their high-quality tea—struggle with abandonment, payments ­below the minimum wage, and lack of the companies’ commitment to the provisions of the Plantations Labour Act (PLA), 1951. Led by a joint forum of different trade unions (excluding those of the ruling parties, namely the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the Trinamool Congress), workers in the region went on a strike in August 2018 and stopped the dispatch of made tea to demand the implementation of minimum wages on plantations.

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Updated On : 10th Nov, 2020
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