Behind The Beautiful Tea Gardens Of India Lies This Invisible, Ugly Truth

By Gorkha students, JNU

Three women pluck tea leaves at a tea gardens in the Himalayan town of Darjeeling on June 9. More than 60 percent of the tea garden workers are women. They earn 38 rupees ($1 = 43 rupees) a day. JS/DL/WS - RTRQ273
Women pluck leaves at a tea garden in Darjeeling. Source: Reuters

What every exquisite cup of tea fails to narrate is the plight and agony of those workers who have been heavily exploited and marginalized for generations. Beyond the romanticised notions of the beautiful hills and tea estates, the “the two leaves and a bud”, and the “cheerful faces of its people”, what remains invisible is the ugly truth of sub-human wages and living conditions, denial of basic rights of workers, more than a thousand starvation deaths and seething anger.

Once again the Hills, Terai and Dooars of Gorkhaland are gripped in seething angst when they are forced to witness the misery of its own people in the form of hunger and starvation deaths. It is outrageous to see the workers of a multi-million industry (tea plantation) dying a slow and painful death due to hunger and starvation. Most deaths are occurring in tea gardens that are owned by the rich corporate houses of Britain and India. Only recently, from April, 2015 till date, 70 workers died due to chronic hunger and starvation in this region.

Every tea garden you would visit in free India echoes the cries of labourers who have been bonded and forced to work on paltry wages. Among many such are the tea gardens of Darjeeling and Dooars whose scenic beauty and unparalleled flavour of tea have gained world reputation, whereas the state of the livelihoods of workers (especially tea-garden labourers) suffering perennial misery and insecurity remain unheard and ignored. The region has remained in grip of the predatory claws of imperialism and colonization which has obscenely exploited its resources, both natural and human in the worst forms. It would be erroneous to estimate the scale of this open loot by factoring in only monetary losses in the form of wages and incomes. In fact, the ramifications of the denial of the same has spilled out to cause starvation (in many cases amounting to death), malnourishment of children, denial of proper education, health care, sanitation and housing, erosion of self-confidence, forced migration for work, sex slavery and human trafficking in the most hazardous industries.

What Is Promised And What They Get

Workers have witnessed rampant flouting of labour laws which has made a brazen mockery of their rights. According to law, each tea garden worker must receive, apart from their daily wages, provident fund payments, bonuses, pension (for retired workers), ration, umbrellas and aprons for working, firewood for cooking, housing, electricity, water, medical care and education facilities. The last time the workers got ration in Dhumchipara was in 2011. In Dhumchipara Tea estate in Dooars, a poor woman having two children has been reduced almost to a skeleton due to starvation. These children who have been becoming immobile due to chronic hunger and poor health require at least 750 ml of blood which their family cannot afford. Doctors say, “They may not live long.” Such cases of starvation induced illnesses and death in the tea-gardens of Darjeeling and Dooars are too numerous to quote here.

The irony of this situation is lies in the presence of stark poverty, chronic hunger and exploitation alongside the colossal profits these tea-gardens generate for the owners and the State. According to an estimate by the Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce, tea industry in the hills generates an average revenue of Rs. 450 crore annually, equal to that of the tourism industry in the region.

Absence of workers’ rights, non-payment of minimum wages and benefits is not specific to the tea-industry alone but is rather a persistent feature of work in the highly segment labour-market in India. However, it is pertinent to highlight here the regional aspects of discrimination that are visible in the tea industry. The minimum wage paid to unskilled tea labour in Kerala is Rs.254, in Tamil Nadu it is Rs 209, in Karnataka it is Rs 228, in neighbouring Sikkim it is Rs. 220 while the same in Darjeeling comes to a meagre Rs.112.5. Even the minimum wage paid in West Bengal for MGNREGA is around Rs. 130-151 and for agricultural labourers is Rs. 206 per day.

The tea workers in North Bengal are thus made to work for wages which are far below the minimum in any form of work. It is very shrewd on the part of the owners to claim that low wages are due to low price being earned from the sales of tea leaves produced from these gardens. If this is the case then why are the wages of workers same in those tea gardens which fetches the highest price in the world tea market (for instance Rs. 1.1 lakhs per kg of tea is produced by Makaibari tea garden but wages remain still at Rs.112).

How Workers Survive: Living In Conditions Worse Than Famine Affected Population

In the last decade more than 1400 tea workers have died due to acute malnutrition and starvation. As recent as January 2013, 95 workers of the locked out Dheklapara Tea Estate in Dooars sent a letter to the Chief Minister of West-Bengal seeking her “order” to kill themselves because they were suffering from acute starvation. The tea workers therefore are forced to languish till they die of hunger and malnutrition. Studies show that 70% of the people of the closed tea gardens suffer from chronic energy deficiency III stage. In the gardens affected by starvation death, it was found that workers and their families have Body Mass Index (BMI) identical to those populations affected by severe famine.

Indian tea pickers arrive for work at a tea estate at Naxalbari in the north eastern state of West Bengal, September 3, 2004. Tea exports had plummeted from 200 kg million in 2002 to 180 million kg last year. The slump in prices and exports was largely attributed to inferior quality of tea being produced by various Indian gardens, besides the loss of Pakistan and Iraq as potential buyers. The Indian tea industry had projected an estimated production of about 850 million kilograms this year. - RTXMWX6
Image source: Reuters

As the tentacles of exploitative markets are always spreading in search of cheap labour; men, women and children in these regions are facing increasing vulnerability to Human Traffickers. A report of a joint study by UNICEF, Save the Children and Burdwan University (in 2010) estimates 3,500 minors were trafficked from 12 gardens of Dooars only. It’s certain that the total number of people forced into sex trade will be much higher when we add up those from Darjeeling Hills and the Terai region.

Mass casualization of workers is another problem because of which even the base minimum services (health, rations and lodging) that the tea estates have to provide under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 can’t be accessed by a majority of its labourers. Whereas, the price of first flush (the costliest batch in the tea production cycle) is deliberately kept a secret by the owners to ensure that workers don’t raise their demand for higher wages. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) too in its 2005 report clearly bemoans the sad plight of tea workers. It states that the Tea Board which is the regulating authority of the Tea Industry has failed to fulfill its stipulated function. They have continuously ignored wage and provident fund defaults of tea estates, while portraying this crisis only as a marketing mismanagement. The ILO report also suspects that there is collusion between the planters and the State which is highlighted by the non implementation of the Tea Act, 1953.

Response Of Political Establishment: Workers Have Voluntarily Starved Themselves To Death

The Supreme Court’s order dated 06.08.10 categorically directs the Government of India to carry out its statutory duty under Tea Act 1953. The Act mandates the Central Government to take over the management/control of the tea undertakings/units (under section 16 B/D/E) and take steps thereafter to ensure that the interests of the workers are well protected and dues are all paid in time. Sadly the constitutional duty to uphold the ruling of the highest court of the country has not been carried out neither by the Central Government nor by the State Government. Contrary to this the government has even started to privatise a handful of tea gardens which was operated under its supervision.

Beyond some symbolic gestures and tokenism, the larger political establishment has shown apathy and indifference of the highest order in this issue. Also the survey of condition of tea gardens workers done by West Bengal labour department is not made public yet. For truth is too gory to reveal to public. Adding insult to injury, Labour minister Malay Ghatak denied allegations that there had been deaths from malnutrition and lack of treatment in closed tea gardens and asserted that the government was trying its best to provide relief. If narratives of political establishment are to be believed then it seems that the workers have voluntarily starved themselves to death.

Way Forward: Uncompromising Collective Struggle

The historic victory (forcing management to increase wages and bonus) by tea estate workers mostly led by women in Munnar, Kerala has shown that only the uncompromising collective struggle can break the status quo and force the tea management/owner to bow to their demands.

The students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University (DU), Hyderabad Central University (HCU), Vishva Bharati University (VBU) have expressed their solidarity with the movement of workers and expressed outrage over the horrendous exploitation of workers by big corporate houses. As the workers and trade unions are collectively protesting (since 27th November, 2015), we believe this solidarity statement will strengthen their resolve to fight for their right and also help us bridge the gap between students and workers movements. When oppressors are always united and consolidated, it is a historic responsibility on our shoulders to unite and fight for a just and egalitarian society!

We also demand that:
1. Closed and abandoned tea estates be reopened immediately.
2. Stop privatisation of government operated tea gardens.
3. Declare and implement Minimum Wage for tea plantation workers.
4. Grant legal ownership of housing space to workers
5. Casual labour should also be brought under the purview of Plantation Labour Act, 1951.
6. Backlog of unpaid Provident fund and gratuity should be cleared without delay.

Similar Posts

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below