Tea Time 3: Sick Gardens and Short Shorts


Enough of this mappery, readers, let us get back to beverages-or rather, to the picking of green leaves that will end up in the bottom your cup.

We surveyed 45 families in our first week, most of them on closed gardens where wages had been cut off, along with most services (food rations, health care, drinking water, electricity, etc.), since 2003. The situation is dismal, as I’ve reported, though people are getting on. Some work on government-sponsored temporary tea crews, some crush rocks for the cement factories in Bhutan (both jobs earn under $1 a day), others scrounge food from the jungle and sell their worldly belongings for rice and a few lentils.


We typically spend four hours a day in the gardens which are really small villages. For instance, a garden with 1,500 permanent employees may have an actual population of nine or ten thousand living in its labor lines. These are family members of the workers, some of whom have retired from their jobs on the plantation, others of whom are being bred for lives as leaf-pluckers. So successfully did the British enslave the original Attivasi tribesmen that their great-great-great-grandchildren are still captive on the same gardens; maybe not with chains and whips, but with a lack of inertia, resources, and opportunity to leave which the karmically inclined may call their destiny.

Sometimes we go to the gardens early in the morning, sometimes in the late afternoon after any temporary workers have returned to their lines. The rest of our time is spent either traveling, cooking and eating meals in our Akhil Bhavan flat, and, at least once a day, making the treacherous one-kilometer trip to the market (and Internet). This short walk on Birpara’s main drag pits us against trucks, rickshaws, cows, bicycles, motorcycles, and more trucks and cows; not to mention incessant stares, dungpiles, and burning trash. Another portion of each day is inevitably spent drinking and talking about tea with all kinds of people, including union leaders, tea workers, and a grumpy old guru of a “tea journalist,” in addition to the entire Bengal Bunch cast and crew.

The goals of our survey are to (1) get an overall snapshot of worker nutrition and government/garden compliance with the law, and (2) compare these things between closed and open gardens (a possible third goal of surveying organic and Fair Trade gardens is in the works). Having completed two closed gardens, we had yet to enter one that is open. Surveying on abandoned closed gardens was easy because of both lack of security forces, and also Sarmishtah’s and Debasish’s connections among the workers and trade unions there. We quickly realized however, that access to the open gardens would be a different story. (Photo below of a closed T.E., or Tea Estate.)


But first, a bare minimum of history (or at least, my understanding of it so far) is required. Why did so many tea gardens in the world’s most famed and productive tea producing areas close during the last few years? After decades of mismanagement (siphoning profits without reinvesting in the tea bushes, factories, or workers), global market forces compounded the ineptitude of the managers, forcing 27 gardens in the Dooars region of North Bengal to close their doors. The IUF (International Union of Foodworkers) and the media made some noise when they learned of starvation deaths among the stranded workers. Then (remember, this is all hearsay so far) the supposedly labor-friendly Communist party leaders who rule the state made backdoor deals with the law-breaking garden managers (there actually are a great deal of laws protecting plantation workers, but few are enforced). “Open your garden gates,” they said. “We’ll take credit for brokering the deal and you don’t have to go to jail.” So 23 gardens re-opened in 2005, but few are solvent. For these “sick gardens,” as we call them, which are struggling to maintain a skeletal operation, spending money on things like worker hospitals, schools, or rations is the last thing on short-sighted managers’ minds.

As you can imagine, garden managers who have been burned by fact-finding NGOs and reporters have every reason to be hesitant about allowing the four of us to enter their labor lines. They know what we will find – worker conditions not much better than the closed gardens; disgusting and unstaffed hospitals; wages and rations in arrears; no childcare facilities or breaks for breastfeeding women, etc. If you are looking for a pubic garden run effectively, look at Adlington Hall as they run a customer tea rooms and have facilities such as toilets

To date, we’ve been denied access to three open gardens, plus we were denied written permission by the biggest area association of growers. However, JSK (our host NGO, Jana Sanghati Kendra) leaders are working their magic from Calcutta and, in the meantime, our attempts to enter open gardens, though unsuccessful, have put me in contact with players from the non-labor side of things: managers, welfare officers, and industry representatives. I relish these meetings, mostly for the richness of the characters and their adherence to stereotypes.

For one, there is the following portrayal of managers by V.S. Naipaul, a thirty-year-old caricature that remains true to a tee: “The tea gardens are now Indian-owned, but little has changed. Indian caste attitudes perfectly fit plantation life and clannishness of the planters’ clubs; and the Indian tea men, clubmen now in the midst of the aborigines, have adopted, almost as a sign of caste, and no longer with conscious mimicry, the style of dress of their British predecessors: the shirt, the shorts, and the socks.”

He is speaking of tucked-in Izod golf shorts, too-short shorts, and white crew socks, a ridiculous get-up in a country of pants and longhis (sarong-type wraps for men), but one which obviously signifies power on the garden grounds.

We are still trying to gain access, so I must be careful about what I write and show you. Let’s just say I am restraining myself the best I can and saving the most outrageous quotes and images for print. Until then, go pour yourself a cup of tea (or coffee) and feel free to wonder about the hands that picked those leaves (or beans). Hopefully, it will be from one of the better organizations, like those that supply ahmadteausa.com, for your peace of mind. Once I get started talking about Fair Trade (soon), I’ll offer you more action to take than merely using your imagination.


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