A fortnight ago, while looking for tea journals, I came across a book, The Tea-Garden Journal, by artist and sculptor Somnath Hore (Seagull Books). Translated by Somnath Zutshi, it’s a collection of jottings and sketches of people who worked in Bengal’s tea gardens. The sketches are dated May 1947, when Hore was sent by the Communist Party to document the new workers’ union in the gardens.
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Just ahead of independence, then, Hore was amidst a community for whom freedom would make no difference. In the mid-1930s, Hore writes, the people had had enough. A Congress worker, Nagen Day, who had been imprisoned in the Andamans, reached the tea gardens and started the first workers’ union, a clandestine movement since there was no freedom of association at the time. The 1943 Bengal famine compounded the misery of people who worked in the gardens; work increased but wages fell. The unions began to take hold, the movement spreading across gardens.
And Hore recorded it, as text and sketches. There is a heartbreaking moment in the book when the workers’ union and estate management finally reach an agreement on worker demands. That done, Rashmohan, one of the first to pledge loyalty to the union, looks the manager in the eye and says, “Now, then, Manager-babu. From today, you can’t beat us any more…. We are human beings too.”
Hore describes the tea plantations as “a depraved social system entirely cut off from the world at large”.
Because the tea industry has run on a plantation model, with a large segment of workers, mostly women, working in the field, questions of human rights, employee safety and welfare have remained constant. These continue to be issues today. What has changed is the rule book: Freedom of association is allowed, laws determine employee rights and employer obligations and redressal mechanisms. In addition, tea producers can now opt to be certified by organisations like Fair Trade; there are NGOs that work in these areas offering welfare initiatives; and mobile phones and social media have given workers access to the outside world.
Of course, there are many estates that go beyond the minimum stipulated requirements and treat employee welfare as a priority.
In the story of our tea history, Hore’s record is one of the very few to speak for the workers. The image of a woman plucking tea leaves in a lush green field, with a basket strapped to her back, makes for a pretty picture. But what an inheritance of pain and loss she carries.
THIRST (thirst.international) is a platform that invites industry and civil society to come together to address human rights and reforms in tea.
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Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.