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Politics of Tea in the Dooars

The documentary film Rally of Death by Manasi, captures the plight of the workers of the closed tea estates in the Dooars in West Bengal and exposes the wily politics of tea.

COMMENTARY

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Politics of Tea in the Dooars SHARIT BHOWMIK Rally of Death by Manasi1 tries to capture the plight of these workers and delves into the roots of the crisis. The Workers’ Plight

The documentary film Rally of Death by Manasi, captures the plight of the workers of the closed tea estates in the Dooars in West Bengal and exposes the wily politics of tea.

Sharit Bhowmik (sharitb@tiss.edu) is with the School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
february 28, 2009

T
he tea industry employs the largest number of workers in the organised/ formal sector. There are around one million permanent workers employed in 1,500 tea estates in the country. In addition, there are another six lakh workers that are engaged as temporary workers. These workers are the poorest and most backward section in the organised sector. Their wages have traditionally been low, despite changes in governments. The isolation of the tea estates keeps workers out of the notice of the mainstream media and political forces. These workers and their families remain secluded and dependent on the plantations for their survival.

In 2006-07 a number of estates closed down, leaving the workers and their families to their own fate. During this time hundreds of workers and their family members faced starvation and died. The plight of these workers, for a brief period, brought them to media focus, but soon the hype died down. What remained were the closed tea estates, indifferent gov ernments and helpless workers. The d ocumentary film

vol xliv no 9

This film deals with the tea estates of Dooars, which is the tea growing area of Jalpaiguri district in the northern part of West Bengal. The other tea growing district is Darjeeling, which is famous for its brand of tea. Jalpaiguri is the larger of the two and produces 17% of the country’s tea. The tea estates employ around 2,50,000 permanent labourers. This area has been the worst affected in terms of their plight. The crisis in the tea industry has affected estates in three states, namely, Kerala, A ssam and West Bengal. However, neither Kerala nor Assam has suffered as much as the tea workers of West Bengal. The Dooars region has witnessed closure of 16 tea estates employing over 10,000 w orkers. If we include the families of these workers, the number affected would i ncrease at least four to five times. The e states that are functioning are not doing too well. Hence they cannot absorb the a ffected workers.

Closure of a tea estate does not mean merely the workers not receiving the cash component of their wages. The workers are entitled to a number of other facilities

COMMENTARY

that form a part of their wages. These i nclude subsidised rations, fuel for cooking, health facilities, crèches and primary schooling for children. With the closure of a plantation, workers lose all these benefits. Moreover, because the Plantation L abour Act makes it mandatory for the employers to provide these facilities, the workers cannot get any support from the panchayat. They have to depend on the r elief services provided by the government, which are not forthcoming. The state g overnment has made provisions for work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme but not all workers benefit because it is in operation only in those estates where workers are unionised by the ruling party’s union.

The film exposes various aspects of the case. It raises the question: why is there a crisis in the tea estates when prices of tea are rising and domestic consumption is i ncreasing? It strongly hints that the crisis has been deliberately precipitated by some unscrupulous employers. In fact it is not mere coincidence that all 16 estates were sold by their owning companies before they turned sick. The new owners were businessmen who were more interested in extracting as much as possible in the shortest time. Some of them used the money extracted to fund other enterprises such as night clubs. The sufferers are the plantation workers who are left with no work and are reduced to abject poverty.

There are other ways the industry and its workers are being ruined. Tea estates near Siliguri, a fast growing city with rising real estate prices, are being converted into housing societies and commercial complexes. The film also critiques Tata Tea’s techniques of avoiding its responsibilities towards its workers. The company has converted some of its plantations in Kerala into worker-owned companies. By doing this they are absolved of any responsibility towards their workers. The green tea leaves grown by these workers are sold to the tea factory owned by Tata Tea at prices fixed by the factory. This is another form of exploitation of the workers as the factory unilaterally decides the price to suit its profit calculations. A similar situation existed in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s when the privately-owned factories exploited the small tea growers in the district. The government then helped these growers start their own c ooperative factories so that they could get fair prices. The competition among the tea factory cooperatives and private factories ensures better prices for the growers.2

Helplessness

Though the duration is around one hour, the film captures nearly all aspects of the crisis in this industry and shows the helplessness of the workers. It intersperses the narrative with interviews of two wellknown experts on this industry, namely, Tapan Deb, a journalist and union organiser, and, Manas Das Gupta, a retired professor of economics, North Bengal University. Both have a deep knowledge on this industry. The film has very interesting i nterviews of the district magistrate who tries to defend the state government’s a ctions, but in vain. Jairam Ramesh, then minister of state for commerce, too is interviewed. What comes across is the total indifference of both the state and central governments t owards this issue. In fact Ramesh asks at one time as to why there is such a hue and cry about the closure of 16 out of the 1,500 tea estates in the country. The fact that 1,500 people have died due to starvation, malnutrition or disease is of no consequence to either the state g overnment or the central government is reflective of the enormous a pathy of those in power.

One aspect that is not explored in detail is the role of trade unions. The only union leader interviewed is Chitta Dey, convenor of the coordination committee of tea plantation workers. This committee comprises all the major trade unions in tea, such as Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), I ndian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), United Trade Union Congress (UTUC, affiliated to the Revolutionary S ocialist Party), All-India Trade Union Congress and smaller unions such as those of the socialists (Chitta Dey is one of the leaders of such a union) and unions owing allegiance to some of the Marxist-Leninist groups. In fact the CITU, INTUC and UTUC cover around 90% of the workers with CITU having the lion’s share of 50%. None of these leaders were interviewed. Perhaps they did not want to speak to the film makers. The fact is that none of the three unions mentioned want to take a critical approach to this problem. However their views were needed, if not through interviews, through the pamphlets or resolutions at their conferences. This would have completed the picture.

A special mention must be made of the editing. The interviews are very well edited and interwoven into the narrative. This makes the film watchable and interesting to activists as well as researchers. However, I feel that the title, though catchy, is misleading. The Dooars is certainly not the valley of death. The title gives the impression that the tea districts are a place of dead people. This is not true. On the contrary, the indomitable spirit of the tribal (adivasi) workers, who have fought many battles in the past and have survived, is not dead. In fact they are a beacon of life for other sections of o ppressed workers.

Nonetheless, the film is a very good a ttempt at exposing the wily politics of tea. It certainly deserves a wide audience.

Notes

1 Rally of Death, a film by Manasi, Green Earth Productions, Delhi, 2008. (For queries: manasi. earth@yahoo.com).

2 Sharit Bhowmik, “Participation and Control: Study of a Cooperative Tea Factory in the Nilgiris”, EPW, Vol 32, No 39, pp A-106–A-113, 1997.

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