We’ve written about how much we love Darjeeling tea in the past. It’s a special region in India from which many distinctive teas originate. Its so distinctive that the European Union now recognizes Darjeeling tea with the mark of Geographic Identification. Unfortunately, the region also struggles with a system not far removed from the colonial plantation system of its recent past.
Recently, news has been surfacing in the west of abandoned plantations and worker starvation. This news isn’t entirely new. It’s been circulating for months in the Indian press but is becoming more widely known, thanks in part to an Associated Press article published in places like The Washington Post and CTV (Canada).
Struggling to Survive
In some Darjeeling district tea gardens like the Red Bank, Budapani, and Dheklapara tea estates, closures have resulted in growing numbers of people dying of starvation, malnutrition, and disease. There are quite a number of stories surfacing about absentee owners of tea plantations having closed up shop and left workers to suffer. Some of these workers are reported to have gone years without pay or regular meals while awaiting the outcome of the legal proceedings needed to reopen estates. In many cases there is a common theme where drought or mismanagement brought about financial hardship and the ensuing years of legal battles to reorganize leave tea garden workers in rural parts of West Bengal to suffer in limbo.
Darjeeling falls in the northern portion of the West Bengal state which borders Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. A 2012 report by KPMG notes that the state of West Bengal has one of the most densely populated regions in the country, a per capita income lower than the average Indian income, yet is a region experiencing rapid urbanization. The report also identifies a need for significant investment infrastructure, especially mass transportation in order to ensure adequate access to education and healthcare for the poor (KPMG). While those in urban areas are generally doing better, those in rural areas, where the tea farms are often located, face much greater challenges to diversify their opportunities for income and education in part due to lack of roads, markets, communications, and electricity (Khutan, Roy).
The ultimate cause may be a colonial era structure of plantations which needs to be remodeled. However, the near term cause is found in recent rainfall shortages sending businesses into bankruptcy and a legal system that ties up legal proceedings necessary to restart these plantations for many years (Reevell). Allegations of a local government in denial, a court system which can take years or decades to resolve disputes, very low wages, and lack of adequate education and infrastructure in rural areas means there are no easy answers to the situation.
Darjeeling in Perspective
It is worth bearing in mind that tea production in the Darjeeling region enjoyed substantial growth and investment during the British colonial era. Indeed, in the 1830’s one of the most pressing objectives of the Governor of India was to identify the right locations of soil and weather where tea could be grown in order to provide an alternative source from Chinese tea (Varma). Many large tea estates were developed during this time and although the labor practices may not have been perfect at that time, there was growth and investment by the owners of these estates.
While there is substantial opportunity for improvement in India, West Bengal, and Darjeeling, it is worth noting that the United States has a significant head start with the institutions, infrastructure, and laws necessary to improve the situation. India gained independence from the British in 1947 while the United States gained independence in 1776, having over 170 years more “experience” in the development of its laws and institutions. Likewise, the US Department of Labor which sets acceptable labor standards was signed into law March 4th, 1913 by President Taft, or nearly 35 years before India even became an independent nation.
Importance of Relationships in the Tea Business
All this leads us to the importance of relationships in the tea business. If you delve a bit beyond flavored tea and the ongoing research about health benefits of tea, you find like any business, there are many great things and plenty of opportunities for improvement. Driving improvements in the industry means getting involved; getting to know suppliers, asking questions, understanding that the industry isn’t perfect, and pushing for change. Driving change by being informed, forming strong relationships and making buying decisions that demonstrate what you value in the whole tea product.
There are plenty of responsible plantations in Darjeeling and throughout the tea industry. Being informed and passionate about the industry leads to asking questions, building relationships, and ultimately partnering for change and improvements.
Darjeeling tea estates closures mean hunger, death for abandoned workers, by Patrick Reevell, September 29, 2014, The Associated Press, http://www.ctvnews.ca/business/darjeeling-tea-estates-closures-mean-hunger-death-for-abandoned-workers-1.2029167
Importance of Urban and Social Infrastructure in Economic Growth of Bengal, 2012, by KPMG, http://www.kpmg.com/IN/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/Importance-economic-growth-Bengal.pdf
Producing Tea Coolies?: Work, Life and Protest in the Colonial Tea PLantations of Assam, 1830s – 1920s, Nitin Varma, http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/dissertationen/varma-nitin-2011-12-01/PDF/varma.pdf
Rural Livelihood Diversification in West Bengal: Determinants and Constraints, by Dilruba Khatun and B.C. Roy, Agricultural Economics Research Review, Vol. 25(No.1) January-June 2012 pp 115-124, http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/126049/2/12-Dilrub.pdf
A new DAWN rises in Darjeeling to save starving tea garden workers, by Ashim Sunam, Darjeeling Times, http://darjeelingtimes.com/a-new-dawn-rises-in-darjeeling-to-save-starving-tea-garden-workers/