This article is published by Aid North East Cell Newsletter, Dec 2004
[original article:]

Chai - Tea

Commodification of names such as “Assam”, “Darjeeling” and “Cashmere” is not a new phenomenon. Buying a fashionably expensive Cashmere (sweater) anywhere in the world, or walking into an upscale coffee shop to order an Irish Breakfast tea from Assam or perhaps a Chai-tea, does not entail having any knowledge whatsoever about Kashmir or Ireland or Darjeeling or Assam. Neither does the buyer have to be cognizant of the social, environmental or cultural costs of producing these things and making them so easily accessible to all who are willing to pay. Free market mechanisms and global consumerism have sought to remove all impediments in the way of unbridled flow of goods and wealth even to the remotest corner of the earth, while peace, harmony, security and well-being remains the prerogative of a few. Employment created in the process is only a necessary evil – the bare minimum needed. The ephemeral nature of the jobs, hold back any certainty of income, injecting anxiety and instability in communities. Enforcing homogeneity is a precursor to the globalizing forces, for it leads to predictability of human response and ease of manipulation. In its wake, globalization has played havoc with the environment and traditional societies leading to the destitution of millions of human, plant and animal lives. Many a times, leading academics have tried to express the inevitability of globalization. One has to look very hard to find even a shred of inevitability in prying open the trade doors to allow a multi million dollar corporation to compete with a subsistence farmer, or in locking an impoverished country’s economy in the endless cycle of debt servicing. An economy based on insatiable human greed ushered by an enslaving technology can do anything but spread peace and well-being.

Globalization was perhaps not such a hotly debated subject when the first sample of tea was shipped from Assam, bound for England, in 1837. The experiment of producing tea in Assam was so well received by the imperial government that by 1839 big companies were set up in Kolkata (Calcutta) and London to open up this prospective sector of high profits. Tea gardens were modeled along the lines of other exploitative plantations of rubber, indigo and sugar in India and other British colonies which relied heavily on the availability of cheap labor. The local peasantry of Assam was not ready to accept the unabashedly low wages and demeaning working conditions. Also, they would have been harder to “tame” because of their knowledge of the area and a well established social structure. The vulnerability of migrant labor was well understood which led the plantation owners to import labor from the Chottanagpur region in central India. These peoples’ unfamiliarity with the territory and their difference in language and culture from the native people made them entirely dependent on their masters who could wring out every ounce of productivity under sub human conditions. The indentured servitude was further strengthened by the various acts instituted by the government, taking away the workers’ right to strike and criminalizing willful termination of employment on their part. These workers formed an island of social, cultural and occupational incongruity in Assam.

The pursuit of ever cheap labor to maximize profits runs unabated to this day, perhaps with a greater degree of sophistication and obfuscation. The brick kilns and road construction industry in India invariably employ non-native, unskilled labor that enlists itself for anything, anywhere to escape abject poverty in the villages. It is not uncommon to see laborers from Bolangir, (Orissa) working in the brick kilns of Rajasthan or an undernourished youth from Dumka, (Jharkhand) working on the perilous snow covered roads of Ladakh without ample protection against the biting cold. A recent report by India Committee of the Netherlands, shows that multinational as well as Indian companies continue to employ child labor in the production of hybrid cottonseed in Andhra Pradesh. It is rather ironic that a multi billion dollar giant has to rely on these innocent lives for maximizing profits. Such a racket seldom runs without the collusion of the authorities, who are indistinguishably entwined in it. Even the poor in the rich countries have been affected by the flight of industries to havens of cheap labor, leaving the affected at the mercy of the free markets.

Assam produces over half of India’s tea, a beverage which was introduced by the imperial masters but has emerged to be a cultural mascot for a large part of the country. The Indian tea industry has seen stiff competition from Kenya, Sri Lanka and Vietnam since the opening of the markets in the nineties. In 2000, the price of Indian tea fell by 18% when the price for Sri Lankan and Kenyan tea were going up. Russia and Iraq were the largest importers of Indian tea. Since the opening of Russian markets, other varieties of tea imported from Sri Lanka and China have dislodged Indian tea from its pedestal of the main exporter. More recently the war in Iraq has also hit the Indian tea industry quite adversely. To add to its woes, the globalization trends have led to a proliferation of the soft drinks industry in India which itself is a big consumer of tea. The trendy and aggressive marketing of the colas are no match for the tea industry, in appealing to the fancies of the younger population.

Total surrender to the global market forces has jeopardized the Indian tea industry and the millions who depend on it for livelihood. The absence of any rehabilitative measures for those who are displaced economically and socially betrays the altruistic tone of the globalizing forces. The past generations of the tea garden workers had lived and died in the same tea estates that they were born. In absence of a good education system or professional training, the avenues of social and economic mobility for the present generation are sealed. The minimum wage in the tea gardens is still anchored at Rs. 48.50 a day. Most of the workers live in squalid and unhygienic conditions without access to decent medical facilities by any standards. Hundreds of people die from gastrointestinal diseases each year and preventable deaths from malaria and diarrhea are also common among children.

Globalization has led to the concentration of wealth and power in a very few hands. Seventy percent of the global trade is controlled by just 500 corporations. The tea industry is no exception in this regard and is controlled by only 4 corporations throughout the world. The corporations’ dilemma between soaring profits and flat profits contrast starkly with the plantation workers’ choice of life and death. The gradual transfer of power from nation states into the hands of profit driven transnational corporations is bound to create a democratic deficit [6] and challenge human perception of justice and fairness.


[1] Bonded Labour and the Tea Plantation Economy – Souparna Lahiri

[2] Struggles in the Tea Plantations of Assam: Then and Now – Sanjay Barbora

[3] Production cost Rs. 60, auction price Rs. 47 – M. Suchitra and M.P Basheer

[4] Orissa’s Labour Industry – Jaideep Hardikar

[5] MNCs continue exploitation of children – Gomati Jagadeesan

[6] I heard the term “democratic deficit” being used by Noam Chomsky in one of his talks on global economy.

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