Sarah Besky on India’s tea plantation workers

Sarah Besky is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University.  Her research in the Indian Himalayas and Kolkata sits at the intersection of studies of environment, labor, and development.  In Darjeeling, in Northeast India, she has explored the inclusion of plantations in the fair trade system and is described in The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014).  In Kolkata, she is examining the financialization of the Indian tea industry and the slow movement of tea onto the global commodity futures market.  In between Darjeeling and Kolkata, she is working on a project on the relationship between long-term landscape change—including landslides, annual monsoons, and deteriorating infrastructure—and the rise of subnationalist politics in Darjeeling. On April 5, 2016, she spoke with Kimaya de Silva, CMC ’17.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Sarah Besky

Could you tell us a little bit about your fieldwork and research in the northeastern region of India?

For almost ten years now, I have worked mostly in the Darjeeling district of the Indian state of West Bengal. The district is covered in plantations – not just tea plantations, which are normally associated with Darjeeling, but also cinchona tree plantations. The bark of the cinchona tree is quinine, an anti-malarial cure. In 1835 Darjeeling, the core of the city was annexed from the independent kingdom of Sikkim.  It developed into a massive tea district from the late 1850s into the 1880s. The development of plantations was a key feature in the making of this place. My fieldwork is about the intersections between place, people and plantation and about what Darjeeling is and how we can understand Darjeeling as a plantation district, and as a network of plantations. 

I went to graduate school expecting to work in Nepal, having gone there as an undergraduate student. I was interested in representation, broadly. I went to Nepal first to understand the production of cultural representation. I wanted to think about certain parts of Asia circulate within a global market; specifically, I wanted to think about art made for tourists. At the time I was also thinking about Pashmina, this expensive shawl with wool that came from the neck of certain goats from more rural areas in Nepal. But when I went to graduate school, I couldn't go back to the rural areas that interested me due to civil war.  I spoke Nepali and I wanted to continue looking at the intersections of environment, labor and global commodities. So that brought me to Darjeeling tea. I drank tea and I wanted to know more about it. Tea is such a fascinating thing; it is part of everyday life.  In fact I am drinking tea right now!  My fascination with material we use in every day, material that we don't think about, brought me to anthropology.  What is beautiful about anthropology is its study of areas we—sitting here in offices in the urban U.S.—never think much about. 

Recently I was working on a new project that brought me back to Darjeeling and Calcutta with professional tea tasters looking at the auctioning and valuation of tea. I also have a new project on plantation closures in the Dooars region of West Bengal, adjacent to Darjeeling, the land just south of Bhutan – the “doors,” so to speak, to Bhutan. 

Is that the region where tea is produced for local consumption?

Yes. Within a very small area [the northern districts of the state of West Bengal] you have some of the most expensive tea in the world that is consumed almost exclusively internationally [in Darjeeling] and nearby in the Dooars region tea is produced almost exclusively for domestic consumption. There you get CTC (cut, tear, curl tea) – little balls of tea that are used for the milky, sugary tea that you get on the sides of the road and in most houses across India. Around the world, in Sri Lanka and East Africa, there is both orthodox and CTC production. And CTC is known for that "slap you in the face", gutty, multi-black tea taste. You cut it with milk and sugar.

In what ways are plantation workers exploited in India’s tea industry? Is their mistreatment unique or specific to the tea industry? 

The treatment of workers is a huge problem so I will focus on the uniqueness of this issue. What fascinates me as an anthropologist, as somebody who was trained to look at kinship, family and stories, is the compensation structure on tea plantations. Workers are paid both in cash and in kind. Workers receive housing, healthcare, and food rations. There is supposed to be medical facilities, childcare facilities, water, latrines and so on. These are guaranteed to them under plantation labor law as part of their compensation and so they make very little in cash wages. They make a wage that is so far under minimum wage standards for the state in which they work because of the guarantee of those other material things. At the root of plantation exploitation is the compensation structure. Your house and your job are linked, so if you were a plantation worker and you were to leave your work on the plantation, you would lose your house too. Much of your compensation comes in the form of the house. So if a plantation closes, workers have no savings in order to pick up and move to do something else. The plantation really does have a hold, both affectively and economically, on workers. Importantly there is no free market for labor.  There is no application process. Jobs are inherited.  For example, if I am your mother, I give you my job; you inherit my job when I retire. With the inheritance of the job comes the inheritance of the house too. In Darjeeling, it is difficult for someone without kinship ties to the plantation to come from the outside a get a permanent plantation job.  

Also there are supposed to be latrines and there is supposed to be water, but on most plantations in Darjeeling, there is no water source. Workers have to get up at three o’clock in the morning and hike to a spring to collect water for the day. This is related to what is at the very core of what a plantation is and when we think about what constitutes a plantation, we need to think about the plantation as a particular socio-ecological form. We need to think about it as an economic system, as a social system, and as a political system. And the system is really complicated. At its roots, we can think about it as a system that generates and perpetuates immobility. 

How have the structures that the British put in place endured in the present time?

The industrial legacies of colonial rule and colonial institutions are seen all over Darjeeling and beyond.  One of the more visible legacies of the colonial regime is the very way that tea is produced; it takes three kilos of coal to produce one kilo of tea. The machines on Darjeeling plantations are often the same.  They have not been changed from the late 1800s.  Now these machines have been fetishized as “heritage.” To bring in a diesel powered or an efficient green machine is seen as a detriment—something that would undo to the smoky, muscatel taste of Darjeeling. The taste of Darjeeling tea would not be the same without the antique machinery. The problems today are so embedded in colonial history. 

Colonial rule created this vertically integrated system in which the plantation is a factory, a field and a residential space. The factories are there, the machines are there, the fields are there. Workers live in the fields.  They are not commuting to work; they live where they work. There are amazing archival documents on this from the 1830s and 1840s. They document the British planters’ discussing what makes empire-grown tea different.  And what they say makes empire-grown tea different is the structure of the plantation. They wrote about the Chinese system of production, a decentralized system of agriculture in which families produced tea all over the place, brought it to centralized processing factories, and sold it to intermediaries who would bring it to market. The key phrase that the British planters used the carving out the plantation system was that it was an "improvement” on the Chinese system. They intended to consolidate all of that work into what we now consider the plantation. Also, the labor laws today that are supposedly meant to protect workers are the codification of recruitment strategies that British planters used to get workers there in the first place. These workers have never made a true, proper living wage because they have always been paid in kind. In the case of Darjeeling in particular, beginning in the 1860s, would-be workers were being kicked off their land by high-class Hindus in Nepal.  British planters, with the help of Nepali labor recruiters, said to these farmers: "Come to Darjeeling. We will give you land here, we will give you a house, all you have to do is pluck tea." 

What role has the Indian government played in reforming the tea industry, in particular as it relates to the treatment of plantation workers? 

That is a great question and it is complicated. There is no specific office or minister that is really in charge of tea. Certainly the Ministry of Commerce and Industry governs tea in particular ways, as do others, such as the Ministry of Human Resources [for education], the Department of Land Reforms, and the Department of Labour. All of these governmental actors govern a different piece of the plantation. It is an extremely fractured landscape. So when there is a problem, it is not clear where to go to report that problem. The burden is on workers to go and report those problems.  So if you are on a plantation and you have not been paid for a month, it is your job or the union's job to go to the labor department and report that. There is no one key plantation-based government office. The plantation closures in the Dooars and the resultant starvation deaths that have occurred over the last year have brought to light this complexity. 

There has been significant international attention given to the treatment of workers and human rights in the global supply chain of agricultural products and manufactured goods. What kind of impact, if any, might they have on this issue?

What we have seen a lot of is mobilization around narratives of human trafficking and "modern day slavery" which is a narrative of "bad people" taking advantage of "good people." Women getting trafficked off plantations of Assam or plantations in the Dooars by these “mean nasty traffickers.” That really does not engage with the structural issues at play.  Why are the plantations there in the first place? Why are the plantations closing? What other options do you have if you are a woman that grew up on a tea plantation? These stories must be put it in a larger context. So to really answer your question, what I have seen is grassroots activists working on the plantations in the Dooars, trying to hold government officials and offices accountable and making sure that people, who are kept on the brink of survival when the plantation is open, do not die when the plantation closes. It is hard for human rights organizations to work on improving rights of workers on the plantations because plantations are tight industrial formations; they are for-profit companies. 

As an anthropologist what I like to focus on is the relationship between people and things. What fascinates me about the tea plantation is that it is by virtue of women's labor that there is a house; and it is also by virtue of women's reproductive labor and women's social reproduction that children have meals in the morning and places to sleep at night. The work of both capitalist production and the reproduction of families is hard work. Women on plantations work a lot and they do a lot of seemingly invisible labor because both childcare and tea production are gendered female. 

What might you like to say to the tea drinkers of the world?

I always get this question and I probably answer it differently every time. What I think is important is having a little bit more reflexivity. This was not really the nature of your question but often the questions I get are, "what can I do with my consumption to help the women of Darjeeling?" Ethically we need to think bigger, we need to think structurally. We should not limit ourselves to our own bourgeois imperative to individually buy things and do good with our buying. I would like to see people check that impulse a little bit and question our ability to do anything with the things that we buy. I want to think that I am not making the world a worse place by buying the things that I buy.  But I want to bring some critical attention to the idea that we are making the world a better place inherently by the consumption of singular things.  

Tea is fascinating because it often comes to us in these opaque packages, tea bags. That is not how coffee and other products come to us. Tea comes to us in these easy-to-use packets and there is a lot of labor between the tea pluckers and when that tea bag comes to you, neatly folded and neatly stapled somewhere in Boulder or an industrial cooridor in Kolkata. The amount of tea that goes into these tea bags is so miniscule. So perhaps we should think about the value of what we are consuming and think critically about the composite product. When you buy a tea bag you are buying a staple, a string, three kinds of paper and the packaging it comes in. Where does all that come from? You are buying more paper than you are buying tea when you buy tea bags. The tea bag is fascinating. I would like to see a challenging of the comforting narratives of ethical trade, such as saying "I can do something for the poor of the world through my caffeinating practices." I say this not to promote a descent into hedonistic consumption or nihilism, but to call attention to political economy in the production and circulation of global commodities.

What is exciting to me is that the plantation is an object of inquiry and it is coming back into fashion in anthropology. I see more people talking about the plantation. I am looking forward to more attention to questions about what the plantation is in the 21st century.  Why we call industrial agricultural situations far away from us “plantations?” What makes industrial fields in California not plantations, but in India they are? How is a large-scale wine vineyard not a plantation? And how can we unpack the concept of the plantation?

Recommended reading: 
The Darjeeling Distinction: Labour and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India by Sarah Besky
Empire′s Garden: Assam and the Making of India by Jayeeta Sharma

Kimaya de Silva CMC ’17Student Journalist
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