Photo: Members of Uttar Bangal Chai Shramik Sangathan during Navjagran Yatra. (Courtesy: Lakra Joy Prafful)
On 5 July, the recently formed organisation of tea garden workers “Uttar Bangal Chai Shramik Sangathan” (UBCSS) completed its first anniversary. In the past one year, UBCSS—whose journey began in Birpara Sarna S.T. club at Alipurduar district of West Bengal—has been able to reach a large number of people in the tea gardens through public meetings, programs and events. In all its public meetings, rallies, memorandums and deputations, the organisation has been constantly raising two fundamental issues in the tea gardens: implementation of minimum wage and the land rights for the workers. Asserting itself as a non-political body, it has garnered support of people who are disillusioned by the mainstream political parties and trade unions. It has been a fierce critique of the policies of the government like the Cha Sundari Yojna and Tea Tourism and Allied Business Policy 2019—which would be devastating for the people. The West Bengal government through Cha Sundari Yojana aims at providing housing to the tea garden workers, but in a different location, not on the land they are currently occupying. According to the Tea Tourism and Allied Business Policy 2019, a tea garden can make use of 15% of the total land, to the maximum of 150 acres, available for tourism projects and other specific commercial purposes. Out of this allowable area a maximum of 40% can be used for construction activities. With the large support of youths, who see at the organisation as a beacon of hope and a legit platform to express themselves, the Sangathan has the potential to alter the politics in the region. With its ability to bring together different ethnic communities and caste groups, it may open newer alliances in the region.
A brief history of tea gardens in North Bengal
Tea is a widely consumed beverage in the world, with the total consumption reaching 6.3 billion kilogrammes in 2020 alone. Its commercial production goes back to the first half of the nineteenth century when the British started experimenting with it in Indian sub-continent. The rapid expansion of tea cultivation in Assam was followed by the establishment of plantations in North Bengal’s Darjeeling (1839), Terai (1862) and Dooars region (1874). During the period between 1840 and 1863, there were only 48 tea estates under different proprietors with an area of 7599 acres (Chatterjee and Das Gupta 1981). However, this number increased to 43,293 tea estates covering 271768 hectare in Assam, and 8,709 tea estates covering 114003 hectare in West Bengal in 2004.
The local people were not enough to fulfil the demand of the labour requirement of the plantation industry in Assam and West Bengal. Moreover, the local people in Assam were reluctant to work in the plantations because the wages were far less than the agricultural labourers. This resulted in many private agencies recruiting Adivasis from Chotanagpur region of Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, among others. Labourers had to live under very harsh conditions and strict surveillance. There was not enough space for cooking, absence of toilet facilities, and wet decks gave rise to diseases such as Cholera. According to Assam Labour Enquiry Committee of 1906, the situation was so severe that out of 88,915 labourers recruited for Assam between May 1863 and May 1866, 30,000 (35 percent) died (Chatterjee & Dasgupta, 1981).
During the ten years (1893-1992) in the tea gardens of Darjeeling , the average wage for men was six rupees, for women four to eight rupees and for children two to three rupees (O’Malley, 1907, pp. 140-41). On the contrary the wages of the skilled labours in urban areas were higher. In 1871, the average wage of the mason was around 10 to 14 rupees and of the carpenter 12 to 18 rupees, which only increased between 15 to 30 rupees and 15 to 22 rupees respectively in 1907. To make matters worse, the prices of the commodities also increased exorbitantly. . O’Malley writes, “The price of food-grains has risen enormously during the last thirty years” (O’Malley, 1907, pp.141). In 1871, the prices of the food grain were one to four rupees a mound and Indian corn was one to eight rupees—there was almost a 50 percent hike in the prices of these commodities in 1907 (ibid). Almost a century later, in 1984, the daily wage of an adult worker in the Dooars stood at Rs 9.75 (Prasaneswari, 1984). This was much less than the agricultural labourers around the plantation sites. Evidently, there has been almost insignificant rise in wages in the tea industry, and the management union of tea estates “Consultative Committee of Planters Association” (CCPA) has ensured that the wages of the labourers remains extremely low.
The lush green beautiful tea gardens were once dense forest, infested with wild animals and disease spreading insects. The region, which was turned into a tea plantation, was inhabited by a scanty population of Rajbansi and Mech people (Xaxa 1985). Many labourers died infected with Malaria and other dreaded diseases like Kala Azar—Black Fever. The British scholar LSS O’Malley argues that in Terai region a malignant type of fever was frequent in certain locations such as Garidhura, Matigarha and Naxalbari; moreover, the infant mortality of Terai in 1905 was only 38 percent (O’Malley 1907).
The precarious conditions of tea garden workers, even after more than 150 years, have not changed since colonial period. The conditions are extremely bad with dismally low wages, pathetic health conditions, and poor education. A decade ago, the daily wage in the tea plantation was merely Rs 67, which was gradually increased to Rs 202 only this year. Years of neglect by the tea companies, trade unions and government have made tea gardens a den of social problems. Frequent lockouts and closures have led to large scale migration, school dropouts, deaths and diseases. The negligence of the political parties on the issues of the tea plantations have made people loose trust in them.
Lack of development and absence of alternatives gave space for BJP to grow in the region over the past years. In the 2019 election, BJP’s John Barla won Alipurduar Lok Sabha seat with a huge margin. Similarly in recent assembly elections held in May, BJP won tea growing constituencies such as Mal, Nagrakata, Madarihat, Falakata, Kalchini, and Kumargram. The region had also witnessed the tense conflict between Adivasis and Gorkhas during the Gorkhaland agitation between 2008 and 2013. It has broken and fragmented the communities, but gradually people have come out of it. People have seen their leaders switching sides, without caring about the progress of the region and community. There is a growing resentment among the youths too, who have now found space in UBCSS, a collective to raise their concerns and issues.
The Beginning of Uttar Bangal Chai Shramik Sangathan
Between 2014-16, two young men in their early twenties, pursuing postgraduate studies in North Bengal University, were disillusioned and disturbed with the pathetic conditions in the tea gardens. They wanted to do something to mitigate the problems faced by the people. They had the anger, zeal, enthusiasm and courage to take up challenges and bring change in the society. They would discuss for hours in their hostel rooms and plan to create awareness about the plight of the tea garden labourers. Similar feelings for social change ran across among the youths in Kalchini. Two years after completing their post graduate studies, the two young men Ashik Munda (from Dima Tea Garden) and Rahul Kumar (Bangabari Tea Garden) started their 65 days walk to New Delhi on 15 August 2018 from Alipurduar district. Filled with fire to transform society, they submitted a memorandum to the National Commission for Schedule Tribes, Tribal Minister Joel Oram, NITI Aayog, and Jantar Mantar Police station.
After their return, they along with the youths of Kalchini started creating awareness about the conditions of the tea gardens; they held small meetings discussed the problems at length. On 15 August 2019, six vibrant youths from Kalchini—Jogita Oraon, Priyanka Mahali, Suraj Naik, Pancham Lohra, Ashik Munda and Rahul Kumar— started a signature campaign. They walked for seven days covering more than 150 kilometres collecting 4,000 signatures to be submitted to the Branch Secretariat of West Bengal government at Uttar Kanya, Siliguri.
In order to sustain the movement there was a need for the formation of an organisation. They started contacting like-minded persons, who were equally motivated for the cause of tea gardens. In January last year, Rahul Kumar contacted the youth activist Christian Kharia after seeing his videos on social media. Christian Kharia—who is now the president of UBCSS—along with his friends had launched a campaign to prevent illegal cutting of trees from the Nagasuree Tea Garden. Earlier, some people from the tea garden along with the management had started cutting and selling trees, but the youths opposed this and succeeded in preventing them from cutting trees.
The UBCSS members have effectively and efficiently made use of the social networking platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp to express their grievances and expand their reach. Many new members in fact got connected to the organisation by watching videos on social media. For instance, Biswajit Oraon from Mujnai Tea Garden was motivated by the video of a daily wage worker, Sashi Sunuwar, shared on Facebook in September 2020. In the video Sashi spoke in Nepali and talked about the plight of tea garden labourers. He spoke about the issue of minimum wage and land rights of the tea plantation labourers and gave a clarion call to join UBCSS. “I was very inspired and motivated by the video of Sashi da. That video went viral and was shared in our WhatsApp group,” Biswajit Oraon told me. Other UBCSS members, Jogita Oraon, Sashi Sunuwar, Rahul Kumar and Christian Kharia have active presence on social media and regularly express their views. They also post updates of organisation’s activities, problems and difficulties in the tea gardens, on their Facebook page, and have been constantly critiquing government’s policies such as the Cha Sundari Yojana and Tea Tourism Bill, 2019. At times, they go live on Facebook and talk about the condition of health, water, education, and women in the tea gardens.
Navjagran Yatra and the ongoing journey
On 24 March 2020, the Indian government announced a complete lock down owing to the increase in COVID-19 cases. As there was no possibility to meet in person, online meetings were arranged to have discussion on forming a group. In the beginning there were fewer participants, and most had poor network connections. However, the vibrant and agile participants were destined to bring change and these meetings became intense and continued for the next few months.
After a lot of deliberation, a meeting was convened on 5 July 2020 at Birpara Sarna S.T. club in Alipurduar district. “There were about 17-18 members present at the meeting. The name “Uttar Bangal Chai Shramik Sangathan” was proposed by Ajay Munda, resident of Kathalguri Tea Garden and unanimously supported by all,” Jogita Oraon, who was present at the meeting, told me. The main aim of the organisation is—to demand land rights for the tea garden labourers and implementation of minimum wages act. After the formation of the organisation, all the members were filled with renewed spirits and visions. Subsequently, in order to discuss and make plans for the future, meetings were convened on 14 July at Bangabari Tea Garden, on 20 September at Kalchini Tea Garden, and on 29 November at Mujnai Tea Garden. Meanwhile, in order to appraise the plight of the tea garden labourers, a memorandum was submitted to Madarihat Block Development Officer and Block Land and Land Revenue Officer on 7 August. Similarly, a memorandum was also submitted to the Madarihat MLA, Manoj Tigga on 11August and to the MP of Alipurduar, John Barla on 14 August.
The organisation initially had no structure, however its need arose as more people joined and their activities increased over time. On 18 October, the organisations’ central committee was formed at Nagasuree Tea Garden. There were many hindrances from the administration for the program. The permission for the event was not granted. They were unofficially allowed to organise the program in some other location, but without any stage. The administration restricted those citing COVID-19 precautions, but a month later Dilip Ghosh’s public meeting was organised on the same venue. Christian alleged that, due to their increasing popularity, the government deliberately wanted to stop their program. In order to distribute roles and responsibilities at the block level, two block committees were formed—Madarihat block committee was formed on 8 November at Birpara Tea Garden, while the Kalchini Block committee was formed on 13 December at Dima Tea Garden. Further, one more Mujnai Tea Garden committee was formed on 23 December.
The West Bengal elections were scheduled from the end of March 2021, and the organisation wanted to take this opportunity to pressurise the government and political parties to take up their two key demands. Initially they were planning to submit a memorandum to the Dooars Kanya or Uttar Kanya. After much deliberation and discussion, they came up with a plan to cover the maximum number of tea gardens and create awareness. This idea was first shared by Sashi Sunuwar and the General Secretary of the organisation. After discussion in the group this campaign was named, Navjagran Yatra—Journey for Renaissance. On 5 March, about 15 members embarked on a seven-day long journey from Bangabari Tea Garden, which concluded at Siliguri, covering a distance of more than 150 kilometres. In this journey, they halted at six locations. They collaborated with different organisations and well wishers who arranged for their food and lodging. Moving on foot and vehicle, the troop covered 60 tea gardens. They were warmly received in all the places and garnered lots of support. On their journey they also observed International Womens’ Day in one of the tea gardens with the women out for plucking tea leaves.
However, this journey has not been easy and there were tough and difficult times. “There were lots of challenges. There was pressure from the administration. Jogita was receiving lots of calls from the intelligence department. There were no funds to start the event. We started our journey with only Rs 2600,” Christian Kharia, said. The people from the intelligence kept tracking their movement. Despite lack of sufficient funds, they went ahead and only later started collecting money in the donation box from Mujna Tea Garden. People also generously made contributions to make their campaign successful.
Navjagran Yatra was a life changing experience for most members who undertook this journey. Their faith and confidence in the organisation has only increased further and they firmly believe that UBCSS has the ability to bring change in society and work for the betterment of tea garden labourers. “I got the opportunity to meet new people and talk to them. I did sloganeering in the mic. This was one of the best experiences I had. I came to know more about tea gardens,” Bikash Oraon told me. Another member, Pinkey Oraon, also had a rich experience. “Though I was present only for the first two days, I have learnt a lot by meeting new people. This has helped me in my personal growth and development,” she said. Similarly, Biswajit Oraon shared a sense of satisfaction. “We got a lot of support from the people. They supported our cause. It helped me understand the problems of the tea gardens in a better way,” he said. Yet another member, Sakranti Munda, seemed inspired and motivated. “We are working hard and we will get its fruits. We were supported by all. We got opportunities to talk about the organisation,” she said. Lastly, Sashi Sunuwar believes that the tea gardens people are getting conscious. “They have got a beacon of hope, and are prepared to take forward the struggle,” he said.
Since the second wave of COVID-19, the members of the organisation were actively creating awareness in Madarihat, Mateilli and Kalchini blocks. In collaboration with Prayatn—an Adivasi Youth Collective—they are running community kitchens at Nagasuree Tea Garden and Baradighi Tea Garden in Mateilli block of Jalpaiguri district. In this project, nutritious food is provided to the COVID-19 patients for their faster recovery and well being. They are also supported by Helping Hands Charitable Trust and Bombay Sarvodaya Friendship Centre from Mumbai.
How the organisation is breaking traditional hierarchy and networks
Historically, the trade union leaders have been primarily from upper caste communities and from outside the tea gardens. The daily wage laborers, particularly Adivasis and Nepalis, were mere members, without power and influence in the party or union. The local leaders mostly came from the sub-staff category; the bahidars and sardars. Others played lesser or no role in the decision making process. However, things have changed after the Adivasi movement of 2008 in the region. This movement was able to shake the traditional hierarchy in the tea plantations and finally Adivasis became trade union leaders and spoke for themselves.
Most of the members of UBCSS are youths, who have no or very little connection with the political parties or trade unions. The office bearers of the organisation do not come from the families affiliated to any political parties, or those with power and influence. All of them are from the tea gardens and their parents are/were daily wage labourers. Not only do they break the caste hegemony, but also shake traditional power and networks within the community.
The 24-year-old Jogita Oraon has been associated with the organisation since 2018. There are five members in her family, and her mother works as daily wager in Kalchini Tea Garden. In order to support her family, she runs a small shop. She is now the secretary at UBCSS’s central committee. “I have joined the organisation to fight for minimum wage and land rights,” she told me. On being asked if there are many organisations and trade unions fighting for the tea garden workers, what was the need to have one more? She agitatedly said, “Other organisations are only doing lip services, without any change for years. We are fighting for our rights and to come out of life of slavery.” Jogita argued that the organisation has made significant progress and is a democratic space, where everybody can freely express themselves. “Our parents gradually understand that we are in companies’ land, and can be removed any time,” she added.
On 20 September, Biswajit Bara attended his first meeting at Kalchini, after being inspired from the video of Sashi Sunuwar on Facebook. The 24-year-old hails from Mujnai Tea Garden and is in the final year of graduation. His father retired but mother still works in the tea garden. Soon after joining the organisation, he was elevated to the post of General Secretary of Madarihat block on 8 November at Birpara. He has joined the organisation to take out tea garden workers from a life of misery and to get their demands met. “I am very happy in the organisation. There are different kinds of people, who bring new thoughts and ideas,” he told me. “There is plenty to learn from new people, and I get lots of energy. We have to do lots of work.” Working in the organisation for the last few months, he is exposed to many problems such as health and education in the tea gardens. At present, his team is running a campaign in Mujnai Tea Garden, demanding that their current tea garden quarter is not to be vacated even if they get housing under the Cha Sundari Yojana. In Mujnai and nearby Bangabari about 700 houses are under construction under the scheme and Biswajit’s team is collecting signatures of the workers who do not wish to go to the new house.
Another young member, 23-year-old Bikash Oroan is from Mujnai Tea Garden and has five members in the family. His father works as daily wage labour in the tea garden. He has completed his class XII and is preparing for defence services. At the same time he also plans to get admission for graduation. He has been associated with the organisation since the meeting held at Nagasuree Tea Garden on 18 October. “I have joined the organisation because they are sincerely working for two important issues of the tea garden labourers; minimum wage and land rights. No trade union and political party are seriously working for this,” he said. Mujnai Tea Garden committee was formed on 23 Decembe, where he was elected as the General Secretary.
Most members of UBCSS are pursuing their education and career, alongside their dedication towards social cause at tea gardens. Pinkey Oraon, a 22-year-old member from Mujnai tea garden, is in the third year of graduation. Since her grandmother is still a permanent worker, her family is able to live in the tea garden. Otherwise, both her parents work as daily wage labourers in nearby villages. She has been associated with the organisation for the past 8-9 months, and supports its activities. “There are trade unions in the tea gardens, but I have lost hope in them. They have not taken the issues of the tea garden labourers seriously,” Pinkey told me. She was never associated with any organisation before and feels happy to contribute to the community through UBCSS.
Sakranti Munda, a 25-year-old member from Ramjhora Tea Garden, supports her family through a small business. Her mother is a daily wage labour in the tea garden. She has been connected with UBCSS since early August when a deputation was submitted to Madarihat BDO and BL & LRO. “I felt very happy when we submitted the deputation. We do not want to live like our parents, and face problems like them,” she said. Being associated with the organisation, she has got clarity about the problems in the tea gardens and she also critiques the work and activities of the political parties. “In a political meeting they only talk about their own leaders. They criticize other parties, without working for the people. But UBCSS wants to get together, and fight for the cause,” she added.
In 2018, the 23-year-old final year BA student from Dalmore Tea Garden, Pankaj Tamang, heard about the walk of Ashik Munda and Rahul Kumar. He became part of their movement and has been associated with the organisation since its inception. Pankaj’s mother is a daily wage labour, while his father and elder brother are working outside the state. “I felt from inside the exploitation of the tea garden workers, and wanted to do something about it,” he told me. “I am a son of a tea garden labour.” He too participated in the Navjagran Yatra, and believes it was a great learning experience. “We visited many tea gardens, and interacted with the labours. This gave us an opportunity to listen to their problems. We told them about the exploitation in the tea plantations,” he said.
A way forward
Since the members and leadership of UBCSS largely comes from among the youth, there is plenty of energy and enthusiasm among them. However, the organisation needs to work towards efficiently channelising the energy, for its sustained struggle. They would need to work towards reaching out to workers, who are at the forefront facing the unjust system. Looking at the condition of the tea gardens, the fight ought to be fought on multiple fronts; not only minimum wages and land rights. These two issues remain core and fundamental to the movement, but there is a need to engage with other pressing problems. The organisation has to find ways to address the issues of health, education, unemployment, migration, trafficking and so on. There is also a need to connect with other movements whether it is about tribal land, forest, farmers, labours, marginalised castes, cultural and linguistic identity. Recognising each other’s struggle and opportunity to express one’s identity will only strengthen the movement that is a history in the making.
- Chatterjee, S. & Gupta, R. D. (1981). Tea-labour in Assam: recruitment and government policy, 1840-80. Economic and Political Weekly, 1861-1868.
- O’ Malley, L.S.(1907). Darjeeling District Gazetteer.
- Xaxa, V.(1985). Colonial Capitalism and Underdevelopment in North Bengal, Economic and Political Weekly, 20, No. 39 (Sep. 28, 1985), pp. 1659-1665.