Last month, I visited Margaret’s Hope tea estate. It was in this tea garden, home to some of the world’s finest teas, that workers created history of sorts when six of them got killed in police firing on June 25, 1955. They were part of a protest demonstration, fighting for their labour rights.
The incident paved way for organised labour movement in West Bengal’s tea industry.
I had gone to speak to some current and former workers, especially those who were witness to the incident of six decades ago. The story of the firing is the most narrated one in the garden, even more than fairy-tales. Toddlers grow up listening to them from parents, grandparents and village elders. Salim Subba, my host, is one of them. Not surprisingly, when he had to write his M. Phil dissertation at North Bengal University, he chose to document the oral histories as part of his research into the labour movement in Darjeeling hills. In spite of the historical significance of the movement, the incident, Subba tells me, is slowly fading away from public memory–one reason why he chose to document it–even as labour conditions remain more or less the same, in this and all other 86 gardens, even after so many decades of struggle.
An absolutely treacherous road–the driver of my car tried to abandon the journey at least twice!– linked the tea estate with Sonada (about 16 km from Darjeeling), the nearest town. But when I did finally manage to reach Control Danra, the spot where the incident had taken place, it seemed nothing less than a pilgrimage. As someone who cannot do without Darjeeling tea– I’m sorry to sound snooty, but that’s the only tea I really love– I couldn’t help feeling a deep sense of guilt, and pride, at the same time.
Tea managers will argue that this is not true, that tea workers are much better off today than they were before. And yes, as Kali Limbuni, one of the witnesses of the 1955 incident, tells me, they are “better-off”. They wear shoes, they carry umbrellas, and they earn Rs 150 (not eight annas) per day, and also get bonuses. But just. Darjeeling tea growers remain as exploited as ever. Rs 150 per day to pluck some of the world’s most expensive teas. Seriously?
Planters say that their bottom lines are getting increasingly stressed, mainly because of rising labour costs, especially “social costs”. Their main grudge is having to provide benefits, such as ration and healthcare, to workers. It is another issue that they never really ploughed back their past profits into the gardens; in technology, or in replanting and rejuvenation of gardens, one of ways to increase productivity. True to their colonial antecedents, they see flogging the already exploited labour as the only way to stay afloat.
The whole plantation business is inherently exploitative. Even if Darjeeling workers got what is agreed upon through tripartite agreement with the government, it would still be a far cry from a decent deal. The exploitation is structural.
And this is how Darjeeling tea remains affordable for people like me. I am guilty of being part of that system that exploits labour for cheap tea.
At Control Danra of Margaret’s Hope, on a recent monsoon day, I tried to visualise the scene of another monsoon day more than sixty years ago. Limbuni badi told me that the women were at the forefront, fighting for maternity benefits, among other things, mainly wage hike. In spite of the loss of lives, the agitation was hugely successful, with all the demands being met. Hattabahar, the system to arbitrarily terminate workers, was scrapped and workers started getting bonuses for the first time.
Tea workers are once again agitating for a wage hike. They are demanding they be paid wages under the Minimum Wages Act. Will they be able to usher in another revolution?
Click here to read my history feature on the June 25, 1955 incident, published in Scroll.in on June 25, 2018.