The untold story of the tea tribes of Assam, who nurture and bring tea to the world, while struggling to make ends meet
Words by Aritra Chakraborthy; Art by Jemma Jose
Making tea, I’ve been told, is both an art and a science. It involves an accurate sense of measurement and timing to derive the required aroma, colour and flavour. It is a ritual — one that takes years of practice and perseverance. At my home, this delicate, but important, task is, thus, left to the deft hands of my mother.
Every morning, she waltzes into the kitchen, in a sleepy daze, and starts to boil the water on the stove. Becoming the audience, I watch her perform this symphony. She opens the jar and hoists a spoonful of tea leaves right above the simmering water. She adds two spoons of it in rapid succession and before the water reaches a boil, turns off the gas. Within the next ten minutes, I find myself dipping a Marie biscuit into the piping hot black tea.
On the historical trail
Tea’s status as a national drink in India has its origin in the Bengal renaissance. Tea had achieved commercial stardom after its discovery in Assam in 1823. However, the present all-unifying cultural status eluded the drink. It was, then, limited to the elite British and the Indian aristocracy. It was only during the 20th century that tea became a part of every household, irrespective of caste and economic status, and it was introduced to the orthodox Hindu community by the non-Hindu minorities.
Although tea is unanimously celebrated and savoured across every street, nook and corner of India, there’s another side to this story that remains largely unexplored. The journey of tea from the estate hills to the kitchen table demands an audience. If our mothers have an established authority over the morning tea, the plantation workers have undisputed rights over the nurturing of the tea plant.
The tea tribes of Assam
According to data from the Tea Board of India, 53 per cent of the tea produced in the country comes from the tea estates of Assam, spread through the Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Nagaon districts. In these plantations lives the tea tribe. Originally immigrant labourers brought to work on the tea plantations by British estate owners, their history is as old as the history of tea in India. However, their life stands in stark contrast with the story of tea itself.
Now scattered around over 739 registered tea gardens in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys, the tea tribes make up for 17 percent of Assam’s population. They work and live in these tea plantations, diligently plucking leaves throughout the day.
The work on these tea estates is highly labour-intensive, says Meital Rusdia, Chief Field Officer of UNICEF India, who has worked with women from the tea tribe. “The community is tight-knit. They help each other out, making sure that not a single family misses out on a day’s earnings.”
Various studies have pointed out the poor standard of living and the impaired social safety of the tea tribes. According to a study done by Angshuman Sarma at the North East Social Research Centre (NESRC), workers have lived in cramped quarters for many generations. Most of them live in kutcha houses made of thatched bamboo walls with mud plaster. Sanitation and hygiene conditions are deplorable. The roofs are broken and the walls are crumbled. The supply of water also remains inconsistent.
As a result of their living conditions, they have also often fallen prey to outbreaks of infectious diseases, like tuberculosis and diarrhea. Assam also accounts for the largest number of maternal deaths in India, with 400 deaths for every 100,000 live births. Of this, 77 per cent of the mothers belong to the tea tribe. Apart from these material discomforts, the abusive treatment of plantation owners and apathy of the government adds to the hardships of their daily life.
The days of their lives
The tea tribes trace their origins to the tribal lands of Jharkhand and Odisha and thus have their unique dialect called Sadri. While the tribes of Odisha embraced Hinduism, majority of the tribes of Jharkhand adopted Christianity, thanks to many Christian missionaries in Assam.
Priyadarshini Chakravarty, a student from Dibrugarh University, spoke to students who belonged to the tea tribe for a first person narrative of their lives. “They spoke at length about their forefathers’ dedication towards tea growing and preparation. How they cared for the plants like their children, ensuring that Assam tea lived for generations to come,” says Priyadarshini. “However, they wanted to break out of this system.”
The tea estates where the tribes reside and work are largely owned by private entities or individuals. These private estates provide them with living spaces, amenities like electricity, water supply, and medical and schooling services. The children have free schooling till class 4 and a maximum education till class 10. In addition, the permanent employees have a pension fund and gratuity, paid leaves and sick leaves.
The tea tribes believe in having more hands to work and thus, have large families with four to five children each. Interviews with the community heads of the tea tribes have revealed that the elders view their children as a source of stable income. Hence, none of the older folks who are currently working on the estates want their children to aspire for any other future. The safety and assurance in the job of plucking tea leave little room for exploring a life beyond the tea estate.
On a typical day, plantation workers wake up before sunrise, cook their meal and report to the estate office by seven. On any given day, each plantation worker slogs eight hours, with only a 30 minute break for lunch. The worker has to produce 24 kilograms (kg) of leaves for which they are paid INR 137 (around $2) currently. Plucking more than 24 kg is rewarded with a bonus. But, if the plucking amount weighs less than that, then INR 2–3 is deducted from the daily wage.
After the day’s work, which winds up by 4:00 pm, workers retire to their homes and spend their evenings drinking liquor and entertaining themselves. The tea tribes also have the highest illiteracy rate in the state. This is because the eldest child is usually given the responsibility of the younger siblings as both parents go to work. Since parents go to work early, many children skip school. Instead, they are seen playing and roaming about without their parent’s knowledge.
Most parents do not feel the need to educate their children as when one of the parents retire or is unwilling to work further, their job is given to the oldest child. Since the estate provides them with all basic amenities, these workers are unwilling to leave it to find work elsewhere.
Reclaiming their identity
The tea tribes are not just an important contributor to the country’s economy, but also play a crucial role in its political system. They have been fighting for decades to be given the Scheduled Tribes status, which would help them claim many social and economic benefits. The tea tribes have, thus, been a deciding factor in many elections in the state since then.
Along with the support of the Assam Tea Tribe Students’ Association (ATTSA) and the All Adivasi Students’ Association (AASA), they also continue their fight for increase in daily wages, which is still below the mandated minimum daily wage for unskilled workers.
The student leaders and other non-profits in the area are stepping in where the governments have failed. They are trying to increase awareness about the need for education among the tea tribes. Children in the tribe are being encouraged to study as state-owned estates can now employ workers above 18 years only. However, private ones continue employing those below 18 making it difficult to bring a large number of children working in private estates back to school.
Digmal Tati, who works at a private tea estate in Tinsukia district of Assam and has been actively working with ATTSA for quite some time now, says: “Our lives revolve around plucking tea leaves. This is the only inheritance we got from our forefathers. Every day, we toil and spend the hard-earned money on liquor. This cycle needs to break some time and the time is now. Our children can be better than tea plantation workers. They can make their own destiny, their own identity and we are trying to help them do that.” Some people, like Digmal, have also started saving their wages for their children’s education.
History hasn’t been kind to the tea tribes to say the least, and their journey has been relegated to a footnote in public memory. While on one hand, tea has an identity which is unrivaled and is universally acknowledged as a refreshing drink, the tea tribe is not known beyond the plantations they work and live in.
Having lost hope in politicians who have not made good on their promises, the community is now trying on its own to rebuild their lives and fight for a better future. So the next time you drink a cup of Assam tea, savour every sip mindfully, and think of every tea garden worker who plucks leaves throughout the day to ensure that their child can have a future beyond the lush green plantations.
Aritra Chakrabarty is a social researcher with an keen musing for daily happenings. He holds an avid interest in street photography and loves to write on milieu of themes.
Jemma Jose is a freelance digital artist, who is passionate about bringing stories to life through drawing and animation. You can follow Jemma’s work here: @that gorillagirl. Contact her at email@example.com