Friday, November 23, 2007

What's In Your Cup?


The elite and richest class of people live perched on the top of the economic triangle of the society that supports them. I remember seeing this triangle as it was drawn and explained by a literature teacher in college, many years ago. I thought of myself in the big broad band somewhere near the bottom, burdened by the weight upon me. But I was wrong. If the triangle stopped within the borders of the country I come from, then yes, I am somewhere in the lower part of the middle of that triangle. And that view would be true if everything produced within those borders supported that triangle. But it doesn't.

The truth is that almost everything produced for consumption and feeding the top of that elite band of wealth is produced outside our borders in what is commonly called 'The Third World'. A misnomer because actually, that world is the same one world we all live in. There is no getting away.

To feel the burden of all that wealth upon the inhabitants and laborers of that 'other' world is to understand your place in the triangle as far closer to the top band of wealth then you could have possibly imagined. A say 'you' because, yes, I mean you. Pour yourself a nice hot cup of tea and think about where it came from.


As I continually defended my lack of wealth to the Indian pushers of handicrafts and other souvenirs, I knew innately that I was lying. That became clearer to me as I researched the plight of the Indian Tea Workers, women laborers mostly, who are often the only employed person in their large families. The pay in the Darjeeling region of tea plantations is 52 rupees a day; that equals a little more than a dollar. This is essentially the Indian minimum wage. For tea workers, supplementing that income is supposedly housing, food rations, and health care. These terms are written into the laws governing tea plantations, which should make tea picking a particularly appealing job for a laborer. Sadly, as the tea industry in India has faced economic hardship, many workers have been waiting years to get their housing, and are living in squalid conditions. This is true in the Darjeeling region, I know because I interviewed a woman who is facing this problem.

Kamala lives a mile or so down a narrow path, which is muddy and slippery in the rain. There is no electricity down where she is, because she can't afford the 2500 rupees (about 65 dollars) it would take to bring the electricity down the hill. Her house has holes where windows should be, and she cooks her food in a fire pit. When I was there, she made a fire to boil water for tea, which she offered my assistant and myself, along with some biscuits. The thought of the cost of the biscuits made me shudder, as I knew the money could have been used to feed her four young children, all of who were coughing badly.

This coughing is a concern because according to Nalin Modha, a consultant and former plantation manager, many of the tea workers and their families are suffering from TB. Without proper health care and treatment, this is surely a global concern as TB is highly contagious. However, most workers, unless they are so sick as to need hospitalization, can be seen plucking tea even while very sick. To miss a day of employment is to miss a day's wages; a luxury that she can't afford. If she is hospitalized, half of her wages will be used to pay the hospital for up to 14 days, and after that...?

Kamala's husband is a day laborer and is often without employment. When he does make money, it often goes toward alcohol, and when he drinks and is very high, sometimes he hits her. Kamala pays for her older children to go to school, but feels she can not afford it much longer, and her oldest son, all of about 13, will probably be forced to leave school to find work to help the family. She asked me if I could help her by finding him a job.

But Kamala is lucky, for she is still employed.

Four hours by car from the mountains of the Darjeeling Tea District lay The Duars, nestled in the plains of the Jalpaiguri District where common black tea without distinction is grown. Many plantations have closed in this region leaving workers and their families destitute. The result of these closures has seen women entering the flesh trade amongst other unfortunate outcomes, such as untreated illness and starvation. Of the plantations that are still open, many threaten closure to the women who attempt to stand up for their rights as written into the laws which are meant to regulate the plantations; rights such as housing, health care and food rations, which are being denied to the workers of many of these still open plantations. Even the minute salaries are often delayed, sometimes for months. The unions which were set up to protect the rights of these women, are in the hands of the management, meaning that no one at all is fighting for the rights of the tea workers; rights which are written into the laws are treated as if they do not exist.

Although there are plantations that are benevolent and are doing a good job of maintaining an ethical system, sadly they are not in the majority. According to Dr. S.S. Choudhury, Sociologist and author of the book Challenges of Tea Management in the 21st Century, the current plantation management system in India is a feudal system, is no longer cost effective, and is not capable of sustaining itself. He says that plantations that answer to corporate owners are far more successful than those run in ways set up by the Raj well over a century ago using the same systems of the slave plantations in USA's deep south of 19th century. Those plantations are subject to the whims of the 'lord' that is running them. If he is benevolent and opting for healthy, sustainable planting practices that keep the garden's healthy, and offer fair trade type policies for the laborers, then the workers have it good. If not, the workers suffer greatly. Furthermore, if the plantations do close, the worker is completely out of luck with nary an option in this country of extreme poverty and lack of employment.

In addition, in all of the above circumstances, the female worker often has to deal with an unfortunate home life consisting of unemployed husbands who drink away the salaries and are sometimes abusive. Furthermore, a serious lack of education is rampant throughout this class of population, leading to lack of knowledge about rights, family planning, health care, or the ability to ever be able to do anything else should the job disintegrate. As far as educational options, Dr. Choudhury asserts, there are more opportunities for the current generation of children to go to school than there have been with their parents. However that though there may be opportunties, the truth remains that many parents will simply not allow their children to go to school, possibly due to superstitions and mistrust, or the lack of understanding of education's importance in lifting their children from the generations old plight, and the child may have his or her education cut short if an opportunity for that child to be employed is available.

"It is so disgusting," said Dr. Dutta of the lack of health care and facilities for the people who occupy this region. Her husband, Dr. Anton Das chimed in, "We went there and saw a boy who had something wrong with a vein in his leg. The circulation had stopped and his leg was rotting. It was covered with maggots! It was too late to help him, there was nothing that could be done, his leg had to be amputated."

We sat in their beautiful apartment looking over Siliguri, a city like so many Indian cities, with a dichotomy of tiny pockets of unbounded wealth amidst a sea of unbelievable poverty. We discussed the sad situation of the tea plantations of The Duars, "No one is doing anything," asserted Dr. Das, "Things have been getting worse there for so many years, and nothing is being done. There is a very modern medical facility in the area that only has a doctor once a year that comes from abroad to do optical surgeries. Beyond that, they have no doctors."

"People claim that girls have been kidnapped and traded into prostitution, but I think they have gone willingly. What choice do they have?" said Dr. Dutta. "If there is going to be any change, it has to come from the ground," Dr. Das theorized.

Dr. Das took me back to my hotel and while driving, he sighed. "It gives me shame," he said, "That you should be coming here all the way from the U.S. to help this situation when here in India it is totally forgotten and ignored."


Yet there in the plains a light is growing in the form of women who have had enough. I was fortunate to meet 6 governing organizers of an emergent group called The Cha Bagan Mahila Manch (tea plantation women's "space" or gathering place) who remind me in some ways of the Suffragette movement in U.S. history. Against the desires of a society that would see this kind of thing suppressed, a group of mostly tribal women from the very lowest rungs of our global society, The Cha Bagan Mahila Manch has formed to provide support and togetherness for the tea workers. They are helping to educate them about their rights as tea workers, as women, and as humans and are leading them in the fight for these rights. I attended the inauguration with my video camera of their humble tin shed quarters this November 2007, and was honored to cut the ribbon. The speeches given by the women who are governing, were inspiring, as were the proud faces of the tea workers whose voice these women are giving rise to. This group, headed by Rita Chetri, a former tea worker who seems to be inspired by the endless threats she has endured, is at the beginning stages of a long battle for badly needed change, and demands for human rights.

These are brave women who endure tangible threats upon their lives on a regular basis. This is a region where the people are essentially completely uneducated, and have not even the ability to sign their names, let alone understand that they have a right to be heard. Basic human rights are transgressed regularly upon the women of this region. All too often rapes of children are endured, as families tell their children not to speak up, but to keep the peace. Afraid of retribution, girls and their families all too often will keep silent. The Cha Bagan Mahila Manch has helped in many of these situations, by convincing the victims to make the stories known, and help them in filing reports with the authorities.

In one case, a pre-teen girl was raped by a twenty something boy and her family did not want her to speak out. The women of the Cha Bagan convinced her family to file a report with the authorities. Finding the authorities were bribed the women went beyond to even higher authorities until justice was served to the transgressor and remuneration made to the victim. The time in between saw threats to one of the women of the Cha Bagan who was working closely with the victim, Tara, who hid for her life for two days until the situation was resolved and the perpetrator brought to justice. I asked Tara if she was afraid, and she said that no, she was just very happy to be able to do this work which is making an important difference in peopleƕs lives. "So many people live only for themselves," she said in Hindi, and I translate, "I am so happy to be able to help other people. I did not marry or have any children, so this work, for me, is like having a child. I am that committed to it."

So many of the women of this region are silenced by being at the bottom of the male dominated, planter lorded, tribal class society they live in, and are afraid to speak for fear of retribution from their own families, let alone the societies of their plantation villages. They cannot read and are thus unable to understand the outer society which surrounds them, and do not know how to rise up beyond the subjugation.


According to Dr. Choudhury it is not enough to simply opt for fair trade practices, such as that of the Makaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong that produces a fine Darjeeling Tea; the entire feudal system must be changed. We are seeing the decay of an outdated system. Dr. Choudhury's assertion is that companies such as Tata Tea in which the ownership is not involved with the daily on the ground management practices, are the only hope for sustainable economic growth in India's declining Tea Industry. In these companies, management must answer to the demands of the public stockowners. If the stockowners demand organic, healthy, sustainable farms that employ decently paid laborers and offer humane benefits, stock and profit shares, then the laborers, the gardens, the management, and the stockowners will thrive. It would be, according to Dr Choudhury, a holistic approach.

But this cannot happen without the listening to the demands of grassroots organizations such as the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch. It seems to me that the very bottom of the triangle of our global society are the subjugated women of the lowest classes of class dominated, male dominated societies, of which India is the epitome. It is these voices that need to be heard, and their demands listened to. The women of the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch are a small candle lighting the way toward a badly needed direction for ethical and sustainable tea production, for the equality and rights of women, and for education and equality for the lowest tribal classes of this society. I hope along with these brave women, to see the ranks and numbers of this grassroots organization join with other like organizations to grow large and to swell in a wave which sends a very positive shock throughout the ranks of tea management, the halls of the Tea Board, the annual stockholder's meetings of the global capital that purchases the tea, and engages a choir that sings in a voice so loud that it echoes through the appalling din of all of India bringing the change this country needs so badly.


I wish to thank Piya Chatterjee of the University of California at Riverside for all of her help, and for being an incredible resource. For further information on the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch, please contact Piya at Also I want to rave my gratitude to Sangamitra Bomzon, my incredible assistant and translator without whom I would be useless. Also to Milan Bomzon whose contacts and organizing skills are fantastic, and to Palmu Bomzon who knows how to make a home away from home feel like a palace. For anyone wishing to travel to Mirik, the Bomzon's Hotel Ratnagiri is the best place to stay in this peaceful lakeside town in the shadow of Kanchenjuenga.

The governing women of the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch pose with me and my assistant Sangamitra.

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