The Tea Story | Milaap

The Tea Story

"I have been plucking tea leaves for 20 years", says an old woman busy plucking tea leaves. The place is Maynaguri in North Bengal, where many individual farmers cultivate tea, these are not plantations but individual farmlands. I found two old women resting by the side of the road, one morning in the town of Maynaguri.

Tea farms on either side of the road is a common sight in Maynaguri, and I asked these 2 women I found sitting on the road by the side of a tea garden whether I can click a photo of them. They agreed.
I asked one of them at what time they come to work in the gardens.
She says, "We come here at 8 o' clock in the morning and leave at 4 in the evening when the trucks come to take the leaves away. In the peak season, one garden yields 7-8 quintals of leaves. There are many people employed in one garden. 1 person can probably pick around 40-60 kgs of leaves per day in the peak season. The peak season is during the monsoons when more leaves come to the bushes."
I saw these women plucking leaves with a cutter (locally called "dah") and asked out of curiosity why they aren't using their hands to pluck out the leaves, as is most often seen in the tea estates.
"Because now there aren't many leaves in the bushes we are not using our hands to pluck the leaves. Our fingers can't reach below the bushes, so we are using this dah. Most of the time we pluck with our hands."
Another woman walked up to us and said, "These leaves are called banji leaves. These leaves are small and hard. For two months in the winter, leaves wouldn't be plucked, after which in January the bushes would be trimmed. Bushes are trimmed so that new leaves come again."
"Do you get paid daily or monthly?", I asked.
"We are paid daily. We are not paid a fixed daily wage, we are paid kg wise- depending on how much leaves we can pluck in a day. We are paid Rs 4 per kg. If we pick 60 kgs a day, we  can earn Rs 240 in a day."
She continues, "I won't come to this garden tomorrow for plucking leaves. We would again come after a week. We would go to another garden tomorrow. It would take around a week for leaves to come again in the bushes of this garden."
"If we cut with a machine, then the rate is Rs 3 per kg. If leaves are cut with a machine then new leaves would come again after a month. With the machine, the branches come off as well along with the dark leaves. Then the owner would suffer loses. The owners of tea gardens here don't use machines."
"My hands are all scarred from plucking leaves, I don't feel like eating rice with these hands", says another woman who joins the group.
"Today there are few people in the gardens, most have gone to cut paddy (it's the time of paddy harvest). Cutting paddy pays better, that's why most have gone there. I do all sorts of work- sowing, reaping paddy." (Agricultural daily wage for females is Rs 150 in that area).
"I only pluck leaves", says the other woman.
I asked this group of 3 women, "What is the price of tea now?"
One of them said, "Now the price of tea is Rs 12 per kg. They are themselves selling the leaves at this rate, how can they give us more. There's talk of increasing the wage to Rs 5 per kg."

Do you think tea laborers are exploited and paid very less? Wait till you hear the story of the owners of the tea farms.

Abola Roy's family own 4 bigha (measuring unit) of land, and cultivate tea in 2.5 bigha of land.
"We cultivate potatoes and paddy as well", she says, "Tea leaves are plucked every 15 days, that is leaves come to the bushes every 15 days. If we tend to them more- that is put more water, fertilizers, then leaves would come earlier. Every time we pluck leaves, my 2.5 bigha of land under tea probably yields around 15-20 quintal of leaves. So in a month the land yields around 40 quintal of tea leaves."
I asked her how many laborers she employs for plucking leaves during normal times (other than the 2 winter months, when leaves are not plucked).
"We don't individually hire laborers, we tell a thikadar (contractor), then a group of laborers is sent, it depends on them, sometimes 5-6 laborers come, sometimes 10-12 laborers come. We don't pick the leaves with a machine. We don't own a machine. A machine is only used when we trim the bushes, once a year, then the laborers themselves bring the machine."
I asked her about the current price of tea.
"Price of tea came down to Rs 2-2.5 during the Pujas (end of September), and the labor cost is Rs 4 per kg, on top of that there's transportation cost. Presently the price is Rs 15-16 per kg."

Mallika Ray is another tea farm owner's wife. She says, "I grow tea on our 4 bigha of land. I also work on the tea lands, plucking tea leaves. We take laborers as well. We pluck leaves after every eight days. Price of tea is sometimes Rs 10 per kg, sometimes Rs 12 per kg, sometimes even Rs 16 per kg. A few days back there was no price at all, the price of tea came down to Rs 2-3 per kg."

While wages of tea farm laborers seem to be very low, farming itself is a very expensive business to run for landowners. Labor cost, cost of fertilizers, manure, insecticide, transportation cost, etc add up to huge production cost. Many farmers can't even cover their production costs. Conditions of agricultural laborers and the farm owners are equally deplorable. Before you empathize with the laborers, think of the farm owners as well, who can't get laborers these days, as people are engaging in MGNREGA work (100 days guaranteed rural work program by the Indian Government), which is paying better than the agricultural labor.