Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A nice cup of tea?

India's tea industry directly employs more than a million people with many millions more dependent on it for their livelihoods. It brings in about $3bn a year, with up to a quarter of that coming from exports. India became a major tea producer after the British set up plantations in the 19th Century to break China's monopoly. The huge estates have traditionally provided for all their workers' needs - but if owners shut them down, thousands can be left without jobs, health care or enough to eat. Bijiita's Ekka’s ancestors worked as forced labour for British tea merchants, who set up India's north-eastern tea-growing belt in the 19th Century, and imported workers from central regions of the country.

Technically tea workers have been free for decades, but the 1951 Plantation Labour Act, introduced four years after India became independent, remains based on the colonial system. It outlines a duty of care owed by plantation owners to their employees, but at the same time it preserves a system of cradle-to-grave dependency. And even now, although the minimum wage is 169 rupees ($2.68) a day, tea workers typically only receive 96 rupees ($1.52), the companies arguing that the rest is made up by their welfare package.
In 2007 the UN Children's fund, Unicef, found that hunger, disease and child exploitation were a problem even on apparently successful plantations that sell tea to high-end customers. Now India's tea industry is being scrutinised by the World Bank, the National Human Rights Commission, the UN and other institutions.
"They are cocooned communities," says Unicef's Caroline den Dulk. "They have all their own services, nurseries, schools, health provision - but they are run from a private sector point of view, and the people there are among the most marginalised in India. They have fallen off the radar."

The sprawling Bundapani Tea Garden in West Bengal, in the foothills of the Himalayas is a vast, 3,000-acre (1,214-hectare) property which had its own hospital, schools and shops and more than 1,000 families were involved in the growing and processing of tea. Then, in July 2013, the tea garden was shut down. No-one told the workers why - they assume it was not making enough money. In the first 18 months, 10 people died from malnutrition-related illnesses according to Partha Pratim Sarkar, who runs a tea-worker charity, G-Nesep. Today Bundapani has an atmosphere of part post-apocalyptic ghost town and part faded colonial glory. The once blooming deep green tea bushes are overgrown with weeds. A post office, a factory and a school are all boarded up and abandoned. The hospital is derelict with broken windows and posters about health care strewn on the floor.

Bijiita Ekka, was a young teenager enjoying school “We had no money and we had to get money from somewhere," she says. "So my mother took me on a train to Delhi." There they went to see a labour contractor. the pair were separated, and the 14-year-old was taken by train north to Chandigarh, more than 1,000 miles (1,600km) from her home.
"I was terrified because I realised that something really bad was about to happen to me and I didn't know what I could do. I had never felt so scared and lonely," she says, her eyes filling with tears. What followed was a life of servitude in a military family that treated her like dirt. "I worked all day and everything I did was wrong. They used to scold me and hit me. Even the children would hit me." She speaks about being constantly hungry, working all the time and being beaten on a daily basis. One day her mother appeared in Chandigarh, and managed to take her away. She doesn't know exactly how long she spent there, but she knows it was months - and that she was paid nothing. "I can't go back to that life. Please. Never."


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