Women Tea Workers on The Rise in Assam Community

For over 10 years, the day began on the same note for Onjoli Komar, 30. She would pick up her cane basket, hang it from her head and head for work in the vast and lush environs of the local tea estate to pluck leaves. Things have changed drastically today. She tends to the tea saplings in her own tiny plantation first, before doing anything else in the house.

Once the domain of uppity, horse-back riding British ‘sahibs’, tea cultivation is now being taken up by those who had worked on plantations as labour. In the process, women like Onjoli are brewing a fresh story by cashing in on their experience and traditional knowledge, and becoming entrepreneurs. While their land holdings may not be too big – yet – who knows what the future will bring given that profits are potentially big?

There are challenges, of course, for these former daily wage earners, including alcoholism among their male counterparts. But there can be no doubt that these enterprising women, now part of the booming small tea growers’ fraternity in Assam, are changing the face of the tea industry forever.

Talking about her foray into tea cultivation Onjoli, who lives on a tea estate in the Tinsukia district of upper Assam, says, “It always helps to have some extra earnings. That was the only reason I got into tea cultivation. And while it was a new experience, I had the comfort of having knowledge in this field.”

According to her, one of the reasons for the general poverty among tea garden workers is that they tend to have large families, and the money earned through conventional ways is never enough. She says, “We want a better education for our children and the daily wage of Rs 70 (US$1=Rs 50) that we once earned is just not enough.”

Abandoned by her husband when she was pregnant with their child eight years ago, it was even more difficult for Onjoli to run a home for a family of four, which includes her parents. Then, three years back, she happened to come across a person who identified himself as a small tea grower. She recalls, “When he told me that he grows tea plants on his plot of land and has been earning good profits, it made me think. I didn’t have a big plot – just one bigha. Also I didn’t have enough money for the initial investment which was around Rs 6,000. So that person proposed that he pays me for the saplings and the pesticides, and our earnings could be divided. It sounded good, so I agreed.”

With the first plucking, Onjoli’s garden gave 20 kilograms of green leaves, which she sold to a private factory at Rs 14 per kilo. Thereafter, there has been regular plucking every few days on a rotation basis. “I make a profit of about Rs 3,000 or more a month, depending on the amount of leaves generated and the price we get for it,” she smiles.

Behola Majhi, another tea garden worker in a tea estate in the Tezpur district of lower Assam, also decided to take control of her family and grow a small tea plantation when she saw that her alcoholic husband was wasting all their hard-earned money on ‘lao pani’, a home brewed liquor. “We are a family of six and my husband and I are the only earning members. Life was a struggle, and to add to it my husband would throw away all the money on alcohol,” she says. That was when she learnt about how a lot of people, including the ‘babus’ (lower ranking officials on the tea estate), were setting up their own tea plantations. “That made me think of a portion of land in our backyard which is not low lying and thus ideal for tea cultivation,” she adds.

For the initial investment, Behola borrowed some money from her brother and bought her first batch of tea saplings. “At first, it was not easy. Along with my two sons, I had to work for hours under the sun, digging the soil, making drains so that the water would not collect, and planting saplings. We also had to water the plants and spray pesticides. Together with all this, I continued my work at the tea estate, too, because tea shrubs require three years to grow fully and be ready for plucking,” she reveals.

Her hard work bore fruit. The first plucking, which took place this year, got her 35 kilograms of green leaf, which she sold to a factory. “The first thing I did with the money was to secure admission for my children at the nearby private school. I also opened a bank account where I save some of my earnings,” she says with pride.

The Karmakar brothers of a tea estate in the Dibrugarh district of upper Assam have a similar tale to relate. They handed over their land of two bighas to their wives for tea cultivation. Giggles Sharmili, the wife of one of the brothers, “Our husbands go to the tea garden factory for work and we work on our own garden!” She adds, “We get about 25-35 kilos of tea leaves with each plucking, which we sell at Rs 10-15 per kilo. Its good business and our husbands now rely on us for a lot of things, instead of always the other way around.”

There are several success stories like those of Onjoli, Behola and Sharmili, but the trend of tea cultivation by women tea garden workers is still at a nascent stage. “Their land holdings are not large – one or two bighas at the most – so, as a trend, tea growing among them has not yet come into its own,” notes Raj Kamal Phukan, Deputy Secretary of the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association (ABITA), Zone One. He doesn’t deny that this is picking up, though. “There is a lot of awareness among tea garden labourers today than earlier – especially about land rights and better livelihood opportunities,” he says.

Other experts believe the small tea growers (STG) community, of which these women are a part, is making a significant contribution. Ramen Lal Baishya, assistant director of the Tezpur branch of the Tea Board of India, puts it this way, “Small tea growers are a booming community and they are changing Assam’s economy.” He points out that Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi himself acknowledged that 30 per cent of the state’s total tea production – 500 million kilos in 2009 – was accounted for by STG community. This will only rise rapidly, according to Baishya.

Recognising the significance of this trend, the Government of India announced a separate cell for the STG community under the Tea Board of India in September 2011. In addition, the Board also conducts workshops to impart technical assistance to the community.

Tea growing, however, is not the only thing women tea workers are getting their hands into. For instance, Bharati Koda of a tea estate in Tinsukia is raising a nursery of tea saplings that she sells to bigger tea gardens. “I didn’t want to take the extra effort of spraying pesticides, weeding, plucking leaves and then selling them, although the profit margin is decent. I am happy with my nursery. This time I have around 200 saplings, which I sell for around Rs 7 each,” reveals Bharati.

Slowly but surely, women are putting their stamp on Assam’s STG sector. Onjoli signs off by saying, “My grandmother, or even my mother for that matter, wouldn’t have imagined doing anything other than tea plucking for a living. But they are proud of what I have dared to do, in my own small way. I am proud of myself too!”

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