DIBRUGAR, India, (AP) – He’s a genteel man, with a sprawling plantation house, courtly manners and an estate of carefully trimmed tea bushes that stretches across the gentle hills of Assam, blanketing the land as far as you can see.
But the business of tea? It’s best not to ask.
Manoj Jalan, a fifth-generation planter with a 5,000-acre estate, summed up his situation simply: “This is a rough business.”
“I was born here, in this building,” Jalan said, standing in front of a colonial-era house. “Tea is a way of life for us.”
India has long been famous for its tea, and the $1.5 billion industry launched by British colonials nearly two centuries ago is, after China’s, the world’s second largest. More than 1 million tons were grown in 2007, much of it here in the northeastern state of Assam.
But production costs are mounting and a brutal insurgency has targeted the planters. Globalization, with the spread of cheaper tea from countries such as Vietnam and Kenya, has increased competition. While there have been glimmers of good news recently — a $320 million revitalization package announced by the government, and an uptick in prices from historic lows — the business is still at the bottom rungs of profitability.
Things have changed since earlier generations of planters cleared the forests, planted the tea and built an enormously profitable industry.
“I must confess,” Jalan said. “They did a better job in their time than we’ve been able to do in our time.”
Planters like Jalan, whose families piloted the industry after independence from Britain 60 years ago, have been forced into a brutally competitive marketplace.
On one side are corporations that maximize profits through enormous scale, with dozens of estates and tens of thousands of workers. On the other side are the growing number of micro-producers, many with just a couple acres of land, that are increasingly powerful in the market. All are competing in a market where prices have fallen 30 percent in just a decade.
Then there’s the United Liberation Front of Asom, whose revolt has killed some 3,000 people over two decades, and helped turn the region into a backwater of unemployment. Planters have been prime targets — more than a dozen killed and at least 20 more kidnapped. Extortion payoffs, farmers say privately, are common.
Today, many prominent planters don’t leave home without jeeploads of heavily armed bodyguards. Guardposts ring their clubs.
Back in the good times, the wealthiest planters jetted to Europe to shop, and bought homes in Calcutta and New Delhi.
Those days are over. Today, Jalan, like many old tea-making families, has turned part of his estate into a guesthouse, hoping wealthy Western tourists can bring more profits.
Still, you can’t miss the imperial echoes on India’s tea estates, “gardens” as they’re called here. The “burra sahib” — the big boss — still lives in a cavernous house, overseeing nearly every aspect of life for thousands of employees, from housing to schools to medical care. Planters still gather from far-flung estates to drink at century-old clubs, and their wives still pass their days tending elaborate flower gardens.
The laborers — tea plantations employ nearly 3 million, mostly women, in jobs often handed down through families for generations — are unionized these days, but most live just a few steps above the poverty line. In Assam, tea workers earn about $1.25 a day, plus free housing and subsidized food. According to union leaders, only about a third are literate.
Ask pluckers how long they’ve been working, and many can’t do the math.
Instead, like Lakhi Tauri, a tiny, elderly woman lugging a 20-pound bag through the fields on a humid morning, they gesture.
“I’ve been doing this since I was this big,” she said, her hand about waist-high.
These are the people who suffer most during downturns. When tea plantations close — and 33 are shut across India now, leaving thousands unemployed — the workers lose everything: homes, communities, schools. By some estimates, hundreds of tea workers have died from diseases linked to malnutrition over the past year after plantation closings.
For laborers, the safety net can be as frayed as it was a century ago.
“Yes, some change has come,” said Paban Singh of the Assam Tea Workers’ Organization, a union representing about 400,000 people. “But that change has not come at the speed or desired level.”
Change doesn’t come easily to planters. Many still bemoan the end of the Soviet Union, which for years was their main buyer. Others talk about the bulk auction system, which has barely changed in a century. Also, some gentleman farmers are in trouble now because they didn’t properly tend their estates in the boom years, going for short-term profits instead of replanting some bushes and waiting seven years for the harvest.
That’s one reason Basudeb Banerjee, the chairman of the Tea Board of India, the main industry group, has little sympathy for complaining planters. He thinks the industry’s worst years are finally ending, and that many planters invited trouble on themselves. “During the good years, huge money was made in tea,” he said.
This is a business that seems to attract trouble. Yet here is the contradiction: It’s hard to find a planter who wants to give up. These are well-connected landlords who could sell out if they wanted, yet few do.
“For me, looking after the garden is a great joy,” said D.N. Boruah, a planter whose family has been growing tea for nearly a century. “I may not be earning anything — I’ll tell you that — but the joy is to be involved.”