Distress in tea gardens: Life of workers in the time of demonetisation

December 31, 2016, 1:30 pm

Distress in tea gardens: Life of workers in the time of demonetisation

Distress in tea gardens: Life of workers in the time of demonetisation

Distress in tea gardens: Life of workers in the time of demonetisation

Tea shops across the country, as they have always been, have become the sites of great public engagement and debates these days. And the topic of discussion has invariably been demonetisation, which has been popularly christened as notebandi, sharing an ignominious similarity with nasbandi (the forced sterilisation programme undertaken during the last Emergency). While the verdict on what actually will be the outcome of this monumental decision is still to be out, the processes that lead up to the verdict, the popular verdict, needs to be heard. This is a lesson that those on the Left particularly need to learn, less we make the mistakes of being on the correct side of reason while being on the wrong side of the popular verdict as we have seen across the globe this year; the year when Trumpism did not just rise but consolidated itself as the victor, across the globe.

As a research scholar working on the contemporary political economy of tea plantations in North Bengal and specifically looking at the almost two decade old ‘crisis’, the politics of closures which has led to innumerable hunger deaths, loss of lives and livelihood and the workers response to these processes of crisis and change, I was curious to know what the workers in the tea gardens had to say regarding demonetisation. Therefore, while on fieldwork, I jotted down what I heard and observed in the tea gardens of North Bengal.

The tea plantations in Duars ( Jalpaiguri and Alipurduars districts of Bengal), it must be stated, have been in a conundrum of crises over the last one and a half decades. There has been an unending cycle of closures, loss of livelihood, migrations and hunger deaths. Following a sharp decline in the auction prices, which are conveniently influenced by global conglomerates like Unilever or Tata, the tea economy in this region plunged into this protracted crisis. This is an outcome of an intra-capitalist contradiction with larger companies such as the Tatas benefitting out of it while smaller, poorer cousins losing out. In this process a complex socio-economic and political transformation has taken place in these gardens, which have a long history dating back to the colonial period.

Today, in tune with the larger shifts of the way in which capital reproduces itself, there is greater casualisation of work, a vampire like sucking out of profits by the management and a total capitulation of the political system. The threats of closures, violations of laws such as the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 and the willful suppression of workers’ wages have become the normalised way of functioning in the tea gardens of North Bengal.

Wages in the tea gardens, it is important to state, are paid in cash on a fortnightly basis. Therefore, for an agro-industry like Tea, the impact of demonetisation has been more direct. Wage payments, which stand at a meager 132.50 rupees on a daily basis and subject to inhuman conditionalities like the incentive/disincentive system introduced in 2005, wherein a worker has to pluck a minimum of twenty-four kgs in a day to receive the full day’s wages. If this task is not complete, then deductions are made from the 132.50 rupees! With demonetisation, wages have been delayed or stopped completely.

In Bengal, such stories of delays and complete stoppage of payments are plenty. Meenu Rautia, from the Bhatkawa Tea Estate, shared how payments in her tea garden have been delayed by more than a week, with the management claiming the lack of cash in the banks as an excuse. At Kalchini Tea Estate, the situation is grimmer.

The tea garden closed down as the management claimed it did not have the cash to pay the wages. This has brought back the memories of hardships when the garden was closed for almost ten years, something that is happening across these gardens today. A nightmarish return of closures and delayed payments are happening. In the process the management has been successful in offsetting the impact of demonetisation onto the labouring bodies in the tea gardens.

Even the bi-weekly bazaar, set up in the tea gardens on the day following the wage payments and usually the source of livelihoods of populations living around the tea gardens, have been affected, with the card-swiping, Paytm using customers being alien objects in these lands where even electricity is a privilege. Demand has fallen, with misery all across the Duars rising proportionately.

What about banks, one may therefore ask? And the quick reply that comes is an utterance of sheer desperation. The majority of the women workers spoke of how going to the bank which some gardens have suggested using for payments, will only add to their troubles. This is because the banks in these remote areas are almost ten and sometimes even twenty kilometres away! What this means is that for workers to withdraw their money, they would have to spend the entire day in the banks, and in the process losing out on an entire days wages. Banks are also places where the workers are reluctant to go through, for the sheer intimidation they feel upon entering these spaces. Also, there is a spectre that haunts the workers in the tea gardens here, a collective nightmare that the tea garden workers across Duars share. This memory is of financial companies, the obnoxious chit funds, wreaking havoc in these tea gardens a few years back.

During the Saradha scam, many in these tea gardens lost their entire life’s savings as they had put their money, hoping for a better return and a better future. Ironically today, while the Prime Minister declares a war on corruption, a complex set of illegality has been born out of currency ban itself! Today, financial agents or to put it crudely touts are roaming around these tea gardens promising to help the workers withdraw their money, thereby gaining access to their accounts. While still being in its formative stage, this mushrooming of dubious financial services have all the potential to soon grow into entities that have the entire wherewithal to wreak havoc once again in the tea gardens. Here the meaning of going cashless, takes a very literal, painful and horrifying meaning.

In such conditions of the stark precarity that the tea garden workers live in, the notebandi has only intensified this immediate sense of precarity, as another bout of delayed wage payments and closures threaten lives and livelihood. However, one can also sense the structural effect that such a move might have on this agro-industry, especially in North Bengal. It is becoming abundantly clear that the macroeconomic impact of demonetisation will be negative with demand across all sectors contracting. However, while the demand curve might change its course towards an increase once the cash flow is replenished, the long term problems are being put in place because of today’s contraction. The tea plantation economy is a prime example.

In the tea gardens, the months of December to February, roughly, are usually lean months in the tea producing calendar. These are the months when the tea bush is allowed to rejuvenate, bringing to a halt the plucking of tea leaves. The tasks of pruning, weeding and hoeing are done in these months. These tasks are most important, for the next season’s productivity is incumbent upon these tasks being performed. However, with demonetisation, these tasks have now completely been put to a standstill.

The closures of tea gardens, officially and unofficially, the delays in wages and the general crash crunch has meant that such crucial tasks are not being done. The ill-effects of this is certain as it will have a crippling effect on the productivity next season, pushing the tea economy into another cycle of low productivity, drop in prices, drop in wages and eventually a series of closures and hunger deaths. And this is the dystopia that seems to be imminent in the tea gardens today.

Trade Union leaders and activists I spoke to are well aware of this situation and them in all earnestly are trying their best to mobilise opinion on the grounds, though their shortcomings are visible. In a couple of month’s time, the next wage-agreement tripartite meeting will also have to be called to decide upon the new wage rates. In this cruel working out of things, currency ban in these times has only worked, in its own dynamic, to weaken the collective struggles of the workers in the tea gardens at a time when workers need to be mobilised most.

From my visit, it was surprising for me to see that there isn’t a great deal of agitation or revolt in the tea gardens, which while being historically marginalised have also been sites of great struggles. While demonetisation and its ills are being experienced, recorded and analysed in the different ways by experts, the swathes of grievances have not been translated into any significant upsurge against this diktat of the Modi government. One possible explanation lies in the language that Narendra Modi has spoken in. ‘Corruption’ in India has been a signifier of many things at the same time. It has always been the currency for populism and Narendra Modi in appealing to the poor in his supposed fight against corruption has therefore played his cards well, even if the reasonable evaluations of demonetization have been utterly negative.

For the tea garden workers, corruption is a signifier of the grotesque levels of inequality that they witness and a signifier of all those stories of how the rich and corrupt managers and political leaders in the tea gardens have syphoned off crores of money in the dead of the night. Therefore, despite all the inconveniences that notebandi has caused it has still not become the moment of nasbandi for the present government, at least in the tea gardens.

A second point that I observed was that in these areas the Left trade unions which have had a history of organising the tea garden workers are in a hapless decline. While the Trinamool Congress has become the chosen party of converts, where erstwhile left-leaning activists have joined the ruling party, the thinning of the influence of the Left is also a product of the Left being seen as being corrupt and distant from the working class, which it claims to represent.

A member of a prominent Left trade union in Atiabari Tea Estate, therefore would quip, “we are all vote banks, even within our own parties!”.

The BJP’s influence too is rising here, as the TMC is built around a robust yet vulnerable network of benefits and interests that are served by the ruling dispensation. The vulnerability was revealed to me while I spoke to an important trade union leader of the TMC, who was earlier with the RSP. He spoke; mincing no words on how he supported the demonetisation move despite his party opposing it vociferously. In the face of the arguments I put forth, explaining the problems that noteban would have caused in the tea gardens, he claimed that it was enough for him to see the rich and poor standing together in the bank queues of Chalsa! Hence, Narendra Modi was a winner in his eyes, as he was for many in the tea gardens, ironically. The problems arising out of currency ban were all locally created according to him and hence it was enough that the agitations also remain localised.

Therefore, as is possibly being seen across the country, there has been a localisation of the ill-effects that demonetisation has caused, giving the government a much needed, though ever more contingent respite. Despite all the tirades against demonetisation and rational arguments about the debilitating effect it will have on the Indian economy, in the last instance, it is the messy terrain of politics and popular mobilisation that can eventually bring to life Marx’s eleventh thesis, of changing things rather than merely interpreting them. And it is on this count that the opposition has been failing. But this time the costs of such failure can lead to a disaster in the tea gardens of North Bengal and one can only hope that rather than a dystopia, an impending rebellion is brewing in the tea gardens of North Bengal.