The Indian tea industry is in a crisis, with falling prices and poor consumption growth. What is of great social concern is the fate of the tea workers, who are forced to suffer because of the indifference of estate owners and mangers. Several tea estates in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam have been closed or abandoned, as a result of which more than 70,000 workers have been rendered jobless and their livelihoods compromised with. While reports of starvation deaths pour in, desperate workers have even committed suicide.
Trade union leaders and managements are voluble in condemning each other without owning up responsibility. What is ignored in this haggling is the glaring crisis facing the industry and the futility of all efforts made to arrive at a solution. There are many aspects to the tea estate crisis and much has been written about it already.
This article is an attempt to look at things from the point of view of the workers and trade union leaders, and tries to touch upon the social implications of the crisis .It argues that instead of fussing over low yielding estates with relatively high costs of production, the feasible thing would be to convert the existing ones into more productive units. The business of `blameï¿½ resorted to by the government, trade unions, workers and the management would only aggravate the social crisis. All these may possibly create a lot of media hype and unnecessary attention, but those who really suffer will not, and cannot, oppose the decision that should be taken by all concerned.
The main problem confronting the tea estates is that of overcrowdingï¿½too many hands to do the work. During the time of the British, an estate had 5000 workers, 10 watchers, 1 manager one asst. manager, one field officer and 10 supervisors. But today in its place are 45 watchers, 70 supervisors, 10 managers, 10 asst.managers, and 10 filed officers . Moreover, the UPASI frequently sends visiting managers to give technical suggestions. According to KC Sukumaran, a trade union leader, these `visitorsï¿½ are ignorant of a lot of things-----there are in fact, workers in these estates who know things a lot better.
According to the workersï¿½ representatives, the new managers and trained professionals do not have much knowledge about tea and its varieties. Challai Nadar, who is nearing 90 years can still tell, sitting one km away, what grade of tea is brewing or being prepared in the factory.
There are auction-related problems as well. Often, the tea sent for auction by small growers donï¿½t fetch the right price. Middlemen manipulate the owners, who are not really interested in the sustainable growth of their business and so will sell it at lower prices .
What are the implications of these problems in the social and economic life of the people, especially the estate-dependent workers and plantation workers?
The impact is far-reaching, touching upon the fields of education, health, poverty, unemployment, and prostitution. Tragic indeed, are the consequences. When the productivity of the estates decline, there is a subsequent reduction in income and the first to be affected are children. Sending them to school no longer seems feasible so their education stagnates Instead, they are sent for possible income generation opportunities such as working in construction sites and as maids in houses
Another major problem is that of prostitution. Desperate to make ends meet, women leave homes in the hope of finding jobs and ultimately end up selling their bodies. This is a sad reality in places like Peerimedu, Kumali and in several other parts of Idukki district.
Robbery and theft are but natural consequences. Recently a government van disappeared and the property was looted.
Social institutions like marriage have also lost popularity. The number of marriages taking place has come down since 1999. In a community where there are more than 2,000 families, there has to be at least 100 marriages a year. But today it has come down to 10 or even less. The reason: lack of adequate funds.
What is required is a lasting solution to this large-scale distress, if starvation deaths should not become a reality. This is no time to engage in ideological discussions or express empty sympathy. Something needs to be done, and fast, if we do not want our society to become a hell-hole of suicides and prostitution. Do we want to rot?
What needs to be studied is the root cause of the problem----- to what extent over-staffing and financial indiscipline on the part of managements, causes the crisis. But a major cause of worry is the fact that tea estate workers have not been getting any benefits for the last 7 years. Workers have been awaiting their salary for the last 12-15 months ---that too, a paltry Rs. 250 per month.
Suggestions pour in. One is to ease the crisis through different kinds of government intervention. But how far this is feasible needs to be looked into. Another remedy could be handing over of the estates to a workers cooperative. Even though this looks very attractive, how far it is going to be practical is doubtful.
The most effective remedy, however, lies in the efficient production and marketing of tea. The responsibility for this lies with the estate owners and only they can effectively resolve the crisis. Moreover, all who are involved in this must be ready to accept reality. If the estates are no longer profitable, then the managements should be permitted to make new innovations that will ultimately benefit the workers and the economy. If the alternative is to convert them into some other profitable venture, then that too, should be allowed.