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Fading memories of the Raj in the tea gardens of Assam

Richard Orange says the Indian tea industry is enjoying a revival — but that the traditional tea-planters’ way of life, established by the British, is passing into history There is not much to distinguish Dhanesheva Kurmi from the rest of the crowd at the Hautely Tea Estate, a remote garden an hour and a half’s bumpy drive from the Assamese town of Jorhat.

2 July 2008

12:00 AM

2 July 2008

12:00 AM

Richard Orange says the Indian tea industry is enjoying a revival — but that the traditional tea-planters’ way of life, established by the British, is passing into history

There is not much to distinguish Dhanesheva Kurmi from the rest of the crowd at the Hautely Tea Estate, a remote garden an hour and a half’s bumpy drive from the Assamese town of Jorhat.

Richard Orange says the Indian tea industry is enjoying a revival — but that the traditional tea-planters’ way of life, established by the British, is passing into history

There is not much to distinguish Dhanesheva Kurmi from the rest of the crowd at the Hautely Tea Estate, a remote garden an hour and a half’s bumpy drive from the Assamese town of Jorhat. Dressed in ill-fitting Western trousers and grubby shirt, he looks as though he has just finished a heavy day pruning bushes. But for three years since the estate’s owner Lalit Borah ran out of money, and the management packed up and left, Kurmi has been running the show.

Every morning, the estate’s 11,000 sari-clad tea-pickers, shielded from sun and rain by their conical japi hats, have trudged as usual along muddy red-earth paths to pick the next set of bushes. ‘We knew how to do it by ourselves,’ says Kurmi matter-of-factly. ‘We have the experience — when the plants become ready to pick, you have to pluck them within six to seven days.’

As president of the workers’ union, Kurmi collected and weighed the leaves, then sold them to the next-door tea estate, depositing the proceeds every fortnight in a bank in nearby Golaghat, which paid the workers’ wages. At first it went well — everyone turned up for work, money came in, salaries went out, and after the first year Kurmi had banked £17,000 profit.

Hautely is one of nearly 140 tea gardens in India that were abandoned during a five-year slump in the tea market from 1999 to 2004. Overproduction at home and competition from new tea-producing regions such as Vietnam and the Philippines kept prices depressed. It wasn’t until this year that they rose back above 1999 levels. This June’s harvest — which produces the best and most fragrant teas of the year — is selling at well over 100 rupees per kg, compared to around 60 rupees in the dark days of 2003.


This return to profitability has brought the industry back to life. All but 22 of the closed gardens have reopened. The Indian government has pledged 40 billion rupees (nearly £500 million) to subsidise a huge replanting programme. But the tea industry has come back changed, purged of many of the vestiges of its old paternalistic culture.

An hour after we arrive, a four-wheel-drive trundles up. Girish Sarder, a tea-trader from Jaipur in Rajasthan, emerges. Flanked by two advisers and sporting mirrored aviator sunglasses, Sarder signifies a new order for Assam. He had arrived that week to take the estate off Kurmi’s hands, after striking a 14-year management contract with the estate’s receivers under which he escapes the estate’s past liabilities and, so long as he pays the workers and provides benefits on agreed terms, he keeps any profits. With liabilities of five times the estate’s asset value, this may be the best Hautely could hope for. ‘It’s in bad shape,’ Sarder says. ‘If somebody makes a change, it can be rescued. But any change can only happen when labour co-operates.’

On a healthy tea estate, the bushes are tightly packed, forming a green carpet of foliage three feet above the soil. Even a novice can see something is wrong at Hautely: here the bushes are old and many have died, so in parts of the estate they only sparsely dot the ground. The annual crop has fallen by two fifths since the workers took over, and the price they receive for their leaf has fallen from 9.6 rupees per kg to 8.25 rupees. After his three-year struggle to hold things together, Kurmi recognises the need for proper ownership. ‘We welcome the new management. We are workers and we should concentrate on working only.’

Kurmi could not afford to provide his co-workers with free medical treatment, he says, which meant several of them died. Last year, when a plague of insects devastated the crop, forcing him to mortgage part of this year’s harvest to the next-door estate, the bank began to look for a new owner. But Sarder — a member of India’s hard-headed Marwari business community — is not here for humanitarian reasons. ‘If I have captive production, I can get tea at a minimum price, and I can sell it at a maximum price,’ he explains. ‘We are not affected by the ups and downs in the market because we are traders.’

Half an hour’s drive from Hautely at the Bukhial estate, the old-world charm of the tea-planter’s life is very much in evidence. A red setter puppy bounds across a neatly trimmed lawn to meet us at Sandeep and Shalini Nagalia’s sprawling 1930s bungalow. Nagalia, educated at the Doon School — known as the Eton of the East — exemplifies the old-style gentleman tea-planter. Impeccably maintained, Bukhial is regarded as one of Assam’s finest estates.

Once or twice a week, Nagalia jumps in his four-wheel-drive Tata Sumo and drives the 45 minutes to the Ganshree Club, which serves 16 surrounding estates. ‘In the olden times, it was a very different world,’ he says. ‘In those days they only had the club, now we’ve got DVDs and the internet. But more or less the same traditions continue today, although people aren’t as keen on the club as they were earlier.’

The British didn’t bring tea to Assam. The Singpho tribe were drinking it for centuries before we showed up (their tea, smoked inside bamboo tubes, is now sold around the world as a gourmet brew). But we did build the industry. Within a decade of the first London sale of Assam tea in 1839, the riverboats on Assam’s Brahmaputra river had filled up with young Brits looking to make their fortune. With them, they brought the planters’ lifestyle of clubs, golf courses and pedigree dogs.

That life lingered on in Assam long after India’s independence in 1947. Bukhial’s last British owners, the Guthrie family, only sold out in 1987, and when Sandeep started his career as a tea-planter in the 1980s, his visiting agent was a Mr C.D. Smith. John Mackenzie, the last British tea-planter working for Goodricke — which is India’s last significant British-owned tea-growing company — retired in the mid-1980s. At the Jorhat Club the Union flag still hangs forlornly behind the bar and the visitors’ book is crammed with the memories of Englishmen who spent their childhoods on the nearby gardens. One recalls a Christmas Day in the late 1960s when his father, dressed as Santa, landed a small plane on the club’s polo ground to hand out presents.

Arun Singh, Goodricke’s chief executive, argues that the British also established a sense of obligation among planters towards their tea-pickers. ‘Running a tea garden is like running a mini-city,’ he says. ‘You’re responsible for the peoples’ welfare, their births, their deaths.’

British planters uprooted the forefathers of Assam’s 600,000 tea-pickers from their villages far away in Orissa and Bihar, making the workers uniquely reliant on their employers for welfare. ‘That culture hasn’t changed,’ Singh says. ‘The manager is still looked at like a father figure.’

But in others ways the culture is changing, complains Amrit Singh, a Sikh who owns two small estates. ‘Since these Marwaris captured 60 to 70 per cent of the industry, they just started producing as much as they can, and they don’t care about the bushes.’

This is a little unfair: at Hautely, Sarder has big plans to invest. He wants to s
pend about £30,000 a month over ten years to bring the garden up to scratch, replanting 100 hectares with the highest quality tea bushes. ‘You come back after two years,’ he says. ‘You’ll see the difference.’

But at the Tocklai Tea Research Centre in Jorhat, Dr B.K. Goswami agrees that in the last 20 years there has been little replanting. For a tea bush, production peaks at between 15 and 40 years: many bushes in Assam today are more than 100 years old and more than a third date from British rule. ‘At present, the replantation rate of the tea industry is very poor,’ Goswami says. ‘Less than 1 per cent a year. We want to get it to 5 per cent a year, and that will require a lot of government financial assistance.’ Now that state subsidies are available, Goswami thinks Assam is entering a new era. ‘The first generation of plantation started from 1823, the second generation was around 1950. This is the third generation.’

And with it is coming a new generation of planters. Sarder is convinced that the commercially switched-on owners like himself hold the keys to the industry’s future. ‘Tea is like a black diamond,’ he says. ‘Only a diamond-dealer can see what the true value of a diamond is, and only a tea-trader can see the true value of tea.’


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