Economic compulsion of the worker and the consequent domination of the worker by the capitalist is the characterising principle of all capitalist production yielding surplus value and normal profits by a process of realisation. But capital, whether in advanced or backward capitalism, has always attempted to pay wages at below value by various means of extra-economic compulsion, with or without the backing of the state.
Historically, capital has even created extreme forms of such extra-economic coercion, as in the brutality of the modern slave system in the Americas, the West Indies, Cuba, South Africa, etc. Once slavery was finally abolished through protests, revolts and war (but even before that in the Dutch colonies) a new form of slavery, the plantation system came into being that mainly safeguarded super-profits in indigo, sugarcane, rubber, tea, etc. The strongest survivor of that system is in the tea industry of North East India.
Starting in the 1830s, after the annexation of Assam in 1826, the British found tea to be growing wild in Assam. Exploration and experiments finally decided against the local plant variety and it was decided to plant a Chinese variety suited to the soil in Assam.
Large scale production of tea in Assam was seen as a boon by the East India Company, both as a very profitable proposition in itself and also as a way to snatch the monopoly of Chinese tea in a thriving and growing international market. It would also go a long way towards solving its balance of trade problems with China.
Long decades of civil war—one of the great peasant wars—and following it, a series of genocidal wars by the Burmese King forced many of the survivors in Assam to flee to neighbouring regions. The country lay waste and much of the land went back to forest. The hills of Darjeeling, the Terai plains (Darjeeling district) and the sub- montane tracts of the Dooars (Jalpaiguri district) -all annexed within a few decades—were mainly forest and sparsely populated. The Company, spurred on by the hope of monopolising the sale of tea world-wide, started to make large land grants to all would be British planters without charging any land revenue. British investors, both from among the local functionaries of the company and from the UK., who did not know anything about planting and manufacture of tea, could rely on a new corporate entity, the managing agency. The individual gardens or cluster of them belonging to the same owners were incorporated in England.
Now the problem was to find the large number of workers needed for the estates. The local populations in these regions refused to work in the plantations once they realised that life in the estates was a form of slavery more onerous that any suffered under the Ahoms or other chiefs. It was then thought that Chinese labourers from the tea belts in Southern China, generally impoverished as they were and not averse to migration for work, could be brought in to work in the North East Indian tea estates. But that attempt failed when the Chinese labourers that were brought in initially refused to work in the conditions and demands of the workplace and more or less withdrew.
It was then that recruitment focused on the tribal and semi-tribal populations of Nepal (mainly for work in the Darjeeling hills) and the hundreds of thousands of the tribals and semi-tribals from the mainly eastern part of the central Indian plateau—West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa—to work in the increasingly proliferating number of estates in the Terai, Dooars and Assam. The overwhelming majority of the latter shared a wide ranging socio-cultural ethos in their homeland and which can be called the Jharkhandi ethos. But they spoke various languages belonging to the Mundari subset of the Austro-asiatic group of languages and also several languages of the Dravidian group. The Nepalese group also spoke various Tibeto-Burman languages such as Tainang, Gurung, Magar, Limbu, Newari and Nepali, the last of which was in the process of standardisation.
The military feudalism in Nepal and aggressive expansionist wars fought by the chiefs led by the King had immiserated the Nepalese peasantry, especially the tribals; in the Bengal Presidency, the permanent settlement, rack renting by the Zamindars and usury had created famine conditions. Enticement, chicanery, fraud and violence reminiscent of the West African slave trade were used by agents of the industry known as arkattis to recruit workers. It was not long before that this system of recruitment proved counterproductive. The managing houses then shifted to the sardari system by which some workers were chosen and nurtured through privileges and sent off to their native places to lure workers into the tea estates. On returning from their various forays, these privileged men, known henceforth as Sardars, soon became the supervisors monitoring work and every other aspect of the workers' lives for the management.
Plantations are in remote and backward regions. This has played a major role in the lives of the plantation workers. The first problem was the transportation of the workers over very long distances by train for a small part of the journey, on foot and boat. Thousands died on the way. Hundreds of thousands died after arrival from Malaria, Kalazar, diarrhoea and dysentery. Sanitation, drinking water, housing and medical care were deplorable.
But once inside a plantation, there was no escaping, not even to a neighbouring garden. The state gave the managers limited magisterial powers as Justices of the Peace, allowing them to imprison people for one month and /or deliver up to 15 lashes of the birch. Being found outside the estate attracted both punishments. There were also state sponsored cavalries and militias officered in the main by estate managers. These were meant to search and arrest the many workers who tried to flee and also to intimidate the workers against the frequent protests and demonstrations.
One of the more important elements in the mechanism for keeping the workers confined to the estate was the payment of the meagre wages not in cash but company tokens. The company sponsored shop on the estate would exchange them for rations for the family and a few essentials. This meant that shopping was not tolerated as an excuse for being outside the estate.
This confinement within the estate and the remote location and inaccessibility of those estates created an enclave economy. This economy had exceptionally minimal exchanges with the local economy. Local purchases of grains soon gave way to wholesale purchases by the Calcutta managing agencies and their designated suppliers and distributors. The boxed tea would travel out of the estates by bullock carts, lorries where there were roads, country and steam boats to Calcutta where they would be loaded on to ships for transport to the London auctions. This is an earlier version of the SEZ.
Work on the plantation was so onerous that an ex-planter and the leader of planters as the big boss of the Indian Tea Association, could recollect in the tranquillity of an Oxford college that the heavy physical labour of the women pluckers in the tea gardens could not be sustained by the strongest British workmen. In the plantations it was not just able bodied men and women who had to toil like this. The old and the children, in their hundreds of thousands, had also to labour to almost beyond their capacities. The token provided rations for all and so everyone had to work. And work was from a little after sunrise to a little before sunset except during the lean period of two months during the winter when there was some relaxation.
There was very little technical division of labour. Carpenters, fitters, etc were usually people of Chinese origin or were non-tribals brought in from outside the estate. At first the migrant workers sieved the tea in their grades, packed them in boxes and helped the technical hands; by the 1920s these workers began to master the machines. Towards the end of the 1930s, when motorised transport and some tractor ploughing became general, many had acquired driving skills and some machining. But of course factory and other technical work absorbs around 5 percent of the labour force. All women and a majority of the men have always been assigned to the hazards and toil of field work.
The less said about the housing of the workers the better. The bamboo and thatch were provided by management but the workers were obliged to collect them. Enough of those materials were normally provided to build one hut and a makeshift kitchen. Three, sometimes four generations were expected to manage with such housing. Even today, the overwhelming majority of workers do not have latrines of any sort. Apart from the main drains out of the planted area, there were no drains and even today the estate drainage systems are deplorable.
There were no hospitals or doctors and nurses. Delivery was by traditional midwives or experienced neighbours. Frequent epidemics were the norm.
The nineteenth century passed more or less in these conditions. There were very small incremental changes due to many anti-planter disturbances created more or less locally. The history of nineteenth century struggles of the tea workers has not been excavated extensively yet.
One non-violent but very effective protest in the 1920s drew a lot of comment from Bengali nationalists. Thousands of workers defied the management in Assam and daring the police apparatus of the government walked out of their gardens and trekked hundreds of miles to the steamboat jetty in Madarihat in Bengal wanting to board boats travelling towards western Bengal. They were surrounded by the armed forces and fired upon, killing a few hundred workers. The survivors, men, women and children, were force marched back to their plantations. Sections of the nationalist press in Bengal protested the incident and described the situation of the tea workers in horror-stricken cadences. The clandestine participation of tea workers during the preparations for revolt by the martyr Piyali Phukan in 1857 or the spread of the anti-imperialist Tana Bhakat movement among tea workers, especially in Jalpaiguri were noted by British intelligence and prosecutions followed in several cases. But the press took very little notice of them. But it is clear that the extreme domination of the planters left room only for the many violent and non-violent protests and this alarmed the colonial government and metropolitan capital.
By the time of independence, there was a rudimentary healthcare system, primary schools with mud-floored structures for all classes and one teacher, improvements in the roads infrastructure (thanks mainly to war preparations), and railways were constructed mainly for hauling tea and grains, etc.
But the enclave nature of the economy and the extreme domination of the management remained. The domination was now not in the form of policing the workers and juridical powers of the management. The sardars referred to above and a small number of their relatives and friends were slowly elevated to a layer of people who did the ground level management under orders from the management, allowing the top layers to retreat from conflict situations. This layer now has a name—sub-staff. This layer of management, with a wage difference with the workers and with many special privileges, was/is not socially very distant from the workers. This was their strength and the measure of their efficacy while carrying out the unpleasant orders of higher management. They could/can utilise kin/community/tribe/ caste differences to divide and rule for the management. But such differences are vanishing fast under the cudgel of the capitalist work process.
Since 1951, many benign laws have been passed for the benefit of tea workers and many good laws have been extended to the estates such as on the payment of wages, compensation for injury at work, pensions and gratuity, minimum wages etc. These were in the main due to the unionisation process that began in the late forties and picked up a very strong momentum in the early fifties. But for the lack of strong inspectorates and the judicial process remaining out of the reach of the workers due to illiteracy, poverty and the rapaciousness of most lawyers, none of these laws are as a rule implemented properly or at all.
Unions could have done something about it. The beginnings of left unions in the tea estates is a glorious story of sacrifice and resistance by the leading workers in the face of violent opposition from the combined government forces of independent India and the colonial planters. A weak left movement in Assam simply conceded ground to company unions sponsored by V V Giri of the Congress. The leaders of the monopolistic Congress unions at the garden level were all sub-staff people nominated by management.
In West Bengal, the left has also evolved to the same reality. Except the extreme left unions (which have very little influence), all unions are led by the sub-staff at the ground level. Unions are being run by management's lowest, but extremely important, tier. All their central, non-garden apparatuses are more or less manned by extremely corrupt agents of management.
Take two examples. Consider the minimum wage law in the tea industry. This law has never been implemented in North India in spite of the law's requirement to do so. One can understand why the reactionaries of the Congress in Assam were not interested to push for its implementation. But what about the left? With a left government in power, the government convened a meeting with the major unions and the apex body of the planters to declare that all sides have agreed to have the wage negotiated between capital and labour declared as the minimum wage. Government was no longer obliged to fix the minimum wages in tea in accordance with the norms established by law. Naturally, the negotiated wage has remained far below the agricultural minimum wage throughout North Indian tea gardens.
The second example is even more interesting. Workers and members of their families were dying in their hundreds in North Bengal tea gardens during 2001 to 2004 and beyond. The cause was illegal abandonment of many gardens by planters who owed millions to their workers in unpaid wages and other dues. The biggest trade union was a left union and the government was a left government. Both denied that any such deaths had taken place. A distinguished panel headed by a retired High Court judge determined that at least 800 people had died from hunger-related extreme malnutrition. The biggest union was still in denial and so was the government.
This raises the question of class formation among the tea workers. Workers who participate very frequently in violent and militant confrontation with managements accept nevertheless the union-management collusions that violate their legal and fundamental rights and deprive them of their entitlements. During those confrontations, the unity of the participants transcend tribal, caste and ethnic barriers. There have been only two examples of militant change covering, first, the whole of the Darjeeling Hills and, second, the whole of the Terai and Dooars region. Both were ethnic upsurges that toppled the established unions. In the hills, the various tribes and castes united behind the slogan of the Gorkha nation. In the plains, all the tribes and castes united as an independent Adivasi identity. New unions were formed in both places, but these unions have more or less reverted to the style and functioning of the old unions. But the feeling of ethnic solidarity remains strong. A very large working class, perhaps the oldest in India, is coalescing around ethnicity and not moving towards a class for itself may appear to some as undesirable.
The main features of the plantation system were the extreme domination of the workers and its enclave nature. In spite of all the legal and political changes since independence and the changes in the methods of the planters, both of these features remain. The domination is exercised not with political and juridical powers backed by a colonial state but by a coalition of the management, the unions and the state. One example will suffice. A garden that had been abandoned a number of times was the focus of tripartite negotiations. Along with a small extreme left union, all the major unions were there, as was management. Number two in the labour department hierarchy in a left government was presiding. The major unions agreed to delay the payment of arrear wages, pension fund, etc, amounting to several million rupees indefinitely. They also agreed that the workers will only get the current wages at half rate. Only two persons did not sign the agreement (which went into effect immediately). The government official praised the agreement but said that he could not sign it because it was illegal! The extreme left walked out. It would be hard to imagine a more blatant example of domination through collusion that has been spoken about. The workers agreed to work because they were on the verge of starvation.
Without a minimum wage and the presence of this kind of collusion, the wages in tea, after some improvement recently, is still way below the agricultural minimum wage. The tea workers' wage at present is 90 rupees in cash in West Bengal (it's lower in Assam) and what is given in kind adds to hardly 25 rupees. That's 115 rupees, while the agricultural minimum wage is 135 rupees. With such low wages the workers are perpetually on the threshold of starvation. And if they have been abandoned or locked out, they fall back into starvation and extreme malnutrition and disease. It is no wonder when the colluders who ensure such low wages force them to work under such humiliating condition, they do so.
Why don't they run away? Where will they go? They have hardly any connexions in the lands they left behind more than 150 years ago. There are no industries within hundreds of miles of their estates so they could find work there. Even if there were, they do not have the social and technical skills that can compete with the outsiders.
More than 90 percent of the workers are functionally illiterate although there are many primary schools in or near the estates. The reason for this is simply that the children who go to the pre-primary ICDS centres or the primary schools do not learn anything on account of instruction being given in languages (Assamese, Bengali and Hindi) that they do not understand. All pleadings with the leftist government about this situation have been rejected. Government and the international experts continue to count success as a function of attendance without realising that the mid-day meal alone accounts for attendance by hungry children.
Hungry and illiterate, without the chance to acquire any skills and holed up in remote places, these workers, separated from the dominant populations of the states where they reside by prejudice, cultural disdain and caste hatred, have nowhere to go except to remain in the estates—an isolated population living in remote economic enclaves.
The recent ethnic upsurge has already provoked a strident and widespread discussion on the recognition of the Sadri language, a language based on Sadani Hindi of Jharkhand that has been constructed by the workers from many languages originally spoken by the tribes and castes that inhabit the estates. The primary focus of this discussion is education and the need to have ethnic assertion to get that education. Class struggle in the tea gardens can never start up in a system-breaking way without an ethnic upsurge that ensures educational rights without which the masses of workers remain ignorant about laws, about the obligations of the police and the bureaucrats, about the rights of workers and about what is being done in their name by the leaders. Besides, a cultural renaissance among workers will propel class consolidation to new levels, levels that can construct socialism the workers' way. Revolutionaries must critique and help this ethnic upsurge that clears the way to more intense and more thoughtful class struggle.
Frontier, Autumn Number Vol. 46, No. 13-16, Oct 6 - Nov 2, 2013