by Phil on July 4th, 2014
Canton Tea Club Week 92: Spring 2014 Anji Bai Cha
This week I would like to write about something very different. Dooars Tea does not cross my radar very often but it happened twice in the space of the last week for very different reasons. I had some Dooars speciality teas in a batch of samples that arrived for tasting this week, the first I have seen for many years. And they arrived at the same time as the news coverage about starvation and death on abandoned Dooars tea gardens.
What follows is an attempt at a response. It is very much a personal perspective and I apologise in advance for any inaccuracies. All opinions expressed are my own, and some of it is proving very difficult to write.
Firstly, a bit of information about The Dooars, a significant tea growing area but one that is little known. Part of the wider Terai, The Dooars is the narrow strip of land joining the famous regions of Assam and Darjeeling. It runs between Bhutan to the north and Bangladesh to the south, and the name means ‘Doors’, reflecting its historical importance as a gateway to Bhutan: there are 18 passages or gateways through which the Bhutanese people can communicate with the people living in the plains.
The region sits across two Indian states, Assam and West Bengal, in the small finger of WB that includes Darjeeling. You can see from the map that this is connected to the main body of WB to the south by a thin filament, and helps to explain the long-standing pressure from Darjeeling to become a separate state known as Gorkhaland. It is divided by the Sankosh River into the Eastern and the Western Dooars, also known as the Bengal Dooars and the Assam Dooars. The scenery is dramatic, crossed by many rivers flowing from the mountains of Bhutan, and it is becoming increasingly recognised as a tourist destination.
My experience of Dooars
I travelled by car from Assam to Darjeeling in 1981 on my first training visit to India, and spent a few days on some of the gardens in Western Dooars. It was during October, long after the monsoon, and my memory is of dried up river beds and waterfalls reduced to a trickle. Thinking about that trip this week led me to search for some old photos, without much success, but I have scanned one just to give an idea. I remember staying with the English manager of one of the gardens (one of very few remaining by that stage). He was a classical pioneer/adventurer, keen to show me all his projects, particularly the hydroelectric plant he had built half way up a waterfall. We walked, we climbed, and I even got to put one foot in Bhutan. I don’t have such strong memories of the tea garden, or the tea itself.
Staying on another garden, I focused more on the tea, and a picture started to emerge. From my tasting in London I knew that Dooars teas tended to be very black in appearance, without a trace of fibre, and almost polished in appearance (these were of course small leaf CTC granular teas). The flavour had some similarities to Assam, but with less colour and strength, and they were greyish under milk. They didn’t really fit into any of our blends and we rarely bought them. This position was challenged during the factory tasting, when the manager described them as ‘better then Assam’, and complained about the fact that prices were lower. What does ‘better’ mean in that context? To him, it meant that the grading was better, the leaf was blacker and cleaner, and on that basis it was impossible to disagree. Inside the factory, I had never seen so many separate processes for cleaning, sifting and grading the different leaf particles, each of which made the appearance a little better and the flavour a little worse. The only recent parallel in my experience was visiting a gunpowder green tea factory in China, where the leaves were repeatedly rolled and polished, making a product that tasted appalling. Nobody in the factory would think of drinking what they were making.
India and the USSR
The background to this was the close relationship in the 1970s and 1980s between India and the USSR, with bilateral trade agreements involving tea and arms, and an artificial exchange rate that distorted tea prices. Tea makers in all parts of India were encouraged to make tea in a particular style (very black leaf) in order to be part of this trade. In the case of the Dooars, most of the production was geared in this way, much more so than in Assam). I can remember sitting in auctions in Calcutta when page after page of tea would be sold to USSR buyers, with other buyers barely involved. This applied to Darjeeling and Dooars in particular.
The break-up of the USSR in 1991 resulted in a collapse in demand for tea from the Dooars, which was of a style that no other buyers wanted. This was exacerbated by the rise in production in Kenya, which provided a ready source of cheap CTC tea for international buyers. Tea estates in Dooars and other parts of India started losing money and in some cases were abandoned by their owners. This is the cause of the terrible stories we have read during the last 10-15 years, with people trapped in extreme poverty on locked tea gardens, with no land to grow food and no means of earning money. The situation is truly shocking and linked to the market collapse, but I think the problem goes much deeper than that.
Who is responsible?
Tea was first planted in the Dooars by the British in the late 19th century. They followed the same modus operandi as had proved successful in Assam and Darjeeling, bringing in people from other parts of the country to work as tea pluckers. These people would be provided with housing on the plantation (or ‘tea garden’), and provided with other basic needs, but they were effectively tied to the plantation with no realistic possibility of leaving. They owned no land, had nothing in common with the indigenous population, and were effectively in a labour camp: they were (and are) described as ‘the labour’, and the housing described as ‘labour lines’. The only prospect for a child of a tea plucker was to be a tea plucker themselves. The consequences of moving people in this way were either not considered at all or (more likely) not considered as important. The main consequence, as we know all too well, is generations of people in a foreign land with little prospect of a return to their homes and reduced connections with them with every generation that passes.
I have painted a very bleak picture here. Some tea gardens are much better than others, and in some cases set very high standards, and I have spent much of my career trying to identify best practice and work with the best companies. It is possible to come up with criteria for making these decisions and to choose to concentrate your buying with the best companies (but most buyers don’t do the latter). It’s possible to feel that standards are acceptable, or at least as good as can be reasonably expected. It’s better than nothing but can bring complacency. This was brought home to me quite memorably on a visit to Assam with a major retailer customer, famous for their ethical standards. We took them to see some workers’ houses, satisfied that they were some of the best anywhere in Assam, but didn’t get the reaction we were expecting. They were shocked, embarrassed and angry. And they were right to be – it’s easy to lose a sense of perspective when you are so close to something and mould your own standards to it. I hope I learnt a lesson from that experience.
The difficulty that even the best companies face is that they remain part of a plantation model that is built on a captive workforce and very low wages. Some try hard to do the right thing, but are constrained by the model. Many would prefer to work with independent farmers who grow and sell the green leaf, and in fact the ‘bought leaf sector’ has seen rapid growth during the last ten years in Assam and elsewhere. In some cases the leaf is sold to plantation companies, in some cases to small local factories, but the model is basically the same. Tea companies feel increasingly burdened by the responsibilities and costs of retaining and housing their own workforce, and would prefer to use a combination of bought in leaf and some form of mechanisation to reduce costs. While it might be unpalatable to many to be told this, continuing with the same plantation model, and doubling or trebling wages (as is necessary to meet reasonable minimum norms) would push many companies under. If that happens, more plantations will be abandoned and more people will be left destitute, with no land and no income in a place with which they have no historical connections and which is probably hostile to their presence. In most cases they are disowned by local politicians who have nothing to gain from taking up their case. So the choice seems to lie between a perpetuation of starvation wages or starvation itself. It’s not much of a choice.
Who is responsible? The British set up the system. The original owners and their Indian successors grew rich on it. The tea market in the UK grew on the back of a ready supply of cheap tea – UK tea companies have all benefited from that legacy one way or another, and I and many others have built careers as a result. The India/USSR trade agreements are only a factor in the recent decline.
We (the tea industry) have been very quick to distance ourselves from the issue and avoid responsibility, explaining that we don’t buy that specific kind of tea or pointing proudly to our own Codes of Conduct and Ethical Labels. But I would say that we are all part of it, all involved, all responsible. I have found some of the press coverage incredibly upsetting.
What can be done?
It’s hard to see a solution. We know that none of the fair trade systems address the underlying issues, and I find it truly shocking that in some cases they try to gain leverage for their own causes by publicising the terrible suffering of others. It’s dishonest at best.
It’s possible to see a future of large mechanised farms using a small local workforce, complemented by a blossoming sector of small-scale speciality enterprises. It’s possible to see it, but not to work out how we get there. How do you solve the problem of the trapped plantation workers? Can they be given land without causing anger in the local community? Can they somehow be moved back to their ancestral homes? I don’t have any answers, but that doesn’t mean I can just forget about the problem. It would be good to hear what others are thinking or doing.
In the meantime, I will continue to promote small farmer-owned enterprises whenever I can. It doesn’t solve the bigger problem, but it does at least provide support for a better model.
And I think it’s important to keep reading the difficult news, however uncomfortable that might be.