Tea plantations of Bangladesh
Pradip Kumar Dutta
Tea is a great drink. It was the most popular hot drink in the world till about 30/40 years ago. Okay,perhaps it still is. But since the last couple of decades of the previous century,coffee is catching up fast. Tea has been a popular drink for many many centuries in China. We get reference of tea as a healthy drink in China even in the BC period.Yunnan in China is thought to be the origin of the plant. Tea was grown and was available for consumption as a useful health drink in many parts of the huge Chinese Empire. We get trace of tea being taken as a medicinal herb drink in the 1600s in Indian territories. But the great Buddhist philosopher,scholar and preacher Atisa Dipankar,a Bangalee is perhaps the first Indian who was exposed to this exhilarating hot drink more than a thousand years from now,being an Indian from Bengal. The British colonial administration spread its rule through East India Company in India and they took control of the Assam region from Ahom Kings in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. When in Assam,they found that a local variant of Tea was being grown there since long and the British East India Company decided to concentrate on Tea as a cash crop. The first organised Tea Estate was established in Chabua of Upper Assam in 1837. In 1839 Assam Tea Company was formed in Lower Assam with indegenious variety of plants. The British found a variety of Tea growing in Khasi and Jaintia Hills too.
The Europeans started commercial production of Tea in the Bengal Presidency in 1840. The first plantations were on the hilly slopes of present Chittagong Club Area and its surrounding. The first Tea grown in the area was tasted as early as 1843. This plantation was with Chinese variety of Tea smuggled out of China by the British via Calcutta Botanical garden nursery. They took a lot of trouble in smuggling saplings out of China,since it was regarded as Chinese Imperial property. Temperate climate,lots of rainfall but perfect drainage not allowing any standing water in the land and proper humidity are the factors conducive of Tea plantations. Of course,soil Composition is a big factor too.Upper Assam, Surma,Brahmaputra and Barak vallies,Tipperah,Chittagong, Darjeeling and Dooars areas in Bengal and Assam,Nilgiri Hills in the south of India were found with favourable environment and soil quality in colonial India suitable for tea plantation. So,these areas were chosen to be the best areas for growth of this plant to produce this mesmerising hot drink. And off the British colonial administration went to promote this business by cultivation of this product in these areas which continues to thrive till date. Local business houses did not lag behind. Hajee Hashim,Dwarka Nath Tagore(yes,the famous Tagore family) and Mutty Lal Seal are a few names that were amongst the first Indians who invested in this field. The first Chittagong plantations in the Chittagong Club area was known as Kundu's Tea gardens. Unfortunately,this first plantation was not commercially viable and was abandoned after running several decades. The venture had to close it's doors before the turn of the century.
In today's discourse we will limit ourselves within the boundaries of Tea business in present day Bangladesh area. Bangladesh is presently the 10th largest Tea growing country in the world accounting for 3% of the world's production. With the country's high density of population and growing economy(consequently affordability) Bangladesh,once a Tea exporting country has turned out to be an importer now though the total production and cultivation has consistently increased. In 1947 when the British colonial administration left, India Tea plantation covered 30000 hectares of the then East Pakistan,which is present day Bangladesh. Now roughly the plantation area has increased almost threefold covering greater Sylhet,greater Chittagong and Panchagarh districts.The country produces between 80 to100 million kgs of Tea per annum. In Bangladesh area the first commercially viable tea plantation was started in 1854. It was Mulnicherra Tea Estate which is still functioning in the outskirts of present Sylhet Metropolis. Soon Surma/ Brahmaputra/Barak vallies became the center of tea plantation in Bengal and Assam with extentions in Upper Assam and Tipperah. Chittagong area also was having its expansions of tea cultivation. For facilitating the business, Assam Bengal Railways was established which became the lifeline of this business carrying tea from the growing area to Chittagong port for eventual export to England. Machinery arrived from England to process the tea leaves and bud to dried consumable tea leaves and dust tea.
Fact remains that apart from Tea trade,the Railways played and is still playing a pivotal role in the development of infrastructure of these areas and about one third of Bangladesh population has been and are still being benefitted by it. In the beginning,Tea was the main resource of this North Eastern part of India. Later,timber and hydrocarbons were added to the list. Amongst the trendsetters of Tea business in Sylhet area were Syed Abdul Majid,Nawab Ali Amjad Khan,Mohammad Bakht Majumder. In Chittagong we had the Kundus,Banerjees,Mr Abdul Bari Chowdhury,Quaderis. Then there were multinational giants like James Finlay, Octavious Steele and Duncan Brothers which are still functioning but under Bangladeshi management. Ispahani family had played a great role in this field. In their heydays of Tea plantation,the foreign multinationals used to control about 90% of the tea business. The growers had agent companies to market their products worldwide through England and later from Calcutta when Bengal Tea Association was formed and Tea Auctions were held in Calcutta dominated by the British companies. After the subcontinent secured it's Independence from British colonial rule auction house was started in Chittagong in 1949 and west Pakistani business houses started dominating the trade. After Bangladesh achieved it's Independence from Pakistani neocolonial rule,a few years the sector was in disarray. Steps were taken to put it back on the rails and it is progressing well. We see expansion of the sector. The cultivation and production is growing. In recent decades Panchagarh area in the north western part of Bangladesh,adjacent to Indian Dooars plantations is bustling with activities related to Tea plantations. Quazi and Quazi is the big player there. A new Tea Auction house has been started at Srimangal recently since the town is considered as the Tea capital of Bangladesh.
It has already been mentioned that Bangladesh is the 10th largest producer of tea in the world and accounts for approximately 3% of the world production in the country's 167 tea gardens. As was mentioned earlier,the area of tea cultivation and the quantity produced in the country is steadily growing. Simultaneously,the domestic demand is growing too,since the economy of the country is growing.Tea,being affordable has gained high popularity in Bangladesh,as in many other countries and everywhere in this subcontinent. During British,Pakistani and early Bangladesh days tea was an important export commodity. Slowly as local demand grew,exports started decreasing and the country has become a tea importer. Whereas in 1947,when the British transferred political power of the subcontinent to Indians and Pakistanis in the then East Pakistan about 30000 hectares of land was under tea plantations.Now, the area covered by tea is close to 100000 hectares. Depending on climatic factors the production of Bangladesh hits figures close to 100 million kgs. Quality and price wise Bangladesh is doing fairly well compared to other countries of the world. The average price of Bangladesh tea is approximately 8% less than the world average whereas Srilankan(the best quality and price earner) average price is approximately 15% higher than the world average. Kenya has appeared in the world Tea scenario comparatively late but has occupied an important position production and price wise. The best quality tea grower in the world Srilanka has stepped into this field a little after India and present day Bangladesh. Tea plantations were started by British colonialists in Srilanka in 1867 and the same Britishers brought it to their African colony Kenya in the 1920s.
Let us now discuss the life and livelihood of Tea workers who are the backbone of this industry. Tea plantation is not an easy job. The working conditions in the hilly and jungle areas of Sylhet and Chittagong,where tea plantations started in present Bangladesh area was very harsh, rather close to inhuman. Bengal in those days was quite affluent. Land was fertile,water bodies were rich with different varieties of fishes. Textiles of this land was world famous. Veggies were in abundance. Dairy products were sufficient. Different other agricultural products also grew well in the very fertile soil of the place. Life was easy for average Bangalee and the planters could find very few locals who were interested to work for them. Moreover,the pay was fixed at a very low level. Finding this difficulty in getting sufficient work forces the Tea Estate owners thought of importing workers from elsewhere. Mostly poor,low caste, exploited people from Orissa, Madhya Pradesh (Chhattisgarh),Bihar(Jharkhand) and Andhra Pradesh became soft targets of the planters. They employed agents to bring workers from those far away places. The agents, in their turn allured those unfortunate people, promising them of high wages and bright future. The poor unfortunate incumbents discovered that they have been trapped into a horrible life only after reaching the plantation site. Being so far away from home, they did not have any means or way to return. Moreover,the colonial administration were in favour of the owners(mostly British and wealthy Indians) and their tyranny also prevented the new arrivals from abandoning the gardens. Finding no other alternatives they were bound to stay back in the gardens and virtually became unofficial bonded labours. They never could return and have remained in the tea gardens for generations. At times there were several movements of Tea workers for their rights of pay raise, improvement of living conditions even rights to leave the gardens and returning to their respective homes. Political parties,mostly left leaning ones, often supported their demands but not much could be achieved. Those poor souls had to work under subhuman conditions and their descendants are also doing the same. At present the 4th to 6th generations of the initial imported labourers are working in the gardens. Very few of them could get out of that life and join the mainstream. About 70% of tea garden workers are female since they have been found to be more suitable for tending to the plants and plucking the tender tea leaves and buds. By now,some local Bangalee and Tribal(eg. Khasi) workers have also joined this trade as workers for meeting the growing demands of the industry. In Sylhet area still that group of workers,the descendents of original imported labourers are in majority. In Panchagarh area most are locals with a small percentage of original tea working class of Sylhet area taken to start the production and train up locals. In Chittagong area its a mix of locals and descendants of originally imported workers. Interestingly enough,these people have kept their language,religious beliefs and customs as their forefathers have practised when they have arrived. Of course, everything has a local mix as you would expect in over a hundred years. Another interesting aspect of Tea gardens and tea trading is the fact that every big company had their own money management system. In those early days of tea plantations the salary of the workers were only a few rupees and things were cheap. They needed coins to buy things. Banks were not many in tea garden areas. To ease up pressure on the few banks(for supply of huge quantity of coins),to simplify risk of carriage of money from banks to remote gardens and more importantly to prevent fleeing or migration of workers from respective gardens, the owners introduced Tea garden tokens which were coins of their own and could be used as government issued money in that garden area or in it's vicinity. No one could buy a railway ticket with that token to go back home,since it was not valid money.
In Bangladesh the 100000 strong Registered Tea garden labourers are represented by their Trade Union Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union(BCSU). Besides them there are around 30000 casual workers employed by the Garden owners. The owners are represented by Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA). The tea workers( originally called Coolies by the British planters) were accommodated inside the gardens in shanties made for them known as Labour lines. Their payment system is complex. They get very little cash payment. In addition, their accommodation in the labour lines is free and they can grow some vegetables in small pieces of land beside their shanties. They also get limited quantity of rice/wheat at a very much subsidised rate of Tk2 per kg. The quantity allowed for the worker,his/her spouse and two children below 12 years of age is barely enough to survive hunger. Limited medical facility in the garden medical center is free. Registered workers are entitled to two festival bonuses per year. Provident Fund is also there for the registered workers but Gratuity has never been paid in the Gardens though it is a must as per Bangladesh Labour Law. Also,as per Law any industry owner is bound to distribute amongst the workers 5% of his/her profit after the annual accounts are drawn which has to be disclosed to the representative of the workers. This has never been practised in the Tea gardens. For fixation of remuneration of Tea workers,there is a two way system. The Government sets up Wage Board at regular intervals to fix up the minimum salary. In addition to that the BTA(owner's representative) and BCSU (the worker's representative) negotiates the worker's Charter of Demands once in every two years. The facilities that have been mentioned earlier were not in place since beginning. They came as a result of the negotiations and movements of the workers over the last 150 years and came gradually. A few years ago only weekly holidays have been introduced in some of the Tea gardens. The meagre cash in hand recieved by a registered worker will baffle you in disbelief. In 1982 it was a mere Tk 32.5 per day. In 2009 it was only Tk48.5 and in2013 it rose to Tk69 per day. 2015 saw it at Tk85 and in 2017 it came to Tk102 per day. The Wage Board which was formed in 2019 by the Government could not function properly due to Covid pandemic and its verdict is yet to be finalised and implemented. The BCSU wants it to be minimum Tk 300 per day whereas BTA does not want to agree to even half the amount. They have their own way of calculating the benefits allowed to the workers in terms of money and wants to prove that presently the workers are getting Tk 8000 plus worth of cash and benefits in terms of money. They compare it with the minimum wage fixed for Readymade Garments workers and observes that the Tea workers are better off. According to BCSU caculations the Tk 8000+ figure comes to Tk4700. Bangladesh Government has its organ Bangladesh Tea Board formed for development of the Sector but they do not mingle with the fixation of a reasonable salary for the workers so that they can lead a life with dignity and self esteem. So the worker's plight can only be resolved through bilateral negotiation in which BCSU should maintain a tough stance. The Minimum Wage Board has also to be strict and just to the worker's cause and try to give them some solace of a reasonable life. In recent years in and around tea gardens we see Lemon,Chili and Pineapple farming growing at a brisk pace. Rubber and coffee plantations are also being tried. These activities are giving employment opportunities to the members of the Tea worker's family who are not employed in the garden. We may note that the total inhabitants in all gardens together is estimated to be no less than 300000, less than half of whom are employed in the gardens. Their non tea worker family members getting other employment opportunities can improve their family economy and make them enjoy better life. Some research organisations claim that above 70% of Tea workers and their family are living a life below poverty line whereas the national average is only 20%. Isn't it sad if the figures are correct?
Starting from Mulnicherra Tea Estate, established in 1854 the Tea industry has grown in our country and has come a long way. Bangladesh Tea Research Institute (established as Tea Research Station in 1952 and upgraded in 1974) is continuously carrying out R&D work to produce newer improved varieties of plants to give better output quantity,aroma and colour wise. Though Bangladesh is basically a producer of Black Tea,recent trends have attracted the planters to produce some quantities of Green Tea as well. BTRI has taken the que from a 1911 established Tocklai Tea Research Institute of Jorhat(Assam) which took care of the R&D for the whole region. Our Tea Board and BTRI have so far done well in promoting the industry. In recent time, Tea Board is trying to encourage small individual growers to take up tea as a cash crop cultivation if their land is near a Tea garden with a factory and suitable for Tea plantation.
We wish all luck to this Sector of our economy to do well in the coming days and become an exporter again after satisfying local demands. We desire and demand a proper and reasonable Wage Board decision for the Tea Workers to allow them to live a life with self esteem and dignity. We also want all Laws of the land including Gratuity and Profit sharing to be implemented for the Tea Workers.
May Bangladesh Tea industry have a bright future.
I conclude by remembering the contribution of Tea garden workers during our Great War of Liberation. Many a battles were fought with the occupation Pak Army in different Tea gardens. Many of the Garden workers joined the Muktibahini,the Liberation Forces of Bangladesh. Many others helped them,sheltered them,fed them,have worked as Muktibahini guides and informers. Many of them were tortured and some even had to make the supreme sacrifice of their life. Our heads bow to them in respect. You can still find some killing fields in different Tea gardens where Freedom fighters,Tea workers and other Bangalees were tortured and killed by brutal Pak forces and their local collaborators. In Doloi Tea Gardens Bir Shrestha Hamidur Rahman gave away his life as a Shaheed while fighting to take Doloi BOP from the clutches of the Pak army. A memorial sings his glory till this day.