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Change Brewing in the Tea Lands

India, April 10, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Darjeeling's picturesque villages cling precariously to temperate Himalayan foothills that soar to heights above 9,000 feet. Four hundred miles away, Assam's teeming towns jut chaotically from humid lowlands that are routinely — and sometimes catastrophically — flooded by the mighty Brahmaputra River.

Although vastly different in their topography, the two northeastern Indian regions are inextricably linked: their very names are synonymous with some of the best tea in the world. Strong, malty Assam and golden-hued, fragrant Darjeeling teas have been prized above others for more than 150 years.

In Assam and Darjeeling, tea dominates the local economies and societies. Its hegemony is concentrated in the dozens of tea estates that carve out their respective territories like miniature kingdoms.

That feudal comparison extends to the way most tea estates are laid out. The factories, main offices and managers' houses — often structures from the British Colonial period — are usually situated together among carefully manicured gardens.

The estates' legions of tea pluckers and other workers live in a much different world: small, densely populated villages hemmed in by tea fields. A tea estate is essentially a community unto itself, a company town where the land, the houses — everything — belong to the tea company. Nothing can be changed without the consent of management; in most cases, not even a family garden can be planted without consultation.

Across these fabled tea lands, Mercy Corps is partnering with socially conscious tea estate owners and managers to right several generations of wrongs. The agency's Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI), implemented through local partner agencies and funded entirely by Oregon's Tazo Tea Company, works to improve the living, health and economic conditions for families who reside in tea estates or adjacent agricultural communities.

The provisions of the Labor Plantation Act, passed in 1951, are supposed to ensure the following for tea estate families: housing, rations, firewood, proper sanitation, clean water supply, health care and primary education up to fourth grade. But these provisions are not widely enforced, and estates' social programs wax and wane with the profitability of the current tea crop. As a result, the estimated literacy rate for tea families across India is a dismal 30 percent, and there is a high prevalence of preventable diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.

Hundreds of thousands of workers who pluck and process the world's most famous teas are relegated to a life behind estate fences, eager for change but afraid to voice their opinions lest they lose their jobs and homes. The average daily pay is about $1.28 for a tea plucker in Darjeeling, one of the lowest wage rates in the formal economy, according to the Indian Labor Bureau. But it's the only way of life families in these places have known for generations.

In many of Assam's plantations, families were relocated from poorer parts of India, such as Bihar, in the mid-1800s to work the land. A century and a half later, they have preserved the traditions of their homelands and created new customs, so that their culture is wholly different from the Assamese way of life outside the estate's boundaries.

The CHAI project, started in 2002 as a partnership between Mercy Corps and Tazo Tea, currently helps almost 13,000 people empower themselves and find opportunities to build better lives for themselves, their families and communities.

The driving forces of our work are Community Initiative Groups, made up of village representatives selected by the community, which are responsible for making decisions on what activities will best benefit the village. These groups work with Mercy Corps to design specific projects, marshal resources and meet goals.

These groups also give tea workers the organization, authority and confidence to bring their concerns to tea estate management and government officials. In doing so, they are negotiating for more educational opportunities, improved infrastructure and better living conditions. They are also finding ways to make money — and sustain their communities' economic well-being — during periods of underemployment.

Such a transition doesn't come quickly — or easily — to Darjeeling or Assam, places steeped in a colonial past that still endures. But, thanks to an unlikely but powerful partnership between estate management, tea workers, Tazo Tea and Mercy Corps, change is brewing.