A Different Kind of Teatime

India, April 10, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Rosy Choudhury, Project Director for CHAI Assam. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Dibrugarh is called India's tea city. But for some people, teatime is about hardship and inequality rather than a pause for relaxation.

Opportunities are scarce here and throughout this landlocked northeastern Indian state of Assam. Even Assam's most critical agricultural industry — 800 tea estates employ approximately 500,000 people and produce 882 million pounds of tea each year — has been laid low by declining prices on the world market.
Many Assamese families live in villages that exist within the boundaries of large tea estates. But only two in five adults that reside there are gainfully employed on the plantations throughout the year. The rest are only seasonal laborers, working in the fields, in the brick kilns or on construction sites.

Daily wages for these workers is somewhere between $1.20 and $2.00 per day. It's tough to earn more: most tea-estate residents have spent their entire lives behind fences, and therefore lack the technical labor skills, academic qualifications and capital to invest in their own future. Caught in a vicious cycle of no skills, no jobs, no capital and a stagnate economy, most of the residents on the tea estates face a declining quality of life.

To break this cycle, Mercy Corps has teamed up with Portland-based Tazo Tea and an array of local interests — including the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association, and four Indian tea companies — to form the Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI). Tazo's participation makes this a unique project in Assam.

Since its inception in Assam in January 2007, CHAI has promoted livelihood opportunities for nearly 500 families through savings and small business development in farming, livestock rearing, services, trade and commerce. CHAI aims to diversify and integrate economic opportunities on tea estates in some of the highest tea-producing districts in Assam — including Dibrugarh. CHAI focuses on improving people's livelihoods through:

  • Institutional Development Services: forming of economic development councils, self-help groups, and new market linkages
  • Financial services: savings programs, credit accounts and bookkeeping services
  • Livelihood promotion services: identification of income opportunities, skills training and ongoing staff support

So far, dozens of emerging entrepreneurs have been able to generate a steady and regular income, unlike the erratic income of seasonal labor. They've also been able to tap into local markets and see profit margins increase. CHAI has also supported more than 400 youth with scholarships and technical trainings — after which youth are eligible for apprenticeships and help with self-employment. Theyre now working each day as hairdressers, shopkeepers and mechanics.

Providing alternatives to unpredictable employment on tea estates helps Assamese people earn a living and increase their food security. In Assam, with the help of Mercy Corps' CHAI project, the tea leaves are finally changing.

Rosy Choudhury is Project Director for Mercy Corps' CHAI project in Assam.