Summer in Coonoor, one of Tamil Nadu’s famed hill stations, is like stepping into one of those Bollywood movie dream sequences. The hills are lush and verdant, practically technicolor green, and the air blows as cool as when the fridge door opens in Chennai. It is so refreshing that you may just break out into a few choreographed dance steps. If you have ascended from the sweltering lowlands it could be the only few days you will not be drenched in the relentless shower of your own sweat.
Coonoor is in the Nigiri (Blue Mountain) district, which is a part of the larger mountain chain known as the Western Ghats. In the early 1800’s, British colonists began developing this land for use as coffee and tea plantations, and their summer residences. The area had long been inhabited by various tribal groups and despite the rise and fall of empires in the region, it appears to have always been tribal land. The agriculturalist ‘Badaga’ were the dominant landholders before the arrival of the British, though post independence their plight was underrepresented and they lost their tribal status and land to the giant tea estates still operating today.
John Sullivan, the commissioner of Coimbatore, led the first British expedition in this region. He was in search of whether there was any truth to the tales of the cool, fragrant air in the midst of the tropics. It was to be confirmed. Subsequent expeditions would test the conditions for cultivating tea, the British started migrating to the hills in larger numbers, and labourers were employed to clear the land for cultivation.
Fast forward to today, India has become one of the largest producers and consumers of tea in the world. Tea gardens, like this one, are located on shaded hill slopes where rainfall is well distributed and well drained. Since tea cultivation is labour intensive it requires an abundance of skilled, cheap labour. The hands that work tirelessly to grow this crop often belong to scheduled caste and tribal peoples descending from their indentured labouring forefathers.
Tea workers are among the least paid in the agriculture industry and live in miserable conditions. Though some protective labour legislation has been instilled post-independence, it has not done much to change the low wages, access to healthcare, illiteracy, and intergenerational enslavement that many plantation workers continue to face.
In Journalist Souparna Lahiri's report 'Bonded Labour and the Tea Plantation Economy' he states,
"The majority of the workers are suffering from anaemia and tuberculosis. Malaria is rampant. There are tea gardens where at least one in every family is suffering from tuberculosis. And the children and women are the worst affected. Only one per cent of the tea garden population is considered active after attaining 60 years. The infant mortality rate is very high, far above the state and national averages. The death rate is 11.4 for every thousand. The company health system has completely collapsed… But this does not create ripples neither in the administration nor in political circles. The lush green façade of the tea plantations remain as serene and calm as ever."
So what exactly is bonded labor anyways?
In short, it is modern day slavery.
Debt bondage is the earmark of colonial economies. It has been used as a means to trap indentured laborers following the abolition of slavery.
Due to caste-based discrimination and the subsequent limited access to social justice, it is nearly impossible for a bonded laborer to escape the intergenerational cycle of poverty he has inherited and will thus pass on.
Tea worker families may reside within tea garden for 3-4 generations though are unable to own land or property.
Lack of access to higher education means that children are compelled to join the workforce at an early age. In this way, they are the victims and future perpetrators of the debt bondage system.
And the cycle continues.
As swathes of tourists arrive in luxury 4x4’s and fill their bags with eucalyptus oil, spices, and boxes of tea to gift to friends back home, the uncomfortable incongruity of our lives is apparent. For all the beauty of these hills, the darker truth is easy to overlook but impossible to ignore.
Now each time I sit to enjoy a cup of chai, I consider that the hands which may have picked the tea leaves, have been and still are in chains.