feature India politics travel

the price of tea

November 10, 2018

India and Wales share a love for tea. That golden brown brew is part of the culture flowing through the veins of our nations like rivers. In Wales we have a wealth of herbal teas, but these infusions wouldn’t be called tea in India – tea is from the tea plant, everything else is a hot drink that is ‘not tea’. In north-Wales, English speakers call it a brew and Cymraeg speakers will say it’s a panad.

The difference on the road here is that you’re usually buying from a vendor, or visiting people, so you kind of get what they have already made. It’s an interesting tea lottery which has encouraged me to try: super-sweet milky chai that’s so thick at times it’s like a pudding; black tea; sweet black tea; sweet black tea with lemon; black tea with ginger; black tea with salt and ginger, tea with soured milk, and tea made with water from the Rangyang river where the cup was half filled with boiling tea and then topped up with cold water taken straight from the river. As a panad lover this endless drinking of tea is heavenly, however it’s served, and I’ve developed an appreciation for good unsweetened black tea.

A brief detour took us through the Washabarie and Bagrakot Tea Gardens on our way south. Driving through endless land filled with the waist-high tea shrubs, bluntly cut across the top reminded me of the vineyards of northern Italy in the way their short shrubby uniformed shapes look like they’re marching across the landscape. I learned that in India workers are paid a flat rate of 176 Rupees (around £1.86) per day regardless of which tea garden they work at. It’s less than the minimum wage set for other manual workers in India for various reasons including that they tend to get benefits such as housing and amenities. Which, on the face of it sounds fair enough. But how does the Fair Trade tea I often search for in supermarkets work in this environment? The Tea Garden managers are supposed to spend the additional money on improving the amenities but speaking with people on the ground they don’t feel that this is the case, and although wages are set, the conditions under which workers are expected to pick tea varies dramatically across the Tea Gardens. Companies who run the gardens appear to have retained the old British colonial approach to their workers, which is to pay them the absolute bare minimum regardless of whether or not this might keep them in poverty, and to fight any legitimate requests for improvement in amenities and wages.

The Welsh are a nation of tea drinkers, it’s something we pride ourselves on. But some of that love for tea is rooted in our colonial past and the ways in which the UK ran the Indian Tea Gardens as a profiteering racket that usurped indigenous peoples from their land, forcing them to work under slave-like conditions on it instead. Yes, there were uprisings led by communist leaders such as Charu Majumdar, but workers here still struggle under difficult conditions because colonialism has been replaced by capitalism. Wages might be supressed for different reasons but the effect on workers remains the same.

Liberalism is a failed experiment because we opened up the markets to the global economy, but we didn’t open our borders. Not really. We just expected everyone to forget about their culture and roots and join a ‘global culture’ which is all very well if that means everybody is treated the same, but we’re not. Western culture is still managing wealth extraction on an extortionate scale, and it is the poorest people who pay the highest price. I don’t think we need to stop drinking tea, but perhaps some pressure on our supermarkets to fight for fair pay for workers who are involved in any step of their production process would be a start.

As I’m thinking this through I had an idea – what we, the people, really need are ‘people’s lobbyists’ who will fight the good fight on our behalf; who are not in the pockets of multinational organisations or who spend all their time on a vanity agenda (yes you BoJo The Clown), we need people who will look, not only at what their immediate community needs but who are prepared to go that extra mile to fight for the rights of all people; in the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr ‘No one is free until we are all free’. Then I realised that this role already exists – it’s the one of the politician.

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