Book Review : The Darjeeling Distinction: Labour and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantation in India

One of the most labour-intensive industries in India are the tea plantations. These plantations play a crucial role in profit generation. Thus, providing the much-needed financial support and stability to the Indian economy. However, the dismal condition of the tea plantations and the labour working in these plantations is an established fact, this needs no retelling. Sarah Besky, in this context, adopts an empirical (ethnographic) approach to critically examine this lacuna. The book is written from the perspective of the labourers working in the tea plantations of the Darjeeling Hills (subdivisions of Sadar Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong). It exposes the readers to the complexities that determine the functioning of such sectors of the economy, providing a much deeper understanding of their deplorable condition.

The title of the book suggests that the distinction of Darjeeling, as a place, comes from its globally acclaimed Champagne of tea - the Darjeeling tea. A distinction is not only based on market value but also social value. While assessing the social value of this commodity of distinction, the author advocates the need for the recognition of the moral relation between the tea labourers and the tea plant as a filial relation between a mother and child. This line of thought becomes pivotal to grasp the labourer’s view of the plantation. The labourers expect the management to adopt a similar notion of care towards the plantation landscape, which the management fails to. It is this moral expectation that creates instability and insecurity.

Besky, while subtly exploring the beautiful relationship that the plantation labourers share with their landscape, also throws light upon three major developments in these plantations in the 21st century: Fair-Trade, Geographical Indication (GI) status and the Resurgence of the Gorkhaland movement. However, these developments have only been partially successful in bettering the lives of the labourers. The author takes her readers on a historical journey starting right from the inception of these tea plantations and explores the way it stands today. The ideas and values associated with these plantations, and the social justice issues were a dictum of the colonial masters. Thus, in a way these plantations have always been considered as a materialistic symbol of British imperialism. But the global market structure demanded that these colonial structures be altered in tandem with the neoliberal policies.

In the eyes of the author, the term plantation refers to a space where the labourers are essentially tied to the land, where they work, for their livelihood. The sustenance of these plantations has been firmly rooted in this ‘moral’ economy which ties the planter and the labourers in an unequal economic bond of reciprocity. Besky refers to this setup as ‘a Tripartite Moral Economy among the land, labour and the management’. This points to existence of subjugation, marginalization and exploitation that goes on unchecked in these plantations. Besky, in this regard, also refers to the non-monetary incentives (housing et al) which are supposed to be provided by the management as established under the Plantation Labour act of 1951. In fact, these incentives are the rationale behind the existence of the generational plantation labour. The Tripartite Moral Economy has internalised an intense bond of the land, labour and the plant. This has helped the tea plantations to survive the deteriorating phase since the late 1970s.

Besky considers the 21st century to be crucial for the revitalization of the degrading Tea plantations. The neoliberal policies of (GI) tag and the Fair-Trade policies of the late 1990s, despite the laxities, have undoubtedly helped in this resurgence. The GI (an international label for the product), linking the product to its place of origin and production, has prevented counterfeit. Moreover, under the GI Act of 1999, the Tea Board of India has ownership over Darjeeling tea. Many such tea plantations of Darjeeling hills are established as Fair-trade farms. This neoliberal policy seeks to provide social justice to the small farmers of the developing countries by fetching a ‘fair’ price for their product by way of directly linking the producers to the global consumers and getting rid of intermediaries.

Nonetheless, the reason why the social and economic conditions of these labourers have not been improved to the desired level needs to be addressed. The root of the problem, according to Besky, is the inability of the neoliberal proponents to understand the complex landscape that Darjeeling tea plantation is. Besky describes these global policies as ‘Third World Agrarian Imaginary’. The romantic and aesthetic portrayal of the hills to make tea palatable to the global consumers naturalizes the exploitative relationship of tea labour, tea plant and its environment. The tea plant brought from China, the immigrant labour force from Nepal and the colonially designed labour relation and production process are naturalised into a heritage craft in 21st century Indian tea plantations of the Darjeeling hills.

The novelty of Besky’s work lies in linking the second phase of the resurgence of the Gorkhaland movement (2007-2011) with the stability of the hills’ tea plantations. Gorkhaland movement, demanding a separate statehood under the Indian union, is essentially an identity assertion movement. For Besky, the Gorkha’s Indian-Nepali identity essentially bears an identity either of tea plantation labourer or that of a military man. Therefore, the tea plantation identity makes the Gorkha identity. Thus, the movement’s territorial sovereignty claims centre upon the material and symbolic attachment to the plantations which covers most of the Darjeeling district. Therefore, both the labourers and the movement share the same moral concern for the land. However, like the GI and Fair-Trade policy, the Gorkhaland movement naturalizes the Gorkha identity to the landscape. They naturalize the unjust production relation between the management and the labourers and mask its exploitative nature. They draw upon the timeless indigenous belonging of the Gorkhas to the land, completely negating the historical reality of the immigration of Nepali workforce in India. Therefore, this primordial claim to the land detaches the movement from tea plantation labour, who very well acknowledge the historical reality of the people and the place.

All the developments of the modern times have been unsuccessful to provide justice to the tea plantation labour. This is because of the failure to understand the notion of social justice and the plantation life from the labourer’s point of view. Besky’s scholarly book stands significant as it attempts to provide a complex understanding of the tea plantations both as an enterprise and landscape as conceived by the tea plantations labourers of the Darjeeling hills.


Swarnima Swastika Tewary

Independent researcher associated with IPSA. I am a passionate reader of ancient Indian scriptures & everything that falls in between & beyond. I live by & for Nature so when I'm not reading I'm out there in the garden living that magical life!

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