International Conference
Gender Equity: Issues of Theory, Practice and Policy in the Asia-Pacific Region.
21-22 March 2013
The University Grants Commission-Academic Staff College,
Kumaun University, Nainital, India

A Study of the North Bengal Tea Region of West Bengal, India

Padam Nepal
Department of Political Science
St Joseph’s College


Fr. Lalit P. Tirkey
Department of Self Financing Professional Courses
St Joseph’s College

A Study of the North Bengal Tea Region of West Bengal, India

Studies on tea gardens of North Bengal and elsewhere hitherto have not only conspicuously failed to grasp the complex interplay of a multiplicity of variables impacting on the livelihoods and its diversification options of its workers, but also have remained silent on the identification of the tea garden commons and their governance, which has a direct relationship with the issues of gender and livelihoods in the tea gardens. The present study, drawing from the researches on ‘commons’ on the one hand, and, theoretical insights on livelihood issues on the other, and employing a ‘mixed’ methodology of study- a sort of a hybrid methodology, synthesizing the merits of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies keeping in view the analytical exploratory and descriptive nature of the study based on an emergent approach, is an earnest attempt to unfold the contours and complexities of livelihood threat encountering tea workers in general and the womenfolk therein in particular, and explore the possible remedial measures, including possibilities of livelihood diversification options through possible advances in the governance of ‘commons’ in tea garden situations. Specifically the study seeks to identify and enlist the Tea Garden ‘Commons’; identify the existing pattern of governance of the tea garden commons and investigate whether the present system of the governance of commons is accentuating livelihood insecurities of tea garden women in particular and tea workers in general; and finally explore the possibility of enhancement of livelihood opportunities of the tea workers in general and tea garden women in particular by way of ‘reform’ of the governance of the commons in the gardens.

Most of the academic deliberations in the global south constitute the enabling as well as the disabling aspects of the methods and the pedagogies invented, styled and tailored in the west. Ambivalent as it is the post colonial world exhibits a society that needs to be studied anew with methods homespun and more accommodating to the lived realities of the same. The global south is faced with multi-level dilemmas. At one level is the problem of adopting, inventing/birthing, acceptable methodologies and at another level is the problem of shedding the methodologies and pedagogies implanted through the colonial encounter. The first level of the problem reflects the contested nature of the voices in the global south and the plurality of the society. The second level of the problem refers more to the contestation of the dominant methodologies in more or less incoherent unison by the global south. Amidst the mélange of theoretical, methodological, pedagogical contest in the south there does exist a rather strong uncomfort-ness of the south to the dominant-ness of the north and also the contentious engagement of the south within itself when it comes to ‘Gender studies’. ‘Gender studies’ in India has conveniently been understood to mean ‘women’s studies’ overlooking the definitional encapsulations within the ambit of ‘Gender’. ‘Gender studies’ in other words excludes the other sexual or bodily located identities . Acknowledging the limitations of the gender studies so construed, but yet reinforcing the current trends of treating gender studies synonymous with ‘Women’s Studies’, the present paper would again be exclusivist in its nature, taking ‘women’ as a ‘gendered’ category for the present study.

Being an analytical exploratory and descriptive study based on an emergent approach, we have used a ‘mixed’ method of study, a sort of a hybrid methodology, synthesizing the merits of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The study has made an extensive analysis of the documents, reports, newspaper clippings, newsletters, and fliers on the subject under investigation. We have also conducted field surveys for the collection of primary data, using tools like in-depth interviews (semi-structured and structured), non-participant observation, and informal discussions with primacy. Statistical analysis of the quantitative data using SPSS and other statistical tools has been done to substantiate the information obtained through qualitative data.
Geographically the study area covers most parts of hills and plains of the Darjeeling District, and Northern part of the Jalpaiguri District, what was once called as Western Dooars (Fig. 1). Specifically, the three regions or “tea districts” situated in the eastern Himalaya and Himalayan foothills of West Bengal, lying lies in between 26°0´16 and 27° 0´ 00 N parallels of latitude and between 88°00´4 and 89°0´53 E longitudes on the northern most part of the state, comprising the Hills and Terai of the Darjeeling District and Doors of the Jalpaiguri District, constitute “the North Bengal Tea Region”. The figure below represents the North Bengal Tea Region.

Figure 1: The Study Area
The Indian Tea Industry, since its inception, has contributed significantly to the national and provincial economy, including the initial development and economic growth of North Bengal (Munsi, 1980; Ghosh, 1987) tea region. It has played a pivotal role in the regional economy of North Bengal by providing livelihoods to thousands of households for more than a hundred year (Sarkar and Lama, 1998). As a matter of fact, even in the twenty-first century, this industry is providing livelihoods to thousands of households by indirect employment and sustenance through ancillary jobs to many more households (Ghosh, 1987; Sarkar and Lama, 1998). However, in recent decades, particularly from late 1990s to early 2000s, the Indian Tea Industry has undergone serious crises due to various reasons. According to some analysts, the rising production and labour cost, falling tea prices due to oversupply of tea and decline of demand in the global market, combined with stiff competition from many tea producing countries and other factors have caused a huge slump in the profit, leading to the crises in the India’s tea industry (Goddard, 2004). It is understood that even in the worst scenario, the larger tea producers or tea owning companies are capable of switching to alternative industries for their profit- making or income generation. But what happens to the tea workers whose livelihood almost exclusively depends on tea garden work for survival? More than a million tea workers in India face threats to their livelihood security in the face of uncertainty surrounding the Indian tea industry in the form of “sick tea gardens” , temporary or indefinite lock-outs and ultimate closure of many tea gardens. Studies show that in recent years a large number of workers are threatened by further tea garden closure while in plantations that remain open, workers suffer wage cuts, tougher picking demands, increased short-term insecure contracts and appalling living and working conditions (Goddard, 2004; Thapa, 2012). North Bengal is one of the most badly affected tea regions in India by the brewing crises. During the normal operation of tea gardens the workers’ livelihoods remains merely at the subsistence level; on the other hand, the livelihood insecurity of tea workers and their households gets accentuated whenever gardens get closed or abandoned. However, apart from the sickness or closure of tea gardens, there are many other factors that have contributed to the livelihood insecurity of tea workers of North Bengal. One of the foremost factors contributing to the livelihood insecurity of the North Bengal tea garden workers is the low wage structure, which is one of the lowest among the tea producing regions in India (see Table 1 below).
Table 1: Wage (Rs. /Day) Differential in Tea Gardens of Different Tea Growing Indian States/Regions
States/Region 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 0nwards
North Bengal* 48.40 50.90 53.40 56.40 57.40 67.70
Assam* 51.10 53.40 56.10 59.00 62.70 69.00
Karnataka 71.00 73.00 75.00 77.00 81.44 85.00
Tamil Nadu 73.00 75.00 77.00 79.00 84.44 89.00
Kerala 78.36 80.36 82.36 84.36 88.80 94.00

(Sources: Computed from Report of CEC (2003), Report on Committee on Legislation Plantation Sector, (2007) and Chatterjee & Banerjee (2009). *the wages in North Bengal and Assam excludes ration (3.26 Kg and 2.44 kg wheat per week) the workers and their dependents receive).

To add to their woes, wage cuts, irregular or delay in wage payments, increasing job reduction leading to more unemployment, and above all, malnutrition and starvation deaths in some tea gardens have negatively affected the psyche of tea workers in this region (Talwar et al , 2003; Biswas et al, 2005). But what actually accentuates the livelihood insecurity of workers is their sole dependence or over-reliance on the low paying tea garden work, which constitutes the central livelihood activity of a large number of tea garden households. Besides, the management and government apathy have aggravated the situation but the combination of various factors that have accentuated the livelihood threats of most tea workers in the region.
Alternative livelihood options or multiple livelihood choices are necessary not only as safety nets during crises in tea gardens but also as source of income diversification. Generally, the viable alternative livelihood opportunities are conspicuous by their absence in or around the tea gardens of North Bengal; some odd jobs available are not enough to absorb large number of unemployed workers (Bhadra, 1992). Moreover, the tea workers, despite living in tea gardens of North Bengal (as elsewhere) have no rights over other natural resources. This deprivation makes the workers’ households difficult to cope during garden lock-outs, thereby, accentuating livelihood insecurity and making workers’ community more vulnerable to stress and shocks. Access to CPRs as sources of alternative livelihood is essential not just for the economic development but also for the enhancement of livelihoods security, which, however, is not accessible to them. Therefore, the non-availability of alternative livelihoods options have contributed to the continuing poverty and backwardness of tea workers in the North Bengal tea region constituted mainly of ST and SC population (See Table below).
Table 2. Distribution of SC/ST population in the three North Bengal Districts of West Bengal
Percentage of SC Population Percentage of ST Population

District 1981 1991 2001 1981 1991 2001
Coochbehar 47.03 49.84 51.76 0.61 0.57 0.60
Darjeeling 12.58 14.25 16.15 10.60 14.75 13.78
Jalpaiguri 34.02 34.61 36.99 19.35 22.20 21.04
N. Bengal 27.69 29.91 29.10 11.21 11.29 16.29
W. Bengal 25.22 21.98 23.62 5.72 6.63 5.59
Source: India Census, 2001
Thus, the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs) are perhaps the most seriously affected communities by the brewing crises and uncertain future facing the North Bengal tea industry, particularly due to the financial crunch and lock-outs of many tea gardens. The largest labour force in the tea plantations of Assam and West Bengal, the two major tea producing India states, comprise chiefly of scheduled groups, namely, the tribal and lower caste communities, who were brought as indentured migrant workers from the central provinces of India more than a century ago (Bhadra, 1992; Bhowmik et al , 1996; Kramatemprel et al, 1999). The districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, the two major tea producing districts, are characterised by a sizable proportion of Scheduled Tribe population (21 per cent and 13.8 percent respectively) as compared to the State average of 5.6 per cent while Scheduled Castes too are in sizable number in other districts of the region (North Bengal Report, 2002) (see Table 3 below). The starvation cases in the Dooars region of North Bengal are the indicator that tea workers, particularly from the ST and SC sections have become the most vulnerable and non-resilient to shocks and stresses that was manifested in the form of ‘sickness’, closure or abandonment of many tea gardens. According to the studies done by Talwar et al (2003), CEC (2007) and Biswas et al (2005) from 2003-2008 during and after the closure or abandonment of about 18 tea gardens in this region, majority of children, women and aged who had succumbed to starvation death due to sickness following malnutrition and other factors belonged to the scheduled groups. There are many other challenges to securing of livelihoods in the closed tea gardens of North Bengal that exacerbate the vulnerability of tea workers, especially from the ST/SC communities. However, one of the major factors contributing to this accentuated livelihood insecurity is the pattern of governance of the Commons in the tea region, which constitutes the central concern of the present paper.
The Tea Garden Commons: Common Pool Resource (CPR) refers to the natural resources that have common ownership or is considered resources for common use with or without having open access. In India CPRs include village pastures and grazing grounds, village forests and wood lots, protected and un-classed government forest, wasteland, common threshing ground, water drainage, ponds and tanks, rivers, rivulets, water reservoirs, canals and irrigation channels ((Jodha, 1986; Beck, 2000). Thus, there are many resources that could be pooled commonly by poor people and utilized for enhancing their livelihood. CPRs play important role in the life and economy of rural folks by providing economic sustenance (Jodha, 1986). Indeed, the North Bengal tea region that forms part of the Himalayan and sub-Himalayan region is endowed with diverse resource base. However, since the British planters started establishing, and subsequently expanding tea cultivable land, the forested area and even marshy landscape were transformed into commercial tea. In some tea garden premises components of common property land resources can be found in the form of community pastures and grazing ground, apart from some woodlots, but they are fast disappearing. One of the main reasons for the disappearance of these CPRs from the tea garden lands is the continuing expansion of tea cultivation as mono crop land use pattern covering expansive landscape while in most tea gardens only the remnant of forest covers are found in some corners (Tirkey, 2005, Nepal & Tirkey, 2012). In the rural areas, ‘the major problems faced by the CPRs, are related to the decline of land resources through physical loss due to submersion under changing river courses and also due to allocation of CPR lands for agricultural and non-agricultural uses, including allocation for public purposes like roads, buildings, and of late to the so-called Special Economic Zones’. The commonly available Commons in the North Bengal Tea Region context include water, vested land, forest cover, pastures and grazing grounds, sand, gravel, etc. in the riverbeds in the vicinity of the gardens.
Gender, Governance of Commons and Livelihood Insecurities: The Existing Scenario: Governance of the commons has become a contested terrain today. Having moved beyond Hardin’s (1968) ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ narrative, commons scholars have examined governance arrangements in diverse resource systems with multiple user groups at local, regional and global scales (Ostrom et al. 2002; Dietz et al. 2003). The emphasis on rules of access, exclusion and subtractability, and the identification of design principles or enabling conditions for the management of common pool resources are major contributions (Ostrom 1990; Baland & Platteau 1996; Agrawal 2002). However, in the Indian context, much of the policy formulations appear to have been caught up with Hardinian dilemma as evident from the existing nature of the commons governing regimes, with the stringent policies constantly constraining the access to commons by the rural folks. The situations in tea regions is all the more complex with the shift from ‘Governance’ to ‘Control’ of the commons by vested interests in connivance with the management. This has complicated the access to commons and accentuated the livelihood insecurity of the garden workers, the worst victim of the situation being the women workers.

It is the womenfolk of the garden who are the most affected because of the denial of the right to access the commons in the tea garden situations. This is because women are still the custodians of the household activities, beyond their normal daily wage labour they sell. The womenfolk are responsible for collecting drinking water, firewood for cooking, procure green vegetables, and save assets for future use. However, the existing pattern of the governance of the commons in the tea garden premises coupled with the poor educational status of the women in the tea regions, the women have miserably failed to secure the everyday livelihood requirements for their households. This owes to several factors. Women in the Tea region are worse off in terms of literacy and education. One of the most important assets within the human capital is the ‘education’ that the individuals and households need to acquire and equip themselves with (Ellis, 2000). Education serves as a powerful tool for moving nations, communities, and households toward a more sustainable future (Education Charter, 1999). Basic education is essential for improving the workforce and public participation in any civil society while also playing crucial role for more sustainable future (ibid). Like in other sectors, even in the tea sector, women workers are found to be at the margins. It has been generally found in almost all the tea-producing countries that women, despite constituting the largest work force in tea plantations, have more disadvantages with low education and skill development (Gain, 2009; Line, 2009). The case in North Bengal tea gardens is no different. The social restrictions even in the tea garden households prevent them from attending elementary schooling or household compulsions lead them to discontinue education for the sake of their male siblings.

Table: 3. Gender and Educational Status

Gender Education Category Total
illiterate Cl. 1-5 Cl. 6-9 Cl. 10-12 College Ed
Male Count 73 102 80 41 1 297
% l 15.2% 21.3% 16.7% 8.5% .2% 61.9%
Female Count 99 46 34 4 0 183
% 20.6% 9.6% 7.1% .8% .0% 38.1%
Total Count 172 148 114 45 1 480
% 35.8% 30.8% 23.8% 9.4% .2% 100.0%

The finding presents some significant statistics that among the older generation of tea workers, a very high percentage of female workers (55%) had ‘no education’ as compared to 25% male workers having ‘no education’. Again, while there was significant difference in the educational level of male vis-à-vis female in elementary/primary education (app. 35% Vs. 25%) and junior high school education (app. 28% Vs. 18%), there was a wide gap when it came to high school and higher secondary education (Cl. 10-12 level). Approximately 13% male workers had attained high school or higher secondary school education as compared to only 3% among female workers. The lack of education among the female workers is reflected in their being engaged in unskilled tea plucking work. Finding corroborated by field visits shows hardly any female worker in clerical post in the surveyed gardens or securing white collar job outside the tea garden premises.

Ownership of resources, particularly land, water and forest, provide livelihood security and aid the intervention against economic crises, besides providing regular subsistence income for improving the livelihoods. In the government leased plantation land, tea workers do not have rights over the land they occupy. Only 22.55% households own some plots of land (1-3 Bigha) whereas an overwhelming majority (77.45%) are landless. Besides land, other natural resources, particularly the Common Property/Pool Resources (CPR), are beyond the access of tea garden workers. However, in North Bengal, even the vacant and unutilised land in most tea gardens is not made available for workers. The argument for the denial of land rights is that tea cultivation fields are government lands given in lease to the tea planters for a fixed number of years (Sharma, 1999), and hence, it cannot be given to the landless tea workers. Of course, being part of an organized sector like tea industry, tea garden workers have never been considered poor or brought under BPL category. Many tea gardens are endowed with rich vegetations, water bodies and other natural resources; they also are endowed with common resources such as, water, vested land, forest cover, sand, gravel, etc. Yet, the tea garden workers cannot claim rights over them; in extreme cases, some tea workers from closed/abandoned tea gardens have been witnessed to collect minor forest produce or dig out pebbles from the river bed to be sold for food. This has limited the possibility on the part of the womenfolk who are responsible for
But the combined powerful forces of planters and contractors have also ensured that the marginal tea garden communities do not have right over the ‘commons’ in and around tea gardens, such as forest resources and vested land or open access to sand, gravel or water from the rivers/ streams. However, the tea workers cannot claim rights over them. Normally, what the village-community can rightfully claim having common property rights in rural India (Berkes, 1998), is denied to the tea garden workers because they come under industrial workers category. The deprivation and denial from accessing these common resources have led to the reactionary measures taken by some workers of Gandrapara, New Glencoe and Dooteriah by encroaching forested land and recklessly quarrying rivers flowing through the garden areas. Paradoxically, the past history shows that colonial rulers, including tea planters ruthlessly exploited natural resources of the region, and timber, jute, tobacco, etc. were taken out as raw material without reinvestment. Today, different tea garden managements in the name of tea cultivation drive continue to marginalize the CPR land in the tea garden premises; thereby, denying the tea workers even community pasture and grazing ground.
Furthermore, the loss of forest cover in the tea garden vicinities has accentuated the livelihood insecurities of the tea garden women. The constructions of gender and gendered practices have been influenced by culture, political environment, legal and governance structures, markets, and religion. But across all cultures women have played the reproductive role and have handled household chores, whereas men have been handlers of productive activities like earning (Pandolfelli et. al. 2007). It is in this gendered role that forests come to play an important role in the lives of rural women, as they depend on forests to meet the needs of the household. Consequently, their dependence on forests is more than men.

A large-scale deforestation took place in the nineteenth century when many trees were cleared to begin tea cultivation in the Darjeeling Hills as well as plains of Terai and Dooars (O’Malley, 1907; Grunning, 1911). Researches by Ives and Messerli (1989), Sarkar and Lama (1986), Schikhoff (1995), provide evidence of problems caused by deforestation following tea cultivation and its expansion. These were manifested in the form of loss of biodiversity and wildlife, gradual drying up of springs/channels and problems of landslides/soil-erosion in the Himalayan and sub-Himalayan regions. In the subsequent years, as the population multiplied, competition for food, fuel and other resources intensified, causing local people to turn to destructive practices (Schickhoff, 1995; Kaniyal, 2003). This effect is felt even in tea garden regions although cleared forests were replaced by tea bushes, which, at least, continued to have some degree of soil stabilizing influence. Findings show that some tea gardens of all three regions witnessed two phases of deforestation, first in the mid-19th century, when forested areas were extensively cleared during the creation of tea plantations. Second, during the first half of the 20th Century, to meet the requirements of 1st and 2nd World Wars, plenty of forest trees were cut down, although the intensity of deforestation was higher at the time of the Second World War (Sarkar & Lama, 1986). Third episode of deforestation in tea gardens of all three tea regions followed the temporary closures (notable being the Gorkhaland Agitation that led to frequent garden lock-outs without any pay) beginning at fag end of the 20th Century, which still persist during political agitations in the Hills and the plains. During such situations, the out-of-work labourers are compelled to fell forest trees for selling timber and making charcoal to generate income and secure their livelihoods (Tirkey, 2005). The cumulative effect of these past and recent activities resulted in the loss of biodiversity, wildlife, and gradual decline of water table (Sarkar & Lama, 1986). The combination of tree logging and altering of land to suit tea cultivation has had negative effect on the shear strength and shear stress of the soil, causing imbalance of the land. In fact, the observations show that even in recent years, successive garden managements tend to convert the vacant and unutilized land, including forested and stream area into tea cultivation land. Every expansive measure for tea industry has led to the disappearance of tree cover and denudation of the area in the plantations. The loss of forest cover has had adverse effect on many resources, especially land and water that would provide alternative livelihood to the tea garden workers. Loss of forest meant loss of fodder and other products that were being used for livestock besides additional food stuffs for the local population. Loss of forest meant loss of medicinal plants and shrubs and other herbs due to denudation of fertile land that had worked as a source of local medicine as well as source of food. Loss of forest also meant that in the time of crises tea garden residents could not depend on forest to extract timber for sale and exchange them for food and money for managing households. Deforestation also resulted in gradual drying up of springs and streams that would have otherwise helped in crop cultivation and spawning of different fish species as source of food and income. Finally, the loss of forest cover also accentuated land-sliding and soil-erosion, thereby degrading the land. As a result, the possibility of household land being used for kitchen gardening to generate livelihood resources too got jeopardized, and the situation is continuously getting aggravated, thereby rendering it more difficult for the tea garden womenfolk to cope up with stresses and shocks emanating from livelihood failures.
What is evident from the above discussion is that the womenfolk in the North Bengal Tea Region have practically no access to the available ‘commons’ in the garden premises. But on the other hand, they being the custodians of household livelihood securities confront complex contours of insecurity to meet the daily requirements of their households. Their woes are compounded by the lack of education and capacity building and the consequent ‘ignorance’ in the ‘enclave economy’ of the tea gardens. This is revealed from the fact that education, which is one of the prime components of human capital that is essential to provide capabilities to individuals and households for securing better livelihood opportunities, is a good relatively unaccessed by the garden women. Without education or for lack of good education, human capabilities become stunted. Hence, the tea workers in general and the tea women in particular are most vulnerable to shocks and stresses like malnutrition, hunger, and diseases after the abandonment or closure of tea plantations on which their sole livelihoods depend. This owes primarily to the lack of education, training and skill development for the garden population in general and womenfolk in the garden in particular, to be able to secure alternative livelihoods. This calls for a necessity to reform the governance of tea commons.

The decision-making over natural resource allocation and management is the privilege of the state, although policies on areas like Joint Forest Management stress on community based management system justified on the grounds of local livelihoods, economic opportunity, and environmental sustainability. Yet, improving governance of commons requires much more than getting policies adopted and framing right regulations. It depends critically on the effective functioning of state agencies, alongside the private sector and civil society, to help translate policy goals into practice. Hence, effective and gender friendly governance reforms for governance of commons requires inclusive representation of affected groups, particularly the poor and vulnerable, in policy formulation and development planning at all levels; robust mechanisms of accountability to ensure that individuals and groups granted decision-making authority are held responsible for the public consequences of their choices and do not abuse their authority; and institutional capacity to enable public, private, and civil society actors to fulfill their roles effectively; to adapt to changing circumstances; and to negotiate implementation challenges as they emerge. Navigating the challenges of governance for common-pool resources requires action at several levels. It requires improvements in the more systemic attributes of governance—stakeholder representation, mechanisms of accountability, and institutional capacity—that influence the prospects for successful community-based resource management. Strengthening institutions to manage the commons is not simply a matter of removing state interference and letting local communities get by as they see fit. Progress in governance does, however, require a willingness to look beyond written policy, law, and regulation, to critically examine how power is exercised in practice and how such exercise of power impinges on access to commons or otherwise. Such reform of the governance of the commons throws possibilities of increased access to commons by the rural populace, including, as in the present context, the tea workers in general and the women in tea gardens in particular. However, it is quite unlikely that the reforms will take place without pressing for such reforms by the affected community.
The capacity to assert the right to access and to demand for a reform of the process of governance of commons is conditioned by the awareness and capacity of the affected community. Capacity and awareness, on the other hand, are conditioned by access to education and the possibility of formation of social capital and cultural capital. The majority of workers in the tea gardens of North Bengal, particularly in the Terai-Dooars regions belong to the Schedule Tribe and Schedule Caste communities who are already considered economically backward and socially marginalized in the society. These communities, during the focus group discussions have revealed that there are different socio-cultural organizations and majority of workers and their households are affiliated to one or the other local organizations. Socio-cultural organizations such as, Majdoor Kalyan and Samaj Sewa Samitee bring about better bonding among the tea workers of homogenous as well as heterogeneous ethnic groups. As one trade union leader from Belgachi tea garden affirmed,

“Tea garden community is a very harmonious community; despite coming from different ethnic and linguistic groups, we never have inter-social group fights or conflicts. Here all the workers live like brothers and sisters, participating in one another’s celebrations and funerals” (Personal Interview, January, 2010, Belgachi Tea Garden).

Nevertheless, the tea garden households lack strong socio-cultural capital, something that would enhance their livelihood prospects. These social organizations bring the workers together for social and cultural functions but do not have the wherewithal to enhance their social status or provide better livelihood security; these organizations are limited in their influence that they exert on the higher institutions. Therefore, though there is a good social bonding among workers and other garden residents within same garden, similar bonding and social affiliations do not exist among the inter-tea garden residents. Thus, due to lack of community and social bonding across gardens, ‘workers do not find a potent platform for addressing various grievances and issues’ (Public system management, 2010). Also, for lack of vertical (patron/client) connections and groups, the tea workers lack collective bargaining power and access to wider political and civic institutions (Dacholia et al, 2006). In other words, socio-cultural organizations, despite having large memberships, do not enjoy bargaining power in the wider institution. Lack of strong social networking and affiliation mean they have remained voiceless sufferers since the inception of tea industry in the region. The lack of strong social capital has had its historical background. In the typical Indian tea gardens, with “island” kind of social networks that always insulated the garden residents from other rural social groups, tea workers and their household members were compelled to have membership or social affiliation only among themselves (Bhadra, 1992). The tea workers, constituting chiefly of socially marginal and economically backward scheduled groups have been socially excluded by the mainstream society. One inherent social factor that has implicitly hindered in the extraction of benefits for their socio-economic betterment and livelihood promotion is the social exclusion that the scheduled groups have suffered besides their history of being descendent of indentured labourers (Public system management, 2010). Lack of strong socio-cultural capital among the tea garden workers can also be explained from the fact that the workers, especially of the scheduled groups, have been excluded from being part of the decision-making processes in the tea plantation system, and thus, they have remained at the mercy of other dominant groups. Thus, lack of or weak social capital has impeded access to and/or the sanctioned use of a number of other resources like healthcare, access to credit/insurance market and accessibility of land and CPRs (Reddy, 2009).

It is an acknowledged fact that smoothly-functioning commons go hand in hand with substantial reserves of social capital, but the ultimate test of that social capital is whether it can serve the community in a time of crisis. Studies among the village communities of Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh have shown that by strengthening their social capital in the form of community-based management of commons, they were able to access the use of forest and land that they were once were deprived of. Likewise, if the tea workers socio-cultural organizations become powerful they will be able to demand access to vested land, sand gravel from riverbed and other resources of open access and utilize them through community-based resource management. This has not been able to take place now and these CPRs in the vicinity of the tea gardens (especially sand and gravel from riverbed) have been controlled and appropriated by contractor guilds and the tea garden people have no right whatsoever over these resources. This failure to build strong socio cultural and political capital owes to the ‘enclave’ nature of the tea industry wherein there is a deliberate attempt on the part of the management to keep the workers at bay through active creation of ignorance. This can be evidenced from the absence of corporate social responsibility on the part of the industry, coupled with the reinforcement of the social evil of drinking to establish that tea garden families are addicted to liquor and do not think of future. To elucidate a little further, Shanon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (2007) have discussed at length the concept of ‘Ignorance’ and its socio-cultural, political and epistemological implications. Ignorance, in a common parlance, is often thought of a gap in knowledge. It is viewed as an epistemic oversight, seemingly accidental, or a consequence of the absence or scarcity of time and resources at the disposal of the human beings to investigate and comprehend their world. Although Sullivan and Tuana (ibid.) agree that such ignorance may exist, they point out the possibility of other varieties of ignorance: actively produced lack of knowledge or an unlearning for purposes of domination and exploitation. Such forms of ignorance may take different forms, viz. the centre refusing to allow the margins to know, or, centre’s ignorance deliberate constructions of its own ignorance of injustice, cruelty and suffering meted out to the margins. In the case of the North Bengal tea workers, the ‘enclave’ economy actively constructs ignorance—both refusing to allow the margins (the tea workers in general and the tea garden women in particular) to know (as evidenced from the absence of education and consequent absence of awareness among the workers) as well as the deliberate unknowing on the part of the industry of the pain and suffering of its workers (an attitude of indifference on the part of the management even at the hunger and starvation deaths of the workers). However, drawing from Foucauldian discourse theory’s curiosity as to how experience enters into, or is barred from entering into what counts as knowledge, while at the same time drawing upon other relevant competing and complementary perspectives for its frame of analysis, the study reveals that, the deprivation meted out to the workers in general and womenfolk in particular in North Bengal tea region, coupled with the simultaneously enabling and disabling ‘culturally embedded processes’ in the region have resulted in search for alternative roots of knowing (for instance, interrogating the enclosure and commoditization of commons as an issue of protest by AVP) via strengthening political capital and through the micropolitics of protest towards reconstructing the history that represents the oppressed, wherein the epistemology of the oppressed has attempted to reframe both analytical power and domination in knowledge process as a transcending domain of praxis. Thus, the North Bengal Tea Region is witnessing a series of struggles emanating as micro politics of the marginal communities, both in the hills of Darjeeling and plains of Terai and Dooars tea gardens, directed primarily towards the fulfillment of the livelihood security needs amidst the emergent brewing crisis.