War and Tea

British colonials first planted tea in India nearly two centuries ago. Plantations were carved out of hillsides, grand homes were built. Now the industry—second only to China’s in size—has fallen on rough times, and once-profitable plantations are closing, an AP article reports.

On one side are corporations that maximize profits through enormous scale, with dozens of estates and tens of thousands of workers. On the other side are the growing number of micro-producers, many with just a couple acres of land, that are increasingly powerful in the market. All are competing in a market where prices have fallen 30 percent in just a decade.

Not only is Indian tea facing competition from cheaper products from Kenya and Vietnam, but there’s war as well. The revolt of the United Liberation Front of Asom makes life and business even more difficult, with some plantation owners being held by the revolutionaries for ransom. This combination of factors has led to a number of plantations being shut down.

When tea plantations close — and 33 are shut across India now, leaving thousands unemployed — the workers lose everything: homes, communities, schools. By some estimates, hundreds of tea workers have died from diseases linked to malnutrition over the past year after plantation closings.

And yet, there are those who are not willing to give up a life they love, despite the challenges.

‘For me, looking after the garden is a great joy,’ said D.N. Boruah, a planter whose family has been growing tea for nearly a century. ‘I may not be earning anything — I’ll tell you that — but the joy is to be involved.’

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