Tainted Tea

 
    • “Estate” maybe just a word, and yet words have their own tales. Picturesque green fields, healthy livestock grazing, and that grand mansion, are all etched in the popular archetype. Yet, there are tales of lives which have remained in shadow, in the tea estates of Assam in India or Sylhet and Habiganj in Bangladesh. They are the tales of cornered lives, poverty and chained hope.

      A walk through on one of the winding, narrow paths of Rema Tea Estate, in the hilly district of Habiganj takes me to a crossroad. A group of women emerge from the dark green tea plantations, wiping the sweat on their faces with their saris. Men don’t do any picking, they do the rest of the works; cutting plants or weeds in the long journey from the tea plants to a simple cup of tea. They carry the water that the women will drink during breaks in between the day-long picking. A days picking will earn Taka 27 (0.38 USD). They can feed their family with this. Rice is the staple food, which just shot from Taka 12 per kilogram to Taka 18 in May this year (2005).

      Bindia, Nunia, or Alomuni all the women, who had gathered at that crossroad to quench their thirst, and the men, are descendants of tribes who had come nearly a century ago from impoverished areas as far flung as the North of India, with a promise of their own land or good paying work. What they didn’t know was that they were nothing more than bonded slaves, under a system called Girmit, which they are still serving today. Not in name anymore, the practices havent changed. Its like the tea estates are not a part of any sovereign land, no relation in real-time with laws and practices of any land, but each a separate state within a state still carrying the norms and hierarchies of centuries gone by. Like the Rema Tea Estate; one of three areas where my work is concentrated; the other two are Kapai Garden of Lashkarpur Tea Estate and Ratna Tea Estate, dotted across the vast plains of the greater Sylhet division of Bangladesh. Such establishments are reminiscent of the colonial legacy of emperors, their subjects and empires. They carry not just the idea of estate the most classical expression of a segregated, class-defined society for centuries but a new set of tools for exploitation. A new reality, no less harsher but more chronic and cornered! The Tea Board shows 41,414 women, 39,687 men and 9,715 teenagers as registered tea workers. In addition, tea estates have manipulated the provision of employing workers below the age of 18, manifesting into thousands of children (nearly 7,000) being employed for wages even lower than the meager minimum wage. But to the rest of the world, and to the state, they have no names. They are just ‘tea garden workers’.

      Sabitri is a fourth generation tea worker. She lives with the 10 members of her family in their 10 by 6 feet mud hut. Sabitri, barely in her twenties, has been bedridden for nearly eight months now. Her father stares blankly at me, as he sits beside Sabitris thinning frame, failing to explain what illness she has. All he knows is that her daughter has 'Bimar', the local name for all diseases. By now, he knows that the 'lal pani' (red water) given by the estates appointed doctor for all illnesses will not cure Sabitri. Eight months of no work has had its toll on the family - no work means no money.

      Despite this poverty, the tea estate itself maintains a small brewery to provide the workers cheap, crude liquor. At the end of the day, men and women, stuffed with the low-priced rice, spend the rest of the Taka 27 daily wage on this liquor. For the next few hours, as I see them singing and dancing on the porches of their homes, they dream to live lives worthy of kings and queens. They sing of a fantastic land, they beckon a 'pori', a fairy, to take them away to that faraway mountain where they came from. In their songs and dances, they wish to go back to the land of their forefathers. This has been going on for generations. Most tea gardens have no school, and even those who manage to break the cycle and become educated, are never allowed to work in any administrative job of the estate. As a father and his daughter were walking home under the dying light of the afternoon, I thought of an endless path generations shackled within a vicious cycle of oppression.

      Green hills, women in colourful saris, picking tea leaves and throwing them into the tukri (basket) on their back, these images we are shown. A picture perfect tale of harmony and prosperity, as portrayed by many tea companies, is a cover for modern day slavery.

      Sunday morning. I see Alomuni, barely in her teens, carrying the sack of tea leaves, much heavier than the school books she will never carry. I see Nunia, with her irritated look while picking leaves, as my face wears the worry about insect bites. Yet I see, Bondhon building a new house for the family. I see a hope, in their gaze over the mountains, a dream of the Promised Land. They have remained forgotten.

      Text by Mahfuz Sadiqe

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Champa is with her favorite pet , Mynah bird, in the yard adjacent to her house. Surrounded by her son, the rain drenched hills and the sky over the Kapai Garden of Lashkarpur Estate, it seems like Shangri-La. July 1, 2005. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

Workers carrying heavy loads of plucked tea leaves, are leaving the tea garden in the evening. Sylhet, Bangladesh. June 30, 2005. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

Women are drinking water to quench their thirst in between pickings at the Kapai Garden under Lashkarpur Tea Estate. The men had carried the water. Sylhet, Bangladesh. July 1, 2005. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

Niranjan and his granddaughter walk home under the dying light of the afternoon. It was talabbar (payday), and with a sack of wheat resting on his head, three generations of Kapai Garden are returning home. And yet, the path seems endless. Sylhet, Bangladesh. June 30, 2005. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

A marriage ceremony taking place in a tea garden. The ceremony ends with the lighting of a prodip (an oil lamp). Sylhet, Bangladesh. July 1, 2005. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

Its lunchtime at Kapai Tea Garden under Lashkarpur Estate. The lunch, a paste made from dry tea leaves, chili, and a pinch of salt. Crouched inside the thukris (baskets) used for picking leaves, the women are having lunch. This particular paste is the best way to fulfill hunger, and yet not feel drowsy. Because there is more work to do. Sylhet, Bangladesh. September 28, 2006. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

He lost one of his legs in an accident 2 years ago while working in the factory. Now he is a gate keeper of the garden. When I went there, and told him that I want to talk to him, he was very afraid because if the manager came to know he was talking about his accident and his problems, he would lose his job. Sylhet, Bangladesh. September 29, 2006. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

Through generations and family tradition Salam Mia is the chef to the manager. He drinks only a glass of water in seheri (late night dinner for fasting) for Ramadan. In tea garden Muslim is least marginal community. Sylhet, Bangladesh. September 28, 2006. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

This is the dance of 'holi', the festival of color. People are dancing a special dance with bamboo sticks. One of the men is dressed like a woman in order to play an important religious role. But this time the festival of color lacks color, because the price of rice is up from 12 taka to 20 taka. Sylhet, Bangladesh. March 15, 2006. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

Hiralal Sandi, a tea garden worker, was badly injured in the 1971 war. His two legs were blown away by the mine laid down by the Pakistani soldiers. Still today he animatedly narrates the story of how they fought the '71 war with courage. Sylhet, Bangladesh. June 30, 2006. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

After burying her husband, the widow and her train of mourners have to traverse and circle the whole tea garden. In the end, they must take a bath as part of the burial ceremony's ritual. Barely conscious, the grieving young widow is hardly capable of standing upright let alone walk around the entire garden. Sylhet, Bangladesh. September 28, 2006. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.

The master of the whole regime, the manager, with his symbolic (power) bike. Sylhet, Bangladesh. September 30, 2006. One of a set of images from the photo story, Tainted Tea, by Munem Wasif.