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Gardens Clock In To Real Time

Tea garden turn into profit centres, losing the old would charm

Gardens Clock In To Real Time
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A manager of a tea garden must be a rather out of the ordinary sort of man. To be of any use, he must be of strict integrity; in order to gain the confidence of his employers, sober, businesslike; a good accountant; not easily ruffled; handy at carpenteering and engineering; know something about soil; have a smattering of information on all subjects; or to put it concisely, he must be a veritable Jack of all trades. - G.M. Barker in 1884

One hundred and thirteen years later, that wish-list may still hold true, but the 1990s Assam tea garden manager's lot is dramatically different from that of his predecessor from the Raj days or even the '60s. The sociopolitics of the North-east have changed radically in the last three decades, and that unique institution of the tea manager is being transformed. Call it evolution, call it the loss of a certain way of life. The boxwallah's existence has been turned upside down by economic liberalisation; the tea garden manager, as India has known him for one-and-a-half centuries, may not last into the 21st. And this, strangely enough, when a typical manager's day remains more or less the same as in 1838, the year The Assam Company, the world's first tea company, was born.

Murgi dak-the first crow of the rooster-begins the burra sahib's day at 6 am garden time (or 5 am standard, as a tea man is wont to say). Off to the factory, new halfway through its manufacturing shift which began at midnight. After inspecting the quality of tea, and giving instructions for despatch to various destinations, the sahib comes to his office, where a load of paperwork waits. Chhota sahibs in charge of different divisions, the burra mohuri-accountant-and sundry others have a bichar-the first consultation of the day-in the burra sahib's office about the day-to-day kamjari-tasks assigned to various people. The bichar is crucial; a garden's population of workers and their families can go up to seven or eight thousand.

One difference: the manager is no more a lone monarch, he's now far more accountable to both his employers and employees. Tarun Chandra Bordoloi manages the world's largest tea estate, Monabarie. "Earlier, all the manager had to do was to administer his estate properly." Says he. "He was rarely bothered about the high financial stakes involved in tea. Today, he has to keep an eye on the company's bottomline without compromising on the quality of the worker's welfare." The outside world too is fast closing on those endless acres. Says J.N. Goswami, general manager of Rossell Industries, which has eight big gardens in the sate: "Earlier, the top management was based abroad. Now the bosses are closer home, so there's much more pressure on the managers to perform."

"In the old days there were no extraneous pressures on a tea manager. But today, he has to deal with several pressure groups, all wanting a share in tea business," says P.R. Bhagat, who manages the Maijan estate. Inevitable, perhaps, since the economic environment is changing. The workers are more assertive and there is a generational change among the planters themselves.

Goswami has spent a quarter of a century in tea. He has seen the respect for the managers diminishing over the years. "It is not as if the average worker does not listen to his manager any more, but the lessening of the manager's importance in the social order has had a subtle impact on the way the worker treats his boss now," Goswal says. In other words, a tea estate manager no longer holds a position of prime importance-practically a regal one-in the area he is located. Today his hitherto pre-eminent position has been usurped by the local MLA or the government official. This has had an effect on his authority. Which in turn has had a tremendous impact on the Rs 2,000 crore, 150-year-old tea industry in the state.

The bichar over, the burra sahib just about manages to squeeze time in for a late breakfast around 10 am garden time. By the time he reaches the bungalow, the memsahib has laid out an elaborate breakfast. Some minutes spent playing with the pets, and off to the garden to inspect the plucking. As soon as the sahib's vehicle appears in the distance, the sardar barks instructions to his team of jungalis. As the shorts and T-shirt-clad sahib brakes, the sirdar is at hand to give him the latest progress report.

When three decades ago, the likes of Bhagat and Bordoloi entered the trade, the last of the British managers were still around. The tea manager worked hard and played hard Bhagat recalls: "In those days, once it was Friday, we looked forward to Saturday and after lunch we would just leave the garden. Some went off for a session of golf, some pursued big game, some stayed at the club, had a good drink. There used to be picture nights which inevitably turned into a dance and would run to Sunday dawn. Monday was, of course, referred to as 'Black Monday': everyone knew that the burra sahib was to be pagala (mad) on that day and so nobody came in front of him." And today? "The complete concept has changed. No one, least of all the manager, has that kind of leisurely time to imitate what the sahibs did in the good old days."

In any case, in the old days a tea garden was an island by itself. "We wee pretty much left alone. And we were certainly not envied but today we are an object of hatred among most people," Goswami laments. What he feels sad about is the 'misunder-standing' and 'misconceptions' that abound about the tea industry among the local people. "What the people don't seem to realise is that the industry takes care of close to 40 lakh people," he points out. The view is clearly not shared by the average Assamese and several pressure groups that dot the state. "Everyone thinks the tea industry is a milch cow, be it the state government, the local political leaders or student organisations," says a tea official.

The tea manager in the '90s has to deal with hundreds of demands, ranging from donations for local cultural functions to funding of a new construction in the vicinity. "Our predecessors did not have these problems," Says Bordoloi.

Lunch and an half-an-hour siesta at the bungalow, and the sahib is ready to make his afternoon round of the garden, the factory and these days even schools set up by the management for workers' children. Sunset is early in the state, so plucking stops at 6 pm garden time. The workers go home, but the sahib is in his office, planning the next day, getting accounts up to date and attending to workers' problems.

INEVITABLY, every militant group in the region, be it the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the Bodo Security Force (BDSF) or the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), has made the tea industry its main target since the late '80s. Between 1988 and now, about a dozen managers and officials have been kidnapped and freed for hefty ransoms. At least half-a-dozen have been killed. The spate of attacks has forced the Indian Tea Association to fund a special force called the Assam Tea Plantation Security Force.

Over 2,500 men of this force are currently deployed in 90 vulnerable gardens, mostly belonging to the bigger tea companies like Tata Tea, Williamson Magor and Goodricke. These armed personnel, 20 to a garden, guard senior managers and factories. And most gardens today have barricades and check gates throughout the estates.

There are other factors too. As Pradeep Bhattacharjee, Assam branch secretary of the Indian Tea Association, an influential position in the state's tea industry, says: "Assam tea is witnessing a generation change. The new entrants are perhaps less passionate about their jobs than their predecessors." His explanation: "Just before the British planters left, they had ensured that young, enterprising boys of the erstwhile royal families or at least those who had a public school background were recruited as their assistants. Consequently, these boys came here, got themselves involved fully with the jobs and went home once a year. There was no question of any casual leave or sick leave for them." Bhagat is a Doon Schooler who came into the by choice; while Bordoloi is an electrical engineer by training (he worked with Siemens before joining tea).

Today, with more and more local Assamese boys and girls 'manning' the middlelevel management (mostly as welfare officers), the blood is distinctly less azure. And there's a shakeout in the caste system. Even the workers now have their own clubs, in imitation of the sahibs. "Most of them have their relatives in the vicinity, so they either have to visit them on weekends or the relatives come over. As a result, the total involvement of yore is missing," says a veteran. Adds Bhagat: "Today's generation is much more careful about the way it spends its money. In our days, we spent 90 per cent of our salary in the club. Today, an assistant manager will spend the major part of his salary in acquiring material things, which is not necessarily a had thing. But we were carefree and much more involved in our younger days."

Back home, it's time for a quick drink, by himself or with the occupant of the guest room, the faltu kara, usually a visitor from the company headquarters, or a civil servant. Or it's off to club. An early dinner and the sahib is about to retire for the day when a jungali comes running, asking for help to transport a patient to the garden hospital. The sahib gets his jeep out. By the time he is back, he has just three to four hours to catch up on some sleep before the next murgi dak.

In earlier times, the tea crowd could afford to be carefree. But with the tea estate today carefree. But with the tea estate today considered a profit centre and no longer the regal centre of a dated lifestyle, every manager has to find ways to minimise expenses and maximise productivity. Which is easier said than done. As Goswami says: "In the old days, we came into tea looking at it not as a job, but as a way of life." But that life has suddenly become tougher, a totally different cup of tea.

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