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Join the tea party
An estate in Darjeeling is paving the way for workers to take over the garden's management, and the plan makes economic sense.
Forget the fact that this is the oldest tea garden in India. Or that it holds the enviable record for its tea fetching the highest ever price at an auction. What makes Makaibari Tea Estate, spread over 1, 674 sylvan acres straddling six ridges of Darjeeling hills, stand out from the rest of its peers is the sea of happy faces that inhabit it. Makaibari's 636 workers and their families are a fortunate lot because a few years down the line, they will graduate from being mere workers to owners! Collective and proud owners of the 152-yearold estate, no less. What's more, this bonanza will be theirs without their ever asking for it;the entire plan is Makaibari owner Swaraj Kumar Banerjee's brainchild.
Banerjee, popularly known as Rajah, set his plan rolling way back in 1994 when he 'godfathered' the formation of residents' bodies in each of the seven workers' villages located within the tea estate. These elected bodies, known as 'gaon samaj', send two representatives each to an apex body, called the 'joint body', that oversees vital aspects of the functioning of the garden, including workers' welfare. The joint body, which also has representatives of the office staff and management, provides loans to workers and their families to start small business ventures. The loans are given out from a corpus built up with micro savings of the workers and a generous contribution by Banerjee. "Getting the workers living in the villages to form their own elected bodies and then hand-holding them to shoulder small responsibilities was the first step towards my ultimate goal of empowering the workers. I slowly started delegating greater responsibilities to the joint body since the workers will eventually have to take charge of the garden and their own destinies, " Banerjee told TOI-Crest.
Banerjee's desire to transfer ownership of the garden to workers is based on sound logic and economics. A visit to some tea gardens in the Mechi area of Nepal adjoining Darjeeling district opened his eyes to the future. "The yield from the small, family-owned gardens in Mechi is much higher than our gardens and the quality of the leaf is also much better. I realised that was because the owners pay individual and close attention to their gardens and that is impossible to do for an owner of a large garden. Handcrafted tea will emerge as a highly profitable segment in the near future and small gardens will be at a huge advantage over big gardens in producing such tea. Hence, the future of Darjeeling tea, which is in itself a specialised tea, lies in small, individually-owned gardens like in China that produces very high quality and expensive hand-crafted or specialised tea from its small tea gardens, " said Banerjee. Makaibari is mastering the art of handcrafted tea, including green and white tea. "The 550 acres - of Makaibari's 1, 674 acres, tea is planted only in 550 acres and the rest is dense forest - will be leased out to workers' cooperatives and maybe even individual workers who exhibit competence in growing tea. I'll retain the factory and manufacturing process and will buy the entire green leaf produced in the garden from the workers or their cooperatives to make specialty tea, " he said.
But it isn't only the prospect of becoming owners of the estate they now work on that makes Makaibari's workers a contented lot. Banerjee has, since 1994, initiated a plethora of welfare measures that have enriched the workers and their families, educated them and turned many of them into small entrepreneurs. "The first thing I did was to empower the womenfolk in the seven villages. I gave women loans to purchase cows. The sale of milk fetched them some money. I showed them how to use the manure to generate gas for use in the kitchen and gave loans again for gobar gas plants. Young boys from the villages were encouraged to form cooperatives - there are about 20 of them now - that make bio-dynamic compost from cow manure. These boys are engaged to spray the compost in the garden and they are paid handsomely, " said Banerjee.
Banerjee gave out loans to young men, all from families of Makaibari's workers, to set up cable TV distribution networks, buy vehicles to ply as taxis and set up greenhouses to grow vegetables and orchids, and has even implemented rainwater harvesting schemes. One of the most successful of Makaibari's ventures is the homestays run by families there. While loans were given out to individual families to construct additional rooms and other facilities for guests, the womenfolk of such families were provided training in housekeeping and cooking. A committee of local young men, Volunteers In Makaibari, allots guests to these homestays and retains a small portion of the room charges from guests to add to its kitty from which loans are now given out to start more such ventures. "At present, 25 families offer homestay facilities and their economic condition has improved dramatically. Some others are also in the pipeline, " Nayan Lama, who is on the committee that manages the homestays, told TOI-Crest.
Banerjee has outsourced many of its requirements to workers' cooperatives. The attractive paper bags used to pack Makaibari's premium teas are, for instance, made by a group of 10 women with a special variety of grass that they process and make into paper. "We were trained by an NGO engaged by the garden management to turn out paper from the grass and then make them into bags. I have bought a TV and refrigerator and funded my son's college education with the money I earned from this venture over the past few years, " Bimala Chettri, a member of Prayatna, the cooperative, told TOI-Crest. Makaibari is also a member of the Fair Trade Labelling Organisation that allows it to get a premium on its tea from its customers. "This money goes to the joint body's corpus to fund welfare measures and give out loans, " said Tripti Kumari, a member of the joint body. The joint body runs a computer training centre and a library, a free creche, gives out interest free education loans, and conducts various other welfare activities, all of which go to make the Makaibari 'family-member', as Banerjee puts it, a happy one. "Makaibari's soil, people and ambience are healthy and happy, and so the tea we produce is of such high quality, " boasts Banerjee. And that's no empty boast, as the discerning fans of the Makaibari brew from around the world would tell you.
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