"It is time for tea garden management to come out of the colonial mindset and empower the workers.”
Numerous reports in the past year have narrated heartrending stories of plantation workers suffering exploitation at the hands of tea estate owners and dying of malnutrition in Assam and north Bengal.
In the midst of all this sorrow, comes a story of the iconic Makaibari tea estate in the Darjeeling hills, where workers will soon own 12% of the firm (Makaibari Tea and Trading Company) that runs the plantation.
How is this all going to happen?
Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, whose family has owned and operated the tea estate since 1859, announced to worker representative groups that he would “gift” them his 12% stake in the Makaibari Tea and Trading Company (MTCC) two weeks after he decided to give up its ownership, reports Hindustan Times.
His decision to quit the tea estate entirely comes one year after a massive fire burned down his family bungalow. Banerjee sold the majority stake in MTTC to a Kolkata-based firm called Luxmi Group in 2014, but he held onto 12% of its share.
“It is time for tea garden management to come out of the colonial mindset and empower the workers,” he told Hindustan Times. Although no figures of how much the 12% share actually entails in monetary terms were forthcoming, Banerjee announced that his share will go to two major worker committees representing them on the estate.
“These committees have done a tremendous job for years and I would hand over my shares on the first day of the Bengali New Year (April 15),” said Banerjee, also known as Rajah, to the publication. However, the workers are still sifting through the details of this deal.
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Tea grown at the Makaibari estate is often known as the best representative of what we popularly know as Darjeeling Tea. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gifted Queen Elizabeth a box of Makaibari Tea during his visit to Buckingham Palace in 2016.
Spread over 1573 acres, and employing over 600 workers, the estate produces approximately 100,000 kg of tea a year. Mind you, all the tea grown on the plantation is organic, something which Banerjee initiated in 1988. It’s of such high quality that Makaibari’s Silver Tips Imperial went for Rs 1.17 lakh per kg in 2014.
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Quitting the estate, however, does not mean that Banerjee is getting out of the tea business entirely. With 40,000 small tea growers in North Bengal, he is looking to establish a herbal tea venture, according to the publication.
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)