Leopards, elephants and cobras... the perils of picking tea

Tea plantation workers in India face poverty—and dangers

By Paul Salopek
photographs by Paul Salopek
Published 31 Aug 2019, 08:21 BST
On tea plantations in West Bengal, women tea pickers are often preferred because of their reliability ...
On tea plantations in West Bengal, women tea pickers are often preferred because of their reliability and care when selecting leaves.
Photograph by Paul Salopek
Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from India.

We walked into West Bengal, and it was like strolling into a deer park.

Tea bushes stretched like topiary for miles, the tough, leathery plants trimmed into neat rows called melas that grew under the shade of scattered trees. The Himalayas rose glass-blue above the northern horizon, a darker shard of sky. India is the world’s second-largest tea producer, after China, and its Assam and Darjeeling teas are famous. (Watch how tea is produced on a plantation in West Bengal.)

Thousands of tea pickers toiled on the remote plantations. Many were indigenous Adivasi women, the descendants of bonded labourers who were relocated to the region from elsewhere in India more than a century ago by the colonial British. Plantation owners preferred hiring women because of their reliability and purported superior 'feel' for plucking tea leaves. The women waded through the waist-high tea bushes, armoured in aprons and gloves against the stiff, sharp branches. They lived with their families in shacks without plumbing. The nearest decent hospital was a four-hour bus ride away. They earned poverty wages—the equivalent of little more than £2 a day.

“The wage is low, but what else can we do?” said Lalita, a 40-year-old picker at the Looksun Estate, who uses only one name. “We have to survive.” She said leopards often prowled the tea gardens and had to be scared away with firecrackers. Wild elephants stampeded through in June and July. Cobras surfaced from their holes during the monsoon. “They don’t do anything to us, we don’t do anything to them,” she said. “And then they go back home.”

The Communist Party of India had planted its hammer and sickle flag at the tea estate entrance. Its cadre was agitating for a daily wage hike of 50 rupees: about 65 pence. The plantation’s supervisor, a melancholic man sitting in the estate’s archaic tea factory, said it would never happen.

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.

Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.

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