Economic crisis has pushed Indian tea workers to seek employment outside the plantations, forcing them to re-engage with the caste hierarchy from which their ancestors attempted to escape.
Tea plantation workers are one of the most stigmatised and marginalised communities in India. While the majority of workers on the plantations in the northeast were originally brought from Bihar, Orissa and Nepal, it was Tamil-speaking Dalits (so-called untouchables/outcasts) who constitute majority of the labour force in Kerala, south India. Their outcast social status has combined with their identities as manual labourers—also known as Tamil coolies—to perpetuate their economic underdevelopment and social marginality. Although Kerala has undertaken many reforms to address marginalised populations, those who entered into the indentured plantation labour system have remained excluded and marginalised from Indian society as a whole.
On plantations themselves, however, the picture is more complicated. Until recently, plantations operated as semi-autonomous socio-economic systems that were largely separate from the wider economic and cultural contexts in which they operated. This isolation afforded tea workers some protection from direct, daily exposure to stigma and discrimination on the basis of caste. Plantation workers, after years of struggle, were even provided with certain welfare measures such as housing and healthcare. Such privileges are not enjoyed by informal sector workers, even those who belong to less stigmatised and excluded groups, and access to these rights gave tea workers a sense of worth within the plantation system.
Caste and crisis: isolated no more
Indian tea production has been in severe crisis since mid nineties largely due to neo-liberal structural adjustments in the Indian economy. The size of the tea industry, which is second only to China and accounts for 25 percent of global tea production, has made this a huge blow to the country’s agrarian economy. The industry employs 1.26 million people on tea plantations and two million additional people indirectly. As such, the economic crisis has had an enormous impact on the lives of local residents. In Kerala where I have been conducting research, there have been eight cases of suicide and twelve deaths due to starvation on tea plantations since 2001. Along with utter poverty and famine, tea plantation workers have faced increasingly unhygienic work environments, shattered social life/community relations, and withdrawal of the welfare measures previously enjoyed.
The crisis punctured the isolated environments of the plantations and precipitated neoliberal reforms that closed down production in many areas either partially or completely. While many families remained on the plantations, large numbers of workers who had lived there for more than five generations were now compelled to seek work outside. Some went with their families to either their ancestral villages or regional industrial townships such as Coimbatore and Tirupur in Tamil Nadu.
These plantation workers have now joined the ranks of the massive Dalit workforce powering India’s unorganised and informal sectors. In joining that pool of workers, Tamil Dalit labourers are exposed to aspects of a caste-ridden society from which they had previously been shielded. The situation of Saraswathi, a female retired worker in her early sixties, illustrates the dilemma and struggles of the workers who moved out the plantations.
Saraswathi moved to her ancestral village in southern Tamil Nadu in the wake of the crisis. In the village, the ‘untouchable’ Dalits do not have the right to sit inside the teashop and drink tea nor do they have the right to drink tea in a glass cup (kuppi glass). The Dalits have to stand outside the teashop and have to drink either from a coconut shell or a steel cup depending upon the availability. Having always lived on a plantation where job title rather than caste identity was more significant in shaping social relations, Saraswathi and her family were not used to these explicit everyday forms of untouchability rooted in the ritual aspects of the caste system. They had grown up enjoying the relatively egalitarian social relations that existed on plantations, where the caste status did not necessarily yield more power to the higher castes. The caste humiliation they experienced in Kallupetti was thus intense. In other words, the economic crisis and the consequent denial of livelihood forced the plantation Tamil Dalits to return to the caste atrocities from which their forebears had escaped by migrating to the plantations.
Saraswathi couldn’t conceal her caste identity in the village where everybody knows each other. For Gokul, a 27-year-old tea plantation worker who migrated to the bustling city of Chennai, the story has been different. Gokul found a job in the biggest retail shop in Chennai as a sales boy in the bags section. To do this Gokul disguised his caste, introducing himself as a Christian and refusing to answer any questions that would reveal his real caste identity. Since Gokul presented himself as a Christian, the owner of the shop might have thought that he was from Nadar caste (there is a significant percentage of Christians among the Kerala Nadars, unlike their counterparts in Tamil Nadu). Gokul reported that the owner and other staff in the shop always spoke highly of their own caste yet used degrading racial slurs against the other lower castes in Gokul’s presence, as if Gokul shared such attitudes. His projection of an alternative identity to hide his Dalit identity, as I understood from observing and talking to him, was necessary for him to avoid what he said were “certain unnecessary experiences in the workplace”.
The urban migration of youth can be seen as a step towards upward social mobility. However migration and settlement can, at the same time, reassert a stigmatised identity and thwart ambitions of social advancement. Using other identities as a mask (as a way to “pass” in Gokul’s words) echoes the situation of blacks in colonial-racial contexts, discussed by Frantz Fanon in Black Skins, White Masks. Fanon proposed a radical denial of oneself (self-alienation) as a way to escape racial discrimination and oppression. In the Indian context, the plantation Dalits are forced to become other than themselves in order to make their way through the system. For tea workers, caste—both as an identity and as a relational organising principle—has been revitalised by processes of neoliberal economic reform.