Essay on Cooperatives in ‘Tea Plantations’ in India!
The tea plantation industry in India is one of the largest employers in the organised manufacturing sector.
Tea plantations employ around a million permanent workers and around half that number as casual labour. A little more than half the workers are women.
Being in the organised sector, workers in this industry have permanent employment and are covered by the relevant protective legislation.
At the same time, their relative isolation within the plantations, their low levels of literacy and the low wages paid contribute towards making these workers the less developed section of the organised industrial labour force. Yet we find that the most successful attempts at workers’ control are found in this industry. These cooperatives provide interesting cases of how workers who may not be as developed as other sections of the working class are able to manage their organisations successfully.
The Saongaon Tea and Allied Plantation Workers’ Co-operative Society in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal is the first workers’ cooperative in tea in the country. It was formed in September 1974 and comprises workers of Sonali Tea Estate who number about 500. The plantation has 500 acres under tea cultivation. It had been running at a loss for several years and its owners had closed it prior to the takeover by the cooperative.
The board of directors had passed a resolution soon after the closure handing over ownership of the plantation to its workers along with all liabilities. Though no deed for transfer was executed, the cooperative was registered on the basis of the intention expressed in the resolution.
The cooperative managed the plantation till 1979 during which time the plantation witnessed unprecedented developments. Inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides were increased and the workers took greater care in maintaining the tea bushes. The area under tea was increased by 10 acres in 1976 which cost the cooperative Rs 40,000.
These steps helped in increasing production. The plantation’s average yield used to be 850,000 kg green tea leaves and its highest recorded yield prior to the takeover was 900,000 kg. The cooperative achieved this yield in 1977 and in the following year it recorded a yield of 1,043,000 kg.
It should be noted that unlike other new cooperatives Saongaon received no loans grants or subsidies from any quarter and all the above-mentioned development activities were carried out from the cooperative’s income from sale of green tea leaves. At the same time it was able to accumulate savings of Rs 700,000, purchase a diesel jeep and a tractor, and build a warehouse on its premises.
An unfortunate feature of this venture was that despite its impressive record the cooperative did not get any support from the Left Front government in the state of West Bengal when it came to power in 1977. In fact, in 1978 the cooperative had to stop its activities because of an interim order from a lower court as there was a petition by one claiming to be the new owner of the plantation.
This case continued till 1998 when the Supreme Court finally disposed of the matter. Though the so- called owner was evicted, the cooperative was unable to take control as the state government had temporarily taken over the management through one of its corporations.
Tea is the only organised industry in the state of Tripura in northeast India and is important for the state’s economy. Unfortunately, the industry has been in financial doldrums for long as the productivity of the plantations was low primarily due to bad management. When the Left Front government was voted to power in the state in 1978 with a huge majority it was faced with a number of closed tea plantations.
The government was not in a position to take over these plantations as it did not have the necessary finances to do so. It therefore opted for workers’ takeover instead. The idea for this came from Bhakta Bhattacharya, the general secretary of the Tripura Tea Workers’ Union. He started the first cooperative in December 1979 called Tea Plantation Workers’ Cooperative Society which set up a new tea plantation called Tachai in North Tripura district. Its members were retrenched workers from the region.
After its establishment, Bhattacharya convinced the state government that some of the closed tea plantations could be revived through workers’ takeover. The government decided in 1980 to allow workers of three tea plantations which were closed for over two years to take over their respective plantations after forming cooperatives. These were Durgabari in West Tripura district, and Ludua and Lilagarh in South Tripura district.
In 1983, another tea plantation, Darangdilla in North Tripura district, was taken over by its workers, and in 1986, four more plantations were taken over by their workers. All these plantations, with the exception of Tachai, had been abandoned by their owners and were in a shambles at the time of takeover.
All these cooperatives required financial assistance in the form of loans and subsidies for their survival. Their output was initially low and investments were needed for their revival. An unfortunate development was that when the Left Front lost to the Congress in the state elections in 1988 and a new government was formed, financial assistance to the cooperatives stopped because they were viewed as creations of the previous government.
As a result, the four cooperatives set up in 1986 had to close down, as they had no resources left, but five other cooperatives started between 1979 and 1983 were in a better financial position and they were able to continue their activities despite the financial stringency, having become economically viable within five years of their existence. This is remarkable considering that three of these (Durgabari, Ludua and Lilagarh) were closed for more than two years prior to their takeover and the fourth (Darangdilla) was running at losses since 1973.
These cooperatives were running at moderate profits even after repaying their loans. Their success in terms of increase in financial independence and production is noteworthy when one takes into account the condition of the tea industry in the state. These cooperatives showed that workers’ initiatives can help in reviving sick and closed units despite financial hardships.
An underlying feature in all these cooperatives is that their unions at the unit level backed the workers in their efforts. It was the unions which mooted the idea of forming cooperatives in order to take over production. The unions in the plantations in Tripura were affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), allied to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), and the union at Sonali Tea Estate was affiliated to All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) which has links with the Communist Party of India.
After the cooperatives were formed, the union leaders helped and guided the workers in their efforts. A significant fact was that the level of participation of the general workers in the functioning of their units was high and efforts were made by their leaders to ensure this. The cooperatives in Tripura were comparatively small in size as the number of their workers varied from 100 to 150.
Each cooperative had a managing committee comprising seven or nine members who were selected from among the general body of members. The local trade union leader acted as secretary of this committee, and all decisions relating to the functioning of the plantations were taken by these committees. Besides, the local leaders held regular discussions with the workers regarding the financial and production aspects of their plantations.
Their opinions were sought when important issues such as new schemes of finance or production were to be implemented.
The experiences of these cooperatives demonstrate in a striking manner that even illiterate and less-developed sections of the working class are capable of managing their own affairs when they are given the opportunity and the encouragement. Indeed, workers, for whom servility and submission to the management’s authority had almost become a way of life, have been able to manage their plantations more efficiently than most professional managers.
It may be recalled that the sickness of these plantations can be traced to professional management. It is ironic that the setback of the Saongaon cooperative (Sonali) was the precursor to its success. Had it not failed, the so-called owners would not have made a bid to displace it.