Tea Gardens and Geographies of Colonial Exploitation

People carrying packs on their backs walk on a paved road through a tea planation.

Plantation systems originated as products of colonialism in the sixteenth century. The spread of capitalism fundamentally altered the socio-ecological set-up of colonies as imperialist countries began to extend their control over the inhabitants and the natural resources of these regions and exploited them for their own economic advancement. Plantations provided raw materials—natural resources, land, and colonial markets—that fueled industrialization in European nations while colonies themselves became impoverished. A good example of this can be found in the tea plantations of West Bengal in India under British colonial rule.

The British first arrived in India during the early 1600s as traders in quest of spices. The British trading organization, the East India Company, soon spread its units all over the country and by the mid-eighteenth century, it had overpowered all other European trading houses to emerge as the dominant foreign influence in India. By 1757, trade remained no longer the sole motive of the East India Company and it gradually began to control the country’s internal politics. The official takeover of India by the United Kingdom happened about 100 years later after the First War of Independence (or Sepoy Mutiny of 1857), which was the first organized attempt at a large-scale uprising against the East India Company by Indigenous Indians. The company was dissolved in 1858, and India became a sanctioned colony of the British. It was in this period that the plantation economy began to thrive under the British administrators. The history of colonial plantations in India promulgated momentous exploitation and environmental destruction. The historical evolution of tea plantations in the northern districts of West Bengal elucidates the impacts of western capitalism on the regional ecology and society.

Tea garden in the Darjeeling district, West Bengal. Photo by Shahnoor Habib Munmun, 2010.

Tea gardens in northern West Bengal began with the establishment of the Alubari Tea Garden of Darjeeling district in 1856. Many tea plantations also flourished in the adjoining Dooars (Himalayan foothills and rolling plains) after 1865 when the British imperialists seized the region from the King of Bhutan in the Anglo-Bhutan war. The colonial planters chose these locations for tea cultivation because the regional environmental conditions such as low temperatures, moderate to high annual rainfall, loamy soils, and rolling terrain were conducive for the crop. The vast expanses of lands needed to establish plantation estates necessitated extensive deforestation of the Darjeeling Himalayas as well as the forests of the Dooars. In addition to disrupting the regional ecological balance, this large-scale deforestation also impacted the forest-dependent regional Indigenous tribes such as the Lepcha, Rabha, and Mech who were accustomed to hunting-gathering and shifting cultivation for their livelihoods. Moreover, tribal lands were turned into state property and subject to taxes.

The emergence of plantations led to the immigration of primarily Nepali people into the Darjeeling district, and Nepali as well as tribal (Oraon, Santhal, and Munda) communities into the Dooars, to work as laborers in the tea estates. Indigenous communities in the region approved neither of the establishment of plantations nor the resettlement of immigrants by the imperialist planters in the service of progressive destruction of their cherished forests. The steady rise in population due to such migrations led to increased competition over the already dwindling resources of these areas. The British government acquired lands forcibly from Indigenous communities to set up tea estates and resettle immigrants on them permanently. The new settlers took to plough cultivation in the Dooars after being encouraged by British administrators, further augmenting deforestation in the region.

The imposition of a colonial plantation economy built the foundation for the current socio-economic imbalance in the region.

The sedentary agriculture of the migrant communities resulted in the gradual decline of the Native tribal economy which had been primarily dependent on shifting agriculture, and these Indigenous groups were increasingly marginalized in the regional society. They still practiced limited shifting cultivation, but it was no longer adequate to meet their needs because several parts of the forests had been declared as protected territories by the colonial administrators. In 1865, a Forest Act was drafted which increased state control over forests. The act of 1878 abolished the customary rights of common people in forests that had been declared as “reserved.” The Indian Forest Act of 1927 drastically curtailed the customary rights on forest use and restricted shifting cultivation practices. The introduction of plantation economy by the British essentially disrupted the livelihoods of the Indigenous populations along with obliterating their inherited rights over the regional forest resources. With the continuous flow of immigrant laborers, these tribes became marginalized not only economically but also culturally and were compelled to adapt to a sedentary way of life against their will.

North Bengal witnessed steady growth in areas under tea plantation at the further expense of forest and cultivable lands during the latter half of the nineteenth and early phases of the twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, the global depression of the 1930s adversely affected the tea industry and triggered considerable unemployment when hundreds of plantation workers were fired. On several occasions, these evicted laborers moved to nearby forested areas and adopted traditional shifting cultivation practices. This only served to widen the rift between them and the Native forest-dependent communities, who became uncomfortable at this intrusion. After World War II, the tea industry received considerable attention from the independent Indian government since it was an important source of increasing revenues from international trade. This resulted in an increase of plantations. Consequently, over the course of the twentieth century, tea gardens expanded all over the Darjeeling Himalayas and Dooars region except for sporadic patches of cropping lands, forest reserves and settlements.

 A tea garden in the Dooars region of the Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal. Photo by Chandreyi Sengupta, 2019

The plantation system entailed the construction of road and railway networks so that source regions were well connected to Calcutta, the main market and port of West Bengal. This in turn stimulated the growth of townships and local markets in the Darjeeling district and the Dooars. Such growth could have increased the possibilities for the agro-based economic development of regional farmers. However, plantation workers who could be potential buyers of the locally produced food grains had already been provided with agricultural lands by the colonial planters as compensation for their low wages. These laborers practiced subsistence agriculture, which reduced the need to purchase food crops, thereby curtailing the market for local farmers. Additionally, the colonial planters supplied items of basic needs such as food grains, clothing, and sources of fuel in combination with services like medical facilities and shelter to the plantation laborers. This reduced their need to depend upon the local markets for essential commodities. Inputs for tea cultivation were imported from the United Kingdom, which also prevented the growth of related industries locally.

On one hand, the plantation economy worked as a mechanism for the extraction of regional natural resources to support the export-based economy of the imperialists; on the other, it used the same region as a market for the commodities produced in the industries of the colonial countries. Moreover, extensive plantations coupled with tillage-based farming caused considerable damage to the region’s topsoils, making the lands unsustainable for future generations.

Although the imperialist tea planters provided for the laborers’ basic needs, the planters and the British government did little to improve living conditions for Native peoples and plantation workers. Many immigrant laborers worked under conditions of poverty and unfreedom. British imperialists recruited armed forces to control the laborers and to prevent them from leaving the tea estates. Exploitation, deprivation, and subjugation, inherent to all plantation economies worldwide, also led to the complete economic as well as socio-cultural marginalization of the Native tribal groups of these regions. The plantation laborers did not fare well economically either, although they were in a comparatively better situation than the Indigenous tribes. The aggrieved Indigenous inhabitants of northern West Bengal raised their voices against this injustice through conflicts and sovereignty quests towards the end of the colonial regime and during the post-independence period.

Tea plantation districts of Northern West Bengal affected by the Gorkhaland Movement. Click to enlarge map.

The socio-economic conditions of the tea garden workers did not improve after India gained independence from British rule. Consequently, worker unrest and conflicts became exceedingly common in the tea estates of Darjeeling and Dooars and continue to be so today. Decline in tea production and the closure of several tea gardens in the post-independence era accentuated the problems of unemployment, poverty, and social insecurity in these regions. Responding to these problems, the Nepali-speaking Gorkha ethnic group launched the Gorkhaland Movement, which seeks to establish a separate Gorkhaland state. There have been other sovereignty conflicts in the region as well over the last four decades.

The imposition of a colonial plantation economy in northern West Bengal built the foundation for the current socio-economic imbalance in the region. Identity crises, land alienations, loss of control over common property resources, unemployment, massive deforestation and resultant agroecosystem degradations are just some of the intersecting legacies of colonial exploitation that must be addressed and acknowledged before moving forward.

Featured image: Plantation workers at a tea garden in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. Photo by Chandreyi Sengupta, 2019

Chandreyi Sengupta has obtained her postgraduate degree in Geography from the University of Calcutta, Kolkata, India with specialization in regional planning. She is a Research Scholar in the Department of Geography of Jadavpur University, Kolkata and has recently submitted her thesis. She was pursuing her research with a fellowship from the University Grants Commission of India. She has contributed research articles on ethnic geographies of north-east India in several edited book volumes and peer reviewed journals. Contact.

Mrinmoyee Naskar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography of Baruipur College, India with specialization in environmental geography. She is pursuing her Ph.D. from the Department of Geography, Jadavpur University. Political ecology is her field of interest. She has contributed research articles in several peer reviewed journals. Contact.

Debajit Datta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography of Jadavpur University, India with specialization in environmental and social geography. The principal areas of his research are political ecology of common property resource management and rural ecotourism potentials. He has published several papers in national and international peer reviewed journals and edited book volumes. Contact.