Darjeeling, the Indian region in the foothills of the Himalayas, is one of the world’s most famous tea growing regions. Darjeeling tea is very much in demand and commands high prices, in particular the precious First Flush which can only be harvested during a short period in spring when the tea bushes come out of their winter dormancy and start to grow again. With this in mind it’s hard to imagine that tea workers in West Bengal (Darjeeling is part of this state in north-east India) are often not only very poor but at times close to starvation.
In 2007 workers at the Chongtong Tea Estate escaped that fate, but only just. 2007 was the year in which the Ambootia Group took on the garden. For a full year before the change in ownership the workers and their families had been fighting for survival: the previous owners had shut down the garden for 12 months. They employed police to make sure that no-one in Chongtong was able to make a little money by plucking tea and selling it in the local market. The workers were not even allowed to grow vegetables outside on the small plots next to their houses. In the midst of lush vegetation people in Chongtong were close to starvation.
56-year old Bimla Gurang will never forget this period in her life. ‘We never had more than two meals a day and often there wasn’t enough food for one’, she says. Bimla Gurang still lives in one of the villages in Chongtong. She shares a house with her husband and five of their children. During the time the tea estate was closed she broke stones for road construction, the only work she could get under a government job creation scheme. One of her daughters earned a little money in a roadside shop which she still runs. The whole family had to live on Rs 400 a month, that’s about $ 6.84.
Today Bimla Gurang supervises a small group of tea pluckers – she is one of only three women in Chongtong holding such a position. With her salary, the income from the shop run by her daughter and the home grown vegetables the family is able to enjoy life again.
Since the Ambootia Group took over the plantation the garden once more produces excellent tea which is being sold under Fairtrade conditions. More importantly, Chongtong, like all Ambootia Group gardens, is managed in accordance with the principles of biodynamic agriculture and that means the workforce has grown considerably. ‘Growing tea the biodynamic way means that we have about 20% more jobs’ says garden manager Subrata Bhadra with pride. The freshly harvested tealeaves are processed over night in the tea factory on the estate. Chongtong produces traditional Darjeeling (black leaf tea), white and green tea. All theses teas have a wonderful taste, but Chongtong green tea is also a valuable ingredient we use to make some of our products.
The memory of the year of hunger during the time the garden was closed still runs deep. A wooden gate marks the top of a flight of steep stairs leading to a small Singha Devi temple. That’s where you come to pray if you don’t have work. Since Chongtong became part of the Ambootia Goup pluckers, workers and garden managers jointly pay Singha Devi a visit to give thanks and to bring her some of the First Flush produced on the first day of the new tea season.