In 2014, Holi (also known as Dol Jatra, Basantotsav), the Hindu festival of colors, will be celebrated on March 17. Holi is celebrated at the end of the winter season, on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna. Holi celebrations begin on the eve of the festival with bonfires and prayers. On the day of Holi, people throw colored powder and liquids at each other.
Holi is observed with great fanfare by Hindus all over the world. Holi celebrations are particularly riotous in India as social rules are relaxed. Many people consume bhang, an intoxicating drink made from the female cannabis plant. Social barriers are broken as people of all ages, genders, castes, and wealth gather together and celebrate the festival.
I recently enjoyed a historical novel by Shona Patel who draws upon her experiences growing up in India as the daughter of an Assam tea planter during the tumultuous years after World War II in writing her debut novel, TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY. It tells the tale of Layla, a young woman who fears she is astrologically doomed never to marry and Manik, a man whose education and arranged marriage seem to have him destined for success. But Manik chooses instead to enter the colonial and sequestered world of British tea plantations, becoming the first Indian tea planter, determined to marry Layla and bring her to join him in Assam. But this colonial world is at a tipping point as tectonic political shifts rock the tea industry and Layla and Manik find themselves caught in a perilous racial divide that threatens their very lives.
India was a colony of Great Britain for two hundred years until after World War II when India sought independence. Tea plantations had been owned and operated by the English since the early 1800s, and Indians were hired only for manual labor. Shona's father was among the first Indians to be accepted by one of the largest tea companies as its first assistant manager.
Long before the commercial production of tea started in India in the late 1830s, the tea plant was growing wild in the jungles of north east Assam. In 1823 and 1831, Robert Bruce and his brother Charles, an employee of the East India Company, confirmed that the tea plant was indeed a native of the Assam area and sent seeds and specimen plants to officials at the newly established Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. Over 80,000 tea seed collected in China were planted in the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and nurtured until they were sturdy enough to travel 1000 miles to the newly prepared tea gardens. But the Chinese seedlings struggled to survive in the intense Assam heat, subsequent plantings were made with seedlings from the native tea bush that had been flourishing in the area.
Today, India is one of the world's largest producers of tea with 13,000 gardens and a workforce of more than 2 million people. Assam’s almost 1,000 plantations produce around one-sixth of the world’s tea.
Plantation workers brought to what is now the northeastern state of Assam from central India by the British in the mid-19th century, have been treated as little more than indentured servants, even after the British Raj gave way to Indian democracy. The Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School released a report on Amalgamated’s operations, which employ more than 30,000 people on 24 plantations in Assam and neighboring West Bengal, painting a grim portrait of life on the tea plantation. Despite promises made in 2008 when Amalgamated took over the plantation to transform it into a model for sustainable and responsible labor policy through an employee shareholding program, the report detailed dilapidated and crowded housing, hazardous water and sanitation conditions, the denial of basic benefits like health care for workers’ dependents, widespread disregard for occupational safety measures, and pitifully low wages.
Tea worker’s rights groups say the Plantations Labor Act has perpetuated the feudal system created by British companies when they first developed the plantations. Today’s plantation workers descend almost exclusively from tribal populations transplanted in the colonial era, having inherited jobs from their parents. The manual labor they perform has changed little in 150 years.
In February 2013, three local NGOs, filed a complaint to the World Bank Group’s Compliance Advisor/ Ombudsman (CAO), raising concerns about inhumane labor and working conditions on the plantations. The International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group, invested $7.8 million in a project to enable the setting up of a company, Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL), to acquire and manage 24 tea plantations in northeast India. IFC owns approximately 20% of APPL, and Tata Global Beverages, a subsidiary of the Tata Group, owns just under 50% of the company. Tata Global Beverages owns and markets the Tetley brand, making Tata Global Beverages the second largest player in the global tea market. The Complaint cites long working hours, inadequate compensation, poor hygiene and health conditions, coercion and pressure of plantation workers, and lack of freedom of association, in violation of the IFC’s Performance Standard 2 (PS2).