My first exposure to Indian culture and history was in a modern Indian history class in college. One of the most impressionable terms I learned from this class was Swadeshi. Swadeshi is an important part of the independence movement of India where people encouraged the support of the national economy with the consumption of local products that supported India. It was the first time I had to think about the concept of localized systems. It’s true independence.
I never encountered the word Swadeshi again until just recently where I learned it was a keyword used in the marketing propaganda campaign to popularize tea in India. This is an advertisement posted in 1947 about tea. I felt like it was an oxymoron, Swadeshi and Indian Tea?
Chai has become one of the common parts of India’s culture. The fingerprint of India’s culture is Masala Chai; every home possessing their own custom blend of spices and deeply brewed, brisk black tea. It’s always offered to guests and consumed on a daily basis to satiate and connect with a culture.
Tea’s history in India is very short, only dating back to the early 1800’s, planted by European colonialists. Planting started in places such as Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri. Large estates were established where pioneering British and European “planters” built centralized agricultural systems that mimicked those of the American plantation system. Large corporations controlled the production and trade where local people and labor imports did all the hard work of maintaining, harvesting, and processing the tea from the tea garden.
The industry was developed to satisfy the thirst of the British tea market. It was not consumed within India at this time.
In the 1920’s a group of British tea businesses launched a marketing campaign to develop the tea market in India. It was first enjoyed by the elite and then became a mass market hit with the invention of CTC Tea in the 1960’s which was very low priced and tannic, or bitter, a good match with milk and sugar. The beverage became a popular drink consumed on the streets or at work to satiate the stomach during long days of hard work and limited food.
Antithesis of Swadeshi
The British exploited the word Swadeshi to market a product which only brought profits back to them. It has now become the national beverage of India.
Seventy years ago, India gained its independence and at the same time gained ownership of the Indian tea industry. Wealthy Indian businessmen purchased the tea estates from the European companies and became the planters.
The industry is now owned by India, yet the workers have become increasingly marginalized. Wages and living conditions of the workers have become worse compared to the rising standard of living of those that control the power in the industry. Many tea workers today work on less than $1.50 per day, with lack of healthcare, sewage, schools, and housing.
The original plantation system exists today which can even be guised as “fair trade”. Fair trade and the government mandated social programs exist but there is no accountability of the delivery of these services.
Tea production has become more difficult as the cost of production continues to rise every year and the international market price of tea remains low. The workers on the farm are the last to be squeezed.
All this struggle to make the national beverage.
Is this Swadeshi?
The Last to Experience Independence
We are here now to celebrate 70 years of independence for India. Not everyone in India has experienced this independence, though. I would like to draw attention now to the 100+ year struggle for independence by the Gorkha people of Darjeeling, India.
Darjeeling, indigenously Nepalese, or Gorkha is the darling of British India. A perfect mountain getaway and terroir to produce fine quality tea. The local people proudly take care of their tea hills and produce some of the highest valued tea in the international market.
When the British sold off the tea estates, wealthy businessmen from Calcutta took over, as Darjeeling was partitioned to be a part of the state of West Bengal. The culture dynamic between the local Gorkha labor and Bengali owners and managers was much different than that with the European. The Europeans had a personally vested interest in developing a legacy industry, while the businessmen of Calcutta treated it strictly as business, with no attachment to the local environment or people.
The Gorkha people have been protesting for their own state, Gorkhaland, for decades. The protests have been violent in the past, experiencing a major loss of 1,200 people in protests in the 1980’s. Learning the lack of efficacy of violence, the new generation of Gorkha want to express through nonviolence to the Indian government and world that they can manage their own democracy.
Their most recent protest was in response to the West Bengal government mandating Bengali language and removal of Nepali language from schools. It took taking away their cultural identity, their language, for the local people to protest with a 100-day strike where workers did not go to tend tea gardens and process tea.
In response, the Indian government did not speak to the people about their demand for a separate state. These are people that are proud to be Indian, and in response, the Indian government shuts off the internet to quiet their voices and controls the media to make the Gorkha out to look like violent terrorists and separates.
The workers of the Darjeeling tea gardens know very little about independence as do most of the tea farm workers of India.
Isn’t it about time that they get to enjoy independence with the rest of India?
The Indian tea industry is at a crossroads where the plantation system will no longer sustain into the future. Tea estates started to fail in the 1960’s. The businessman from the city does not own the land (only a lease) which they walk away from, leaving the locals without work, but with tea gardens. Mobilization will involve envisioning what the decentralization of the tea industry will look like.
A similar story from which to learn is happening in post-Cultural Revolution China, in the birthplace of tea. The tea industry of Yunnan, China used to be very decentralized where tea was produced for local consumption. It was grown sustainably from seed and made with great craftsmanship, like an art.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government centralized all industries, making it illegal for a tea grower to sell their own tea into the market. They were required to sell their green tea leaf to the government-owned tea factory where it was produced into an international commodity product. Tea farmers became very poor as they were paid low prices for their leaf.
Things changed for these tea growing communities when the Chinese culture shifted and a rising middle class and upper middle class began to appreciate the art of tea. Tea growers could then make and sell their own tea again. Over the past 20 years, villages of tin roof houses with lack of electricity have become thriving communities of localized business people.
Relating back to the current status of the Indian tea industry, tea production will need to become decentralized because the centralized tea plantation system is failing. The tea bushes of the failed estates are given back to the local people and they will need to learn to make their own tea.
Small tea growers can become like the tea makers families of Yunnan, but their success is dependent on the appreciation of their product as an art form. This means that the small tea growers will need to become tea artists and learn how to produce very fine quality tea.
Another key to the success of the mobilization is the appreciation of the value of tea by local Indian people. This is especially true of the more affluent in the Indian cities. Tea is a product that can be appreciated like a fine wine, and truly a national beverage.
There is a humble leader of this mobilization that I like to put on a pedestal for other tea growers to see and emulate: The Nanjan family of the Pororai Village of Nilgiris District. This village is one of a series of villages in a mountainous wetland with a diverse system of subsistence agriculture. The government saw tea as a cash crop that could economically grow the region, so the development of the tea industry was subsidized by the government, encouraging local people to uproot all other agriculture crops and trees to cover the hills with tea.
The tea industry grew quickly as did the opportunity. Low-quality black tea was produced in mass for the Russian market, but when the Russian economy failed, the tea industry started to struggle greatly in the early 1990’s. Tea factories could no longer support the small growers with good prices and the communities started to suffer as women and children worked all hours of the day to harvest leaf to bring in just enough money to feed the family.
Not only are the communities suffering economically, but the environment has been destroyed. The monoculturing of the tea has turned a once thriving wetland with water buffalo to a dryland with land buffalo, where the village must truck in water for their personal consumption. The use of agricultural chemicals has also depleted the soil of all nutrients, making the tea yields lower and lower and reducing the potential of planting other crops in the future.
The Nanjan children in their early 20’s, 12 years ago after finishing their college degrees, decided that they no longer wanted to see their parents growing tea and doing the back-breaking work. The first step was to convert the conventional gardens to organic, which meant 7 years of no harvesting. During this 7 years the youngest brother, Prabhu, sacrificed a city life to live in the village and study biodynamic agriculture and high-quality tea production in China. Through Youtube videos and textbooks he learned all the simple equipment and techniques he would need to process small batches of high-quality tea.
Prabhu’s older brother, Suresh, spent those 7 years working in IT in Bangalore, sending money home to support the family while tea was not being harvested. He also built a consumer brand and slowly started to introduce the tea to upper-class elites at health clubs in the big cities. The Teaneer brand has built a loyal following of tea lovers that appreciate their quality and purchase their tea for prices that are 50 times higher than standard Chai.
Now the family can work a fraction of their land and time for tea while making the same cash flow. With their extra time and land, they are growing diversified crops, supporting their local community with food, and restoring the environment. They have influenced others in their community to follow, and together they are replanting indigenous species and are on track to restore their wetlands status and bring water back to their community.
The only thing that has secured the success of Teaneer is a local market that appreciates high-quality tea.
If the mass market of India comes to love and appreciate a product that is made by mindful Indian people, Chai will become 100% Swadeshi.
Image provided by author.