Skip to content

The Transformation of a Tea Plantation

I was born in a little hospital on a hilltop in Munnar, in the the Western Ghats, South India. These lush, green, achingly beautiful hills provide the perfect environment for growing one of the world’s favourite drinks; tea. As far as the eye can see in any direction there are acres and acres of precisely trimmed tea bushes as green, shiny and precious as emeralds.


We left Munnar at the end of the nineteen sixties, when the Finlay Muir & Co,  the Scottish company that had owned these tea plantations since 1894, was beginning to hand over the Kanan Devan Hill Production company to India’s Tata Tea (now Tata Global Beverages). Towards the end of Finlay Muir’s era there were many clashes between workers and management. My childhood memories are peppered with images – real or reported – of angry workers chanting slogans, managers being ‘gheraoed‘ – trapped inside the Headquarters Office and getting chilli powder thrown in their eyes if they tried to escape, smashed car windows and blood spattered suits…

The Tata group prides itself on its corporate social responsibility or CSR and when it took over KDHP it improved workers’ wages and living conditions and instigated a range of welfare initiatives for the workers and the local community. But by 2005 it became clear that the plantations had ceased to be profitable for them and they decided to focus on their instant, packaging and branded tea products instead.

I had been living in the UK for many years and working for an international development organisation when I heard that Tata Tea had handed over ownership of the plantations to the workers. Wonderful though it sounded, I was skeptical that a business corporation would do something like this purely out of the kindness of its heart. If the plantation was unprofitable for Tata Tea, wouldn’t it become a financial mill stone for its poor and far less business-savvy workers?

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Munnar again and to meet with Santjith Raju, the HR manager of what was now the Kanan Devan Hill Plantation Company Private Ltd. Mr Raju very kindly took the time to explain in more detail how the new system was working.

He told me that Tata Tea was unwilling to simply sell the plantations to the highest bidder as they were concerned that the welfare projects they had spent two decades developing would be discontinued. Seeking some way that the workers could gain ownership of the plantations and benefit directly from any profits, it at first experimented with a co-operative model on Tenmallai Estates. But this did not succeed, partly because the workers did not have sufficient levels of education.

Under the guidance of Mr T.V. Alexander, the company decided instead to offer the employees the opportunity to buy 69% shares in the company, with Tata Tea retaining the remaining shares. Everyone from the managing director to the tea pluckers were given the opportunity to buy shares with minimum levels appropriate to their income. So tea pluckers would need to buy a minimum of just Rs 3,000 in shares (approximately £30 at today’s exchange rates) while managers would need to buy a minimum of around a million rupees worth (approximately £10,000).

The company’s managers traveled around the area educating the workers as to what this would mean for them, how they would benefit, what the risks might be, etc. It also helped those who needed them to get bank loans to buy the shares. Shareholders have so far had a 159% return on their investment.

At the time there were 26 tea estates with 18,000 employees, including managers and assistant managers for each estate. By implementing a voluntary retirement scheme and merging several of the estates – creating just seven large estates subdivided into sections – Tata Tea reduced the number of employees to 13,000 and drastically reduced management overheads.  A sectional office can be managed by a single member of staff. The company no longer had to contribute to the costs of the regional office in Kochi or the head office in Kolkatta. Kanan Devan Hill Plantation Company Private Ltd now sells its tea to the highest bidder at domestic auctions, including Typhoo and Tetley. Tata Global Beverages is just another of its customers.

KDHP salaries are governed by a tripartite group including the Kerala Labour Ministry, Kerala tea producers and the worker unions. A tea plucker’s salary is currently Rs 212 per day (the statutory minimum wage for Kerala is around Rs 170 per day). This is just £2 per day at current exchange rates, but these workers also get free accommodation, electricity, water and medical care. As per Indian law, the company also pays into a provident fund for their retirement. There is a production incentive scheme for workers calculated from a monthly base amount with an increasing rate per kilo plucked on top of this base. Workers are usually able to earn about Rs 6,000 or Rs 7,000 a month in incentives. And of course on top of all this, there is the dividend that they earn as shareholders – assuming the company continues to make a profit.

But the employees are not just passive shareholders and wage-earners. They also have the opportunity to play a role in the management of the company.  A body of elected representatives from among all levels of workers advises the board of directors. Every three years, two men and two women from each estate are elected. They are given appropriate training to boost their confidence and skills. Together they then looking at budgets and targets month by month to track the performance of their estate and compare it with other estates. With their long experience of planting and nurturing tea they are often able to make very practical suggestions for improving the yield of their estate. These suggestions are included in minutes which are circulated within KDHP.

Each year, the most productive worker is given a place on the board and 7 out of 8 times, this has been a woman. These board members are given training to ensure they are confident to take an active part in board meetings and, in return, they provide a valuable workers’ perspective. For example one worker representative informed the board that since the increase in tourism in the area the price of basic commodities like rice had shot up beyond the reach of plantation workers. The Board immediately responded by arranging for subsidised rice to be provided to the workers.

Kerala, which has a long history of communist governance, has 98% unionisation. The company maintains a “cordial relationship” with the unions. Since the change to worker-ownership there have been instances when unions have declared a bandh or general strike, yet KDHP workers have continued to come to work.

During the formation of the new company, Tatas also retained 27% of the shares, as well as responsibility for the welfare projects, including a school for differently abled children of plantation workers. They also continued to support an income generation and rehabilitation project for these children once they graduate which makes high quality jam, recycled paper and organically dyed textiles. Fruit for the jam making is bought from plantation workers who have all been given plots of land on which to grow their own vegetables, cotton for the paper-making is recycled from the garment factories of Tamil Nadu and the textile dyes are made with entirely natural, organic ingredients. These are not small-scale charitable operations, but successful enterprises that just happen to be run by people who are differently abled. They get some support but on the whole they are clearly empowered, in charge and thriving on their productivity and creativity.

When I was a child in Munnar, the managers’ children went away to expensive English medium boarding schools (or boarding schools in England), while the workers’ children went to a local Tamil medium school in Munnar town. Now the new High Range School caters for all the children in the area “from the managing director’s daughter to the tea pluckers’ children”. It has an excellent academic reputation. Mr Raju is himself a product of this school and the fact that his father was a staff member and he is now the HR manager of KDHP is testament to the social mobility that the new system has made possible.

KDHP is a company founded on social as well as sound business principles. As such it continues to seek ways of reinforcing its ethical credentials. It has an organic division, has gained Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade certification and links up with the Ethical Tea Partnership.

A recent “happiness survey” commissioned by KDHP from an independent consultant found a 97% satisfaction rate among workers. But, interesting and positive as this all sounded, none of it could be described as independent corroboration of the success of the project. Only speaking directly to a worker and seeing at first-hand how they lived would confirm what Mr Raju and others were telling me.

Luckily, I had an opportunity to do just this. When my family lived in Munnar, like other managers’ families, the company provided our household with a domestic staff. These servants lived in a row of tiny, two-room houses, “the lines” on the hillside behind our spacious bungalow. Raman, was our syce, responsible for looking after our horses, cows and other animals. Now, over forty years later, his son, Chinnakan, is soon to retire from a long career as the company’s Generator Mechanic. I visited him in the small, but well built and comfortable  house close to the centre of Munnar where he lives with his family. Both his sons and his daughter are well educated and have good jobs, mobile phones, computers… their children attend English medium schools. Chinnakan drives his own car and also shares a motor cycle with his son. He has built himself a fine house in the nearby town of Udumalpet where he will retire. All this would have been unheard of for someone like Chinnakan in my day. Chinnakan confirmed that being a shareholder in KDHP had played an important part in making all this possible.

It’s a very impressive success story at a time when the tea industry is struggling with plunging  prices and media exposés of exploitation and abuse on tea plantations elsewhere in India and the world. (Tata Tea tried a similar model in its estates in Assam but with much less success.)

Ironically, despite all of this, KDHP is now facing manpower shortages. Or perhaps it is partly because of the benefits the company has brought. The children of tea pluckers are now not just literate, but well educated . Their horizons are much wider and few are likely to want to follow in their parents’ arduous footsteps through the tea bushes. But KDHP managers are already thinking ahead, with an eye on the vast Australian farms which are mechanised to the point that a single person can manage hundreds of hectares of agricultural land. They can visualise a time when tea is plucked by machines suspended from cranes on the steep hillsides.

The High Range has seen many changes over the centuries – the social and physical landscapes shifting and changing in unison. From the days when Muthuvan tribes-people trekked across its virgin forests hunting deer, bison and wild boar, to the clearing of the forests and planting of tea, coffee and cardamom (but mainly tea) by hardy Scottish planters, to the reshaping of the landscape by a devastating flood in 1924. The green hills have been etched with red, dust roads, now impeccably tarred. The slopes have been traversed by narrow gauge railways and Heath-Robinson-like ropeways, now all gone. Colonial tea-planters, European and Indian, have been replaced by all Indian worker-owners.  And now a new invasion of tourists – including droves of cooing honey-moon couples – is taking place, with an accompanying crop of brash new hotels and home-stays.

One day giant cranes may be swaggering across those emerald hills, nibbling at the surfaces of the tea-bushes, operated by a single person from a small control-room in the Headquarters Office in Munnar. The grandchildren of today’s worker-shareholders will be busy working in their air-conditioned offices in Kochi and Coimbatore (perhaps still supplementing their savings from their inherited KDHP shares). And the honeymoon couples will still be gazing, hand in hand, over the breathtaking views from Top Station.

So be it. It will just be another phase in the endless reinvention of one of the most beautiful and productive places on earth.

Do you see what I see? [A plundering of Cmdr Chris Hadfield’s space-tweets]

Strange how the slow flow of glacial ice
becomes more visible from here
So far away.

Dust blows
from what was once
the Aral Sea floor.

A heraldic Spring dragon of ice roars rampant
off the coast of Newfoundland.

Manila in the evening
Her formidable port
Visible from orbit…

The open pits gleam with blue from space…
Doing their best to light the universe on the dark side of the earth.

Mississippi delta – heartland topsoil
Flowing relentlessly
Into the Gulf
Of Mexico.

Big and little
Ambergis Cay
On the blue edge of the abyss
…like a trilobite in the night.

Pillowy farms of Eastern Europe
tidily etched in snow.

16 sunrises a day…
…Between quiet volcanoes.

The yin and yang of ice and land…
Just far enough apart
To give Darwin something to think about.

A Dali watch on an alligator wristband.

One hour, nine minutes to touchdown.
…like being born in reverse.

It’s so strange to talk and feel the weight of my lips and tongue
Scarecrow on a tilt table
To measure how.

To some this may look like  a sunset
But it’s a new dawn.

Sabita Banerji – 17 May 2013

Above all, hope…


In the twenty years that I have been working in international development, I have seen many projects around the world. Last month I saw one that struck me as particularly impressive. It was a project run by a small local organisation in Dehra Dun, North India, called Friends of the Doon Society (FODS)[1]. Its work is in a cluster of villages on the edge of the Rajaji National Park, famous for its elephants, tigers and other wild animals and birds as well its forests. 

I was accompanied by FODS President Arijit Banerji and Project Manager Bharat Sharma who explained that the initial aim of the work with these villagers had been to save the forest by providing them with alternative livelihoods. The forest resources had become severely depleted due to overgrazing and gathering firewood etc and the Government had thus made it a protected national park.

When FODS first entered the village they found a community that had lost hope. Alcoholism was rife and people were lying drunk on the streets. The removal of their traditional means of livelihood, combined with illiteracy and an innate sense of inferiority due to caste beliefs meant that they were barely able to do more than subsist.

It is hard to imagine that the scenes of energetic and inquiring industry I saw yesterday were at the same village. We entered the village through neat rows of cucumber seedlings recently transplanted from a poly-tunnel provided by FODS, UNDP and other donors.

Compost construction


The compost project was the result of a course at the local agricultural college that FODS had recently organised for 19 local farmers. Bharat, along with the other farmers and community members rolled up his sleeves and helped fetch the cow-dung and earth and chop down the greenery, whilst explaining the scientific process of heat generation and nitrogen conversion that would transform these materials into high quality compost that would increase their crop yields. This time it was RAJ (name changed) who was benefiting from the compost pit on his land. Next time he would help one of the farmers helping him today to build and fill his pit.

Weaving loom

DSCN2040While work on the compost was continuing we went further into the village and met Priya (name changed) who, with a friend, demonstrated the use of a loom that had been provided by FODS. The simple, wood-framed loom enabled her to make durrie rugs out of rags that FODS supplied from Dehra Dun. Priya is already receiving orders from local people for these rugs and is trying to work out how much to charge for them. We advised her to calculate how many hours it takes to make them, include the cost of materials and work out an hourly rate using the national minimum wage of about Rs 200 a day as a guide. The income Priya gains from the loom will help her support her baby son and young daughter, who is now studying at the village school which was set up with funding from Dehra Dun’s prestigious public school, Doon School. This was clearly a family that now had hope for the future through a means of supplementing its income and through the education of its children.

Housing and education


Next we met 16 year old Sunita (name changed). FODS had helped her when as a 13 year old she was caring for her widowed, mentally ill father from a tumble-down shack. They built a small brick house with a latrine for her and her father (as they did not meet the stringent criteria for the Government housing scheme). Where once the thatch lean-to sheltered her and her father, her room, like any normal adolescent’s bedroom, is now festooned with Bollywood film posters and tinsel decorations. Against one wall is her prized possession, a bicycle provided by FODS to help her get to and from school 5 kms away.  But Sunita was very distressed because her family were putting her under pressure to get married. Bharat made it very clear that this was completely unacceptable and told her that any such attempt to marry off an underage girl would be a matter for the police. He made sure that Sunita had his phone number so that she could report to him if she was being forced into marriage before completing her schooling.

Finally we visited the government junior school. Here FODS had funded the establishment of a school kitchen garden where the children grew additional nutrition for their midday meal and learned about vegetable cultivation.

Case Study

One man in particular embodies the change that Rasulpur has undergone since FODS began working there. Kuldip Singh (name changed) was an alcoholic when they first arrived. Ragged and unkempt, he would barge into FODS meetings with the other villagers shouting drunkenly and incoherently. But as the months went past he started to see the changes that were taking place in his neighbours’ lives. They had low tech bio-gas plants (pits filled with cow-dung, fitted with a pipe to siphon the emerging gas to the kitchen) which meant they no longer had to spend hours gathering firewood in the jungle (which, in any case, was now illegal). They had healthy cattle being cared for by local para-vets trained by FODS. They had brick houses and crops. Their children were going to school. Suddenly one day, two years after FODS first arrived, he came to a meeting neatly dressed, shaved and sober.

He invited us to see his house. His bio-gas plant was well established in the neatly swept compound. Two outhouses were being prepared for a new batch of poultry to arrive as he has sold his previous batch. He introduced us to his wife and children who chatted confidently with us and proudly showed us around. He had even recently stood for election to the village Panchayat. Although he did not win this time, it is a testament to the remarkable extent of his rehabilitation that he had the confidence to stand for election. That he was confident that his fellow villagers rather than laughing at him as they used to may now vote for him as a potential leader.

Kuldip Singh sat with us under a tree while work on the compost pit was going on. I asked him what changes he had seen since FODS had started working in the village. He listed many of those described above, and said that above all what FODS had brought the village was hope.

But this was not mere sycophantic praise to his benefactors. He was also thinking about the future, and about sustainable change in the village.  He thanked FODS for all that it had done but said that what they needed now was a means of earning an income every day. I asked him if he had any suggestions of how this could be achieved. He was full of ideas and suggestions. Traders came from far away to sell clothing in the village, he said. Why couldn’t they make clothes themselves to sell? And if they could test the soil they could identify which crops would grow best on which plots. With good quality seeds he calculated that with a Rs 500 investment he could earn Rs5-6,000. Any concerns I may have had about dependency on FODS disappeared. It was clear that along with practical solutions to real, day to day problems, that along with hope for the future, FODS had given this community confidence to look after their own futures. It had given them back their self-esteem.

I saw the same self-confidence and hope for the future in the women – young and old – learning to read and write on the veranda of the Gurudwara, and in the young people learning computer skills on solar powered computers in Daluwala Majbata.

FODS and the future


A child’s jersey hanging on a pillar of the Rasuplur loom bears the legend “Magic show.” There are now about 200 young people from the village working in a nearby industrial area. Mud and thatch houses are being rapidly replaced by brick and tile ones. It is easy to imagine a time in the not too distant future when FODS may be able to leave Rasulpur to its own devices and move to another village where hope and self-esteem have been lost, to repeat its practical, participatory and highly productive  magic show there.

Sabita Banerji
Dehra Dun, 26 February 2014

[1] FODS work is funded mainly by UNDP Small Grants Programme, Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Pammi Nanda Foundation, Doon School, WWF India

R.I.P. Mandela

When I first wrote this, in June this year, Nelson Mandela was lying seriously ill in a hospital bed in Pretoria…

The spectre of death prompts reflections on  life, and like millions of others around the world, I am reflecting on what a profound effect this man has had on mine.

His words, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice” are the strapline to my blog. It’s a profound truth that took me decades to understand, and once I had, Mandela’s words expressed it perfectly.

One of my deepest regrets was not getting on the bus taking a group of colleagues to hear him address the Make Poverty History rally in Trafalgar Square in 2005. It turned out to be his last public appearance. I don’t even remember now what petty administrative task I prioritised over seeing and hearing the great man in person. A lesson learned: recognise – and then seize – the moment.

Since then I’ve been daydreaming about ways of manipulating the six degrees of separation to put me in the same room as him… Which six stand between me and Nelson Mandela? I got as close as the pew behind Mandela’s fellow anti-apartheid  warrior, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Cape Town… and now sadly, I’m beginning to accept that that’s probably as close as I’ll ever get.

Me and Desmond Tutu

Why does he have this effect on people? It’s similar to the power that the Dalai Lama has. I think it is a combination of innate leadership – he was born and educated in a royal household – with a deep and utterly sincere humility.  Martin Kalungu Banda relates the story of an industry official visiting Mandela. When they sat down to eat, Mandela asked “Weren’t there two of you?” The official said “No, I came on my own”. Mandela got up, went out to the car and insisted that the visitor’s driver join them for the meal.

This chimes deeply with me because I was brought up in a privileged household being waited on by the less privileged (and compared to those with no jobs or backbreaking, pittance-paid labour, even they were relatively privileged). As kids, when we were driven to a party, we never gave the driver a thought all the time we were having fun, until we were ready to go home again and needed him. That stabs my conscience now. I’ve been trying to atone for it ever since.

For me, what burns through all that this extraordinary man has achieved, is his revulsion at the idea of one human being tolerating the humiliation or suffering of another. When asked where Mandela’s “extraordinary magnanimity and forgiveness come from” Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains that it is partly from Christianity, but “before that, something called ubuntu – the essence of being human – which places a great premium on solidarity, on social harmony. Anything that undermines that is bad…”

This is how Mandela describes ubuntu: “In the old days… a traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of ubuntuUbuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question, therefore, is are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve? These are the important things in life.”

It was in this spirit that he forgave, and went on to work with, the instigators of the brutal injustice of apartheid. And it is also in this spirit that he approaches the equally brutal injustice of poverty. In 2004, he wrote to the group that had campaigned successfully for Oxford to become a Fairtrade City, saying:

 “I again rejoice and congratulate you on your continuing work to promote social justice and development in our world.  Fair trade offers producers in developing countries a just return for their labour and an opportunity to help their communities to grow and develop with the proceeds they receive… This is an important step forward.  We must continue on this path, to build real opportunities and freedom for all”. 

People in developing countries making things for people in the privileged world to buy often can’t earn enough to eat well, send their children to school and get care when they’re sick. Maybe one day this will be as unthinkable as black South Africans serving the privileged whites and being forced by law to live in poverty and to get no education and substandard healthcare.

As Mandela said in the Trafalgar Square speech that I missed: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” 

Amen to that. R.I.P. Nelson Mandela – Madiba December 5th 2013

A message of courage and hope

Today is World AIDS Day. To mark the day, I am passing on a message on behalf of one of the most courageous, wise and gentle men I know. A man who has turned personal adversity into an international campaign of hope that I genuinely believe could save millions of lives. Canon Gideon Byamugisha was the first religious leader in Africa to publicly announce that he was HIV positive. He went on to co-found the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected HIV and AIDS (ANERELA+) in 2002 and,  in 2006, a shelter for children who had been orphaned as a result of AIDS. I worked on Canon Gideon’s SAVE campaign (the name is explained in the message) in 2011. Whether or not you share the particular faith of this brave Anglican priest, his message is a powerful one. I hope you agree.

A little respect can go a long way

I have recently returned from South Africa where I was running a reflection session with those involved in a fascinating programme designed to build trust and improve relationships between the black, white and coloured – and male and female – workers, supervisors and managers on the Western Cape’s stunningly beautiful fruit and flower farms and vineyards. It was heartening to see how a little respect can go a long way.


My latest blog is not mine at all, but is composed of a series of emails sent to me by a friend who has been living through a severe water shortage in the Senagalese capital, Dakar. She captures beautifully and movingly in words and pictures the struggle to get through a normal day without water… a day that stretches into weeks. The story has a happy ending and leaves you in awe of the resourcefulness and patience of the citizens of Dakar.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 168 other followers

%d bloggers like this: