A group of men huddles by the side of the tea bushes in the shade at Dheklapara Tea Estate in the Dooars. Close by in the sun, about 30 or so women work their famed “nimble fingers” on the first-flush tea leaves, heads trying to balance the heavy loads of pickings.

One of the men has just tossed up a green papaya salad on a Bengali broadsheet folded in half. The unripe fruit is neatly peeled and diced, and dressed with coarsely-ground green chilli and salt. Chilli-induced shhus and shhaas fill the air as portions of the spiced berry go around, along with stale news.

Nimble fingers keep plucking, steady heads don’t turn.

It’s one in the afternoon—the end of work day. It’s not a normal business day since the estate is officially closed, as it has been for the past 17 years. It’s just a group of workers—those that remain—plucking and selling the green leaves to outside factories as a survival strategy. Given the nature of tea work and the workers’ habitual discipline, everything is still done by the clock, though for shorter hours, and smaller pay. At 1p.m., the women trudge to the makeshift leaf shade, measure their day’s work in kilos, offload; and vanish into the labour lines.

The men have had their salad; they load a pick-up van waiting by the side of the bamboo bearing faded flags of the Trinamool Congress party. For women, their labour in the tea estates seldom bears fruit.

With elections underway, tea workers have been remembered again.

“My connection with West Bengal is special—it is a tea connection,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a massive gathering at Mainaguri in north Bengal in February. “You grow tea and I make tea.”

When he came back to the region on April 3, he spoke of the plight of tea workers. In his speech to an even larger crowd in Siliguri, he promised to solve the problems of tea workers.

With the  “chaiwala” Prime Minister tracing his roots to the tea bushes of north Bengal, home to 273 estates and countless small, cooperative-run gardens, employing over 4.5 lakh workers, tea is stirring the polls up. Issues concerning tea workers, particularly the Minimum Wages Act 1948 and reopening of closed gardens are on the lips of candidates of all political parties.

Garden Closed, No Vote.

“Well, earlier too tea-related problems used to be part of election speeches—this region being a tea-producing belt, there is no escaping that. But we are now seeing candidates of all hues making tea a major issue. Instead of general “‘ea workers’ problems”, they are raising specific concerns such as minimum wages and land rights for workers,” said Abhijit Mazumdar, a rights activist.

The white of the A4 posters stands out against the dull walls of the factory of Dooteriah tea estate in Darjeeling, closed since June 2017.

“Garden Closed, No Vote,” say the black & white printouts in English and Nepali. The posters have been recently put up by workers and staff of Dooteriah, Peshok and Kallej Valley—all closed tea estates in Darjeeling—threatening to abstain from the polls to protest abysmal conditions in the plantations, and to demand their immediate reopening.

However, after a meeting with district magistrate Joyoshi Dasgupta, the joint action committee of workers spearheading the movement called off its programme. “We were told she (Dasgupta) has promised to help workers set up a cooperative, but that didn’t really sound convincing,” said Asha Pradhan, a tea plucker and activist, still firm on her resolve to not vote. “What is the point when no one cares?”

Pradhan is unusual among women tea workers. She is aware of workers’ rights and vocal with her views. She even travelled as part of the Chaaybagan Sangram Samity, a rights-based organisation, to Delhi for the All India Workers’ Rally on March 3 and spoke there about the problems facing tea workers in Darjeeling.

With the official vote-boycott programme called off, workers are wondering whom to vote for. Some are even contemplating NOTA to express their discontentment. “Many are going for Modi baje’s (grandfather) candidate,” said one worker, referring to Bharatiya Janata Party’s Darjeeling candidate Raju Bista. “Khai ta, Modi baje’s earlier candidate (sitting MP S.S. Ahluwalia) also promised to do a lot for us. That time we voted for him, but he did nothing at all,” she added.

Tea in West Bengal is produced in three geographic regions—Darjeeling in the hills and Dooars and Terai at the base of the Himalayas. Darjeeling produces some of the world’s finest and most expensive black orthodox teas, which are mostly exported—a kilo of Makaibari’s organic silver tips sold for $1,850 ( ₹1.1 lakh) to three international buyers in 2014. Dooars and Terai are home to the cheap crush, tear and curl (CTC) teas consumed mostly in the domestic market.

A colonial legacy—only eight of the plantations in north Bengal were set up after Independence—tea is one sector where women outnumber men. According to the Labour Bureau records of 2012, women comprise 53.3 per cent of the workforce in tea plantations. It is women who perform the arduous task of plucking green tea leaves in gardens—huge tracts of land, steep slopes in the case of Darjeeling; not to be mistaken for the small plots adjoining homes to grow flowers and fruits.

There is a reason for this unusually high number of women workers. Though romanticised legends put it to “nimble fingers”, their predominance is because of the industry’s demand for cheap labour. Gardens required inexpensive labour, wrote Jeff Koehler in his book, The Colourful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea. Quoting the Darjeeling Gazetteer (1907), he said this was “a matter of vital importance to the [tea] industry, as cheap labour is essential to its prosperity.”

Women’s cheap labour ensured profitability.

A woman produces, and also reproduces. “Employment of women in plantations historically was sought by planters to “contain the male labour force” and to “ensure a steady reproduction of ‘cheap’ labour” as recruitment costs were high,” Rinju Rasaily, an assistant professor with Ambedkar University’s sociology department, wrote in a discussion paper. Maintaining a “steady social reproduction of labour” is one of the reasons for more women than men, she said, writing on the topic “Women’s Labour in the Tea Sector: Changing trajectories and Emerging Challenges”.

The truth is, be it an operational garden, or the closed Dheklapara or Dooteriah, the story of tea is the saga of women’s exploitation in generally hostile geographies and confined spaces.

But, the visibility of women workers is restricted to colourful images of them plucking leaves in exotic geographic locales, warm smiles and heavy baskets in place. Discourse around the industry is never about women or their centrality in the process of producing the world’s most popular brew. As Anuradha Talwar, the labour rights activist puts it. “They don’t exist as women…They are spoken of as if they are men. The entire female workforce is just invisibilised.”

While women make the bulk of the workforce, and also the crowd in political rallies, all key positions are held by men. “Trade union leaders, management staff, government officials, everyone is a man,” said Talwar.

Women do the back-breaking job of plucking tea leaves and yet the highest they’ve risen in their jobs to any form of supervisory role is that of a sub-staff, also called sardar or kaamdaar. Even after a century of existence and lakhs of women in the workforce, no tea garden has ever seen a woman manager. “It is only now when men are migrating in search of other jobs that you see women on factory floors,” said Talwar.

The survey of 273 operational tea estates conducted by the West Bengal labour department in May 2013, in its 325-page report, mentions “female workers” only in the section on maternity benefits. The meticulous report does not even give the number of women employed in the tea sector. It only speaks about “workers” and “workmen”. Sample this: “In 231 Tea Estates out of 273 there is provision for school. The wards of the workmen of remaining 42 Tea Estates go to nearby schools for education (sic).”

Elections are no different. Even as everyone cries hoarse over the plight of tea workers, there is little mention of women workers.

A little downhill from the Dooteriah factory, Sharmila Sharma and a few other women are breaking stones by the river. “I had never imagined I would be breaking stones,” says Sharmila, remembering the day she married her childhood love “uilenai”(long time ago), when she was “15 or 16”. She smiles at her memories, never once lifting her head, as she keeps hammering. Sundown—which happens sooner in the mountains—is approaching and she’s trying to get three boris (sacks) ready. Her entire day’s back breaking work brings her ₹30 per bori.

She has made herself a contraption with a circular rubber strap tied to a wooden handle (shaped like a giant magnifying glass). She places the smaller stones in the middle of it, keeping her left hand over the handle while she hammers with the other. “The stones keep running away unless you hold them in one place. This keeps me from hitting my own hand while breaking the smaller stones.”

The first blow came when her tea worker husband, Gopal, died “of high pressure” in 2010. “He collapsed on the factory floor and never revived.” With two children to look after, she joined the garden as a tea plucker soon after.

But barely had Sharmila Sharma begun working than trouble started in the estate, owned by Kanwar Deep Singh of the Alchemist Group, a Rajya Sabha member on a Trinamool Congress ticket.

“Trouble began around the same time that Sarada Ghotala happened,” remembers Aashish Lama, factory staff and member of the joint action committee, which together with employees of neighbouring closed gardens, Peshok and Kalej Valley, who also share the same ownership, is fighting for their reopening.

The Sarada financial scandal came to light in April 2013 with the collapse of the Sarada Group, a consortium of over 200 private companies running a Ponzi scam in West Bengal and adjacent states. At the time of the collapse, it was reported that the group had raised about ₹4,000 crore from over 1.7 million depositors.

The scam shone the spotlight on other chit-funds and in July the same year the Securities Appellate Tribunal directed Alchemist Infra, a subsidiary of KD Singh’s Alchemist Group, to refund about ₹1,000 crore collected from about 15 lakh depositors using unauthorised “collective investment schemes”. Last year, the enforcement directorate seized Singh’s assets worth ₹238 crore in connection with an alleged chit-fund scam of ₹1,900 crore. 

“The fringe benefits stopped first, like money for umbrella, boots, dokos (cane baskets to carry tea leaves)—things workers need while plucking leaves,” said Suraj Hawal, a senior member of the joint action committee, “The bonus stopped in 2016. The company owes the workers and staff ₹19 crore.”  

It is while pursuing the case of reopening the garden that Hawal and his colleagues discovered that the lease had not been renewed since 1987.Tea estates operate on lands leased from the state government. “We were told by the district magistrate that there can be no dialogue as long as the lease is not renewed,” he said. With the estate abandoned by its owners—Fortune Chemical Ltd bought the estate from Trident in 2018, which took over the company from Alchemist in 2016—there’s no solution in sight.

More than 80 per cent of the 1,356 workers are women.

In 2017, after a good first flush, Darjeeling’s tea industry was busying itself for the second flush—20 per cent of total production and 40 per cent of annual revenues—when the hills erupted in political turmoil. Tea workers, particularly women, were the worst hit.

Days passed into weeks, and weeks into months, a general strike called by the local, pro-Gorkhaland parties lasted 105 days, bringing life in the hills and the tea gardens to an absolute halt. Demonstrations, arson, loot and clashes and police raids became the order of the day. Darjeeling town resembled a war zone. About a dozen people were reportedly killed in separate incidents across Darjeeling district, some allegedly in police firing—a charge denied by the government.

Khai kasari kasari (Well, don’t really know how),” says Sharmila Sharma, her eyes still fixed on the stones, when asked how she managed to run a household in that time. More silence. The hammer keeps pounding, and the river keeps flowing.

It is the woman’s job to put food on the plate, says the more vocal Asha Pradhan, it is she who suffers most when there isn’t enough. “From foraging in the forests, to taking loans and selling off household items to buy over-priced ration in the grey market, women have done it all,” she says.

The strike ended, but the estate remained closed. A clueless Sharmila waited, and waited for the management to return and resume work, but no one came. The workers made several trips to the administrative offices, in vain. Then when all hopes were lost, she got herself a hammer and a rubber contraption resembling the rim of a giant magnifying glass, and started breaking stones by the river.

In season, she plucks tea in neighbouring gardens and also at Dooteriah, where the workers and staff have come together as an informal body to pluck the green leaves and sell them to gardens outside. Sharma is currently waiting for the first flush to be ready so that she can take a break from stones and pluck green leaves, which will bring her Rs 25 a kilo. On average, she can pluck 4-5 kg of first flush tea a day. 

For Darjeeling tea growers, who are mostly Nepali-speaking Indians, or Gorkhas, a separate state of Gorkhaland is their utopia. So, when a call for a strike came from the political leadership, tea garden workers, with women in large numbers, responded spontaneously. Women would also be seen in demonstrations organised in their neighbourhoods.

The closed Dheklapara Tea estate in the Dooars  region of West Bengal.  Photo: Anuradha Sharma

But Gorkhaland never came. It was more than a quarter of a year without work, wages or rations; or even any news of the world outside (cable TV was taken off air and internet withdrawn by the government). Initially, Asha Pradhan didn’t mind—she believed in the Gorkhaland dream, that a separate state would bring better times for ordinary workers like her and a brighter future for her children. What shocked was the outcome. After months of believing that Gorkhaland was around the corner, the strike was called off without progress on the issue of a separate state. The leaders struck a deal with the government and the earlier autonomous hill body, Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, was reinstated.

“We were back to square one,” she remarks, sipping tea—Dooteriah orthodox (hand-made by herself) with milk and sugar. “It felt like the whole house came down on us… It will take some time for us to recover, economically and mentally both.”

After the strike, Gorkha Janmukti Morhca, the party spearheading the statehood agitation, split into two—one faction supports the Trinamool Congress and the other the BJP in this election. Neither party has Gorkhaland in its election agenda.

“The others have moved on—salaried people in government got paid for the strike period. It is the tea garden workers who got nothing and, in our case, the estate has closed altogether,” says Pradhan.

June 25, 1955, was a historic day in the labour history of Bengal plantations. On this day, six protestors, two of them women, were killed in police firing at Darjeeling’s Margaret’s Hope tea garden. They were demanding a wage hike and a host of other things, including maternity leave. This was the first organised labour movement in the tea sector and it paved the way for greater labour activism.

More than 60 years on, the story of tea workers is still one of injustice and exploitation.

In spite of being industrial workers,tea garden workers get paid much less than other workers—even less than labourers in neighbouring construction sites. This observation comes from West Bengal’s labour department which conducted a survey of Bengal’s tea gardens in 2013. “A livelihood with these wages is unaffordable,” said the survey report. Tea workers are currently paid ₹176 per day.(Until 1976, when the Equal Remuneration Act was passed, women were paid less than men.)

The wage is decided through collective bargaining, or tripartite negotiations among the trade unions, management and the government. Trade unions have long been demanding the fixing of minimum wages under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. “In Kerala, the minimum is ₹310 and in Tamil Nadu ₹283,” said Abhijit Mazumdar, who is also convenor of the joint forum of 29 tea trade unions of north Bengal fighting for the implementation of the Minimum Wages Act, among other things. “Workers of Assam and Bengal, who produce 75 per cent of India’s tea, get the least because their wages are not fixed under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.”

The managements justify the low wage citing the “non-cash components” of free housing, subsidised foodgrain, firewood, healthcare and children’s education. But these exist mostly on paper as increasingly, estate owners default on these components.

In 2015, the West Bengal government set up an advisory committee with nine representatives each from the government, management and workers, but even after 17 rounds of talks there has been little progress. “From the workers’ side we have made our submissions, but are yet to see any tangible development. We suspect the government is colluding with plantation associations to delay or derail the implementation of the Act altogether,” said Mazumdar.

“The industry has highlighted the peculiar nature of the sector where the worker not only resides within the tea estate but is entitled to various benefits under the Plantation Labour Act 1951,” said P. K. Bhattacharjee, Kolkata-based secretary general of the Tea Association of India. “The cash value of those amenities, namely housing, healthcare, children’s education and non-statutory benefits like firewood, dry tea, etc, need to be incorporated while fixing the minimum wage, as is provided under section 11 of the Minimum Wages Act.”

However, the 2013 survey of 273 tea estates points at gross violations of the Plantation Labour Act. Some of the finding are:

  • Only 1,66,591 out of 2,62,426 workers have houses provided by the management.
  • Six tea estates (three in the hills & three in the Dooars) have not provided a single house to workers.
  • 12 estates in the Dooars have not provided electricity in workers’ homes.
  • 98 tea estates don’t have any medical staff.
  • Only 166 estates have hospitals. Only 56 of them have full-time residential doctors and others depend on visiting doctors. “Out of doctors of 166 Tea Estates only 74 have degree of MBBS, others are non-MBBS,” says the report. 116 hospitals don’t have any nurse.
  • There is no Labour Welfare Officer in 175 estates.
  • 42 estates have no schools for children.
  • In 2009-10, 24 tea estates did not deposit any amount towards provident fund contribution. The number was 18 in 2010-11, 13 in 2011-2012, 41 in 2012-13
  • 44 estates do not have any latrines.

When this is the situation in running gardens, one can only imagine the state of closed ones. Currently, 16 gardens are closed in north Bengal, affecting the lives of nearly 24,000 workers and their families.

The crisis in the tea industry began in the mid-2000s for a number of reasons, such as the decline in international prices, competition from other countries (Kenya, Nepal and Sri Lanka), rising production costs despite stagnant prices in the domestic market. “Another major factor has been competition from small growers,” said Bhattacharjee.

In the past twenty years or so there has been a massive growth in the small sector, helped in large part by the Tea Board of India. Currently, small growers contribute 47 per cent to India’s total tea production. “There is a perceptible difference in the process through which the bought leaf factory (independent factories that source leaf from small growers) procures and manufactures tea and this lends a cost advantage,” Bhattacharjee said. “The organised sector is tied to a host of obligations, statutory or otherwise, and are at their wits’ end to match the advantage of the bought leaf factories.When tea is available at lower prices the appetite to go for higher priced tea is just not there among buyers.

“To put it simply, the industry is going through an existential crisis.”

The crisis has increased the burden on women workers, historically at the bottom of the plantation hierarchy. Curtailment of fringe benefits and delayed and irregular wages have added to the woes of women who are also constantly battling

“With male workers migrating, it would be reasonable to infer that nearly 40 per cent of women workers have to support 60 per cent of family members besides themselves,” Bhattacharjee said. “This is a high dependency rate.”

Women, who were resistant to migrating initially, largely for fear of losing housing which is linked to their jobs, are now fleeing the estates in large numbers, many landing in the net of traffickers.

Migration and trafficking are major issues with women in tea plantations. Of the 500 or so trafficked girls and women rescued by Panighata tea estate resident Rangu Souriya and her non-governmental organisation Kanchenjunga Uddhar Kendra, the majority are from the tea garden areas, mostly closed estates. “There are organised cartels working here,” she said. “Big jobs are promised, young girls are even trapped in romantic relationships and marriages; and the poor hapless women from the remote tea gardens end up as highly-exploited domestic workers or sex workers in various brothels across the country,” she added.

“Women are migrating in large numbers,” said Debarati Sen, assistant professor of Anthropology and International Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University, who has closely studied the lives of women tea workers and the author of Everyday Sustainability: Gender Justice and Fair Trade Tea in Darjeeling. “None of the workers’ daughters want to do anything with tea. They want to do something better, and in this desperation to get out, they end up in predatory relationships with men who traffick them.”

Describing the situation of women in the tea sector as cyclical doomed stories Sen said women are forever trapped in the cycle of structural violence that has been perpetuated over centuries.

In February 2013, ahead of the assembly elections the state government implemented the National Food Security Act in the form of Khadya Sathi scheme to provide fixed quantities of rice and wheat at ₹2 per kilo to very poor sections of the population, which includes tea plantation workers.

In 2014, the state government extended the Financial Assistance for Workers of Locked-Out Industries (FOWLOI) scheme to tea plantation workers under which the jobless workers of closed or abandoned estates for more than a year are given a one-time payment of ₹1,500.

In many closed gardens, employees have formally and informally come together to pluck green leaves to sell to other gardens or bought-leaf factories. “Men take over the cooperatives as soon as there are big money transactions,” said anthropologist Sen describing how even in a less-exploitative set-up of cooperative farming women are robbed of their agency and placed where they have historically belonged, at the bottom.

In Darjeeling, in such worker-run set-ups,women are paid proportionate to the job done—usually ₹20-25 per kg. In the Dooars, they earn a fixed wage of ₹60 per day (8am to 1pm).

Of the countless rivers and streams in the Dooars that originate in Bhutan are Reti and Dumchi. The two seasonal, raid-fed rivers meet in India a little distance from the border. In the area between the two arms of the riverine Y lie Dheklapara (closed since 2002) and Bundapani tea estates (closed since 2013).

I reach Dheklapara after crossing two rivers and Bundapani by crossing another one. The rivers don’t have any bridges, I drive through them. They are dry.

When dry, the riverbeds are a flurry of activity. They are the highways on which heavy-duty dumper trucks ferry the dolomite mined in Bhutan hills, raising clouds of dust over the stone miners, most of them out-of-job tea workers of Bundapani and Dheklapara.

During monsoons, the rivers become a natural divide cutting off the estates and the surrounding villages—Garochira and Kalapani and Reti forest village—from the rest of the world. Over 15,000 people are marooned inside the triangle formed by Bhutan hills on one side, the north, and the rivers on the remaining sides for long stretches.

“We try to hoard as much grain as we can before getting cut off,” said Jagadish Munda, a local leader who worked at Dheklapara tea estate hospital before it closed down.

Everything comes to a standstill, children don’t go to school and those who travel outside in search of odd jobs stay indoors. When anyone takes ill, the only thing to do is to wait for the river levels to come down. Till that time shamans and faith healers offer whatever they can.

The proprietors abandoned Dheklapara in 2002. From then till 2007, it saw three new owners come and go, with the last one disappearing without a trace. “In 2011, under the watch of the Calcutta High Court, it was liquidated and handed over to the Tea Board which ran the garden for two years before surrendering,” said Bikas Roy, central committee member of the Terai Dooars Plantation Workers’ Union. “It is now with the Calcutta High Court. A few years ago, fresh tenders were invited forbids from interested entrepreneurs but nobody turned up.”

Bundapani too saw three owners since 1996 before being totally abandoned in 2013. The next year, the West Bengal government cancelled its land lease and took over the garden, but has not managed to get the estate running. The workers are owed over  12 crore in provident fund, pension, gratuity, wages and other benefits.

This garden has to reopen and we need to get our jobs back, our wages and our dues

Tea workers fell into bad times when the gardens closed.There were 605 workers in Dheklapara and 1215 in Bundapani, over half of them women.According to Raju Thapa, who was a worker at Bundapani and is currently a senior member of the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity, an organisation fighting for labour rights, as many as 60 workers and their family members died of hunger and malnutrition at his estate in the first six months of the shutdown.

Many also died due to lack of health care. Parul Tanti of Dheklapara was expecting her second child. She was still about 15 days from the expected date of delivery when her water broke. “This must be sometime after the garden closed,” her husband Shubhraj Tanti tries hard to remember. “We did not have any healthcare facility at the garden then and we could not take her to hospital (Birpara, about 15 km away) because the rivers were in spate.”

A healthy boy was born, but the mother died. When the boy was nine days’ old, Tanti gave him to his brother-in-law in the neighbouring tea estate to adopt, because he was not sure he’d be able to raise the baby with the estate closed, and without the support of his wife.

“It had rained so much that we were cut off for 15 days that year,” recalls Parul Tanti’s brother Bhanu Tanti. The day after her death, the skies cleared and Bhanu Tanti managed to go across the Dumchi to fetch the doctor from the neighbouring Joy Birpara Tea Estate to write his sister’s death certificate.

Now they get some relief in the form of subsidised rations and financial assistance from the government.

“How long to survive on relief?” says an exasperated Manju Thapa of Bundapani, balancing herself on the cycle, one leg on the ground. “This garden has to reopen and we need to get our jobs back, our wages and our dues.” She has just cycled across three riverbeds, to get home from Binnaguri cantonment where she works as a cook in the homes of two schoolteachers, a job that brings her ₹3000 a month. With that money the widow has to fend for her son, who will be appearing for class X board exams next year, and her mother-in-law.

Both Nepalis and adivasis, who were originally conscripted from the tribal areas of Jharkhand, comprise the labour force in Dooars. “The adivasi women are even more marginalised,” said Debarati Sen.

Twenty-five-year-old Meena Thapa sits on her haunches by the water pipe on the side of a dirt road at the end of the garden, very close to the border with Bhutan.

She collects the trickling water in a small mug and empties it into a 20-litre jerrycan. The mouth of the pipe being too close to the ground it cannot directly fill up the container. It takes about half an hour to fill one jerrycan, she needs at least six. She spends two-three, sometimes more, hours every day to meet the water needs of her family of six.

“I usually come here in the afternoons, after finishing the household chores,” says the mother of two.

Things were not like this when she first came, as a bride, to this garden six-seven years ago from the nearby Lankapara Tea Estate (now closed). When the estate was functioning, workers had water connections in their labour lines. When it closed, water supply also stopped.

Asha Pradhan, in the background, chats with other workers at her labour quarters in Dooteriah tea estate. Photo: Anuradha Sharma

Twenty-nine-year-old Rajni Baxla is part of the train of women ferrying water in pairs of colourful jerry-cans balanced on their cycles. A former tea plucker, the mother of three mines stones on the river bed all morning, a job that brings her Rs 150-200 a day. Her afternoons go into providing water for the family.

Manju Thapa also joins in after a quick lunch of rice and vegetables that she had cooked early in the morning, before setting out on her cycle to cook for her employers in the outside world where no one is worried about water. She makes three trips to the water source, each time loaded with two jerrycans of 20 litres each. She bought the cans—which originally contained pesticide meant for tea bushes—from a shop in Birpara for Rs 250 each.

In the afternoon, after the women return from plucking leaves, or breaking stones or cooking in the homes of people across three rivers, they make a beeline to water sources around the Bhutan border. Some have piles of laundry on them. Some have water dripping from their hair, their clothes soaking wet and the insides of their fingers all shrivelled up after a long, wet afternoon.

Children seem to have the most fun—cycling in groups, racing at times, teasing each other; but they are at work. They supply water to those homes who have no one to do the job themselves. Most able-bodied men and women have migrated. “I give the money to my mother,” says a 12-year-old Krish Lohar, chewing at a raw betel nut. He supplies water to five households, charges ₹10 for every jerrycan of 20 litres, makes about ₹200 a day.

Manju Thapa tries to keep her son out of all this, next year he will be appearing in the board exams. “He already has to put in a lot of hard work. He has to cycle to school (in Binnaguri) everyday, crossing the three river beds,” she says. When the garden was functioning, there used to be a school-bus.

Sometimes even this supply gets disrupted, either due to lack of maintenance or the ‘unmindful’ herds of elephants—lying at the intersection of Jaldapara National Park, Gorumara National Park and Buxa Tiger Reserve these areas fall in the elephant corridor.

“There are no natural water sources in the estate,” explains Raju Thapa. The plantation lies at an altitude of 1,135 feet and the water table goes down to 350 feet during summers. “It is impossible to bore wells to that depth. The only way to get water is by tapping the rivers in Bhutan. That’s how the management used to get water and paid a cess to the Bhutan government in exchange.After the garden shut down, water supply also got cut off.”

That it is not possible to extract ground water has not stopped local bodies from politics over them. In several places there are deep tube wells supplied by government agencies, like Potemkin villages as they cannot function in such a geography. An overhead tank lies abandoned.

Dheklapara and Bundapani fall in Alipurduar Lok Sabha constituency where both frontrunners are residents of tea estates, and adivasis—Dasrath Tirkey, sitting Member of Parliament from the Trinamool Congress and John Barla of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Tirkey has promised minimum wages to workers and also a wage board, apart from trying to reopen closed gardens. Kicking off his campaign at the Chuapara tea estate on March 30, he said: “Earlier the British exploited us, adivasis and Nepalis, as they needed cheap labour. In this age, the same mentality to exploit us cannot go on.” He also promised safe drinking water.

“Minimum wages, reopening of closed tea gardens and land rights to the tea workers—these are the main issues for me,” said Barla.

Thanks to years of disciplining in plantation environments, most women workers are reticent and reluctant to engage in conversations around politics. They almost always draw a blank when asked what they want as women and reluctantly open up on persistence.

“Everything will be fine, if the garden opens again,” says Manju Thapa. “There will be work, our people will be back. It will be the same life again… There is nothing more I want.”

Rubina Khatun (name changed), a plucker at a Terai tea garden considers a larger picture. “I am not going to vote for Modi I know,” says the woman in her late 20s who was rescued from a brothel in Pune by Souriya. “He does not like us, Muslims.” Souriya is helping her build a home for her to stay with her son. She was rejected by her husband after she returned from Pune where she was tricked into going by a friend and sold off at a brothel.

According to Bebika Khawas, a researcher at North Bengal University, for all their appearance of indifference, tea garden women are most concerned about the elections because they are directly impacted by the outcomes. “They have to run families, educate children, arrange fuel and water supplies. They care,” says Khawas.

“Will you vote?” I ask a female plucker, as starts moving towards the leaf-shade. “Yes, why not?” immediately comes the reply as she walks off with her jhola of green leaves balanced on the head. “This is my right.”