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Making Of A Global Brand Name


Sajal Nag

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SERVITUDE: POLITICAL ECONOMY OF TEA PLANTATIONSIN COLONIAL ASSAM
By Rana Behal
Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2014, pp. Xiii 387, Rs. 900.00

VOLUME XXXIX NUMBER 5 May 2015

Before North East India got identified with political unrest, Assam was known for its tea. In fact Assam teas a global brand name. It took years of frantic search, botanical experiments, massive entrepreneurships, colonial machinations and above all the blood and toil of millions of labourers to create that brand name. Yet there are very few published works on the subject and very little is known about the history of this industry that sustained a huge population of capitalists and labourers for one and a half centuries and earned huge foreign exchange for the country. Rana Behal’s work is not only about a labour history of the tea plantations but discusses the travails of tea before it became an industry. The book has actually more or less settled the debate over who discovered tea and the collaboration between the colonial state and botanists who pioneered the search for tea plants over the deteriorating Anglo-Chinese trade relations by which time the English as well as the Americans were addicted to this beverage creating a huge demand for the product. The fascinating account then shifts to the concerns over labour supply without which the growing industry was facing almost closure. When the endeavour to recruit labour locally or importing them from China failed the method of indenturing labour was thought of. Labour recruitment in Assam’s tea plantations through indentured system is common knowledge but that it is so layered and had gone through such acrimony and legislative evolution becomes evident in Behal’s detailing. Why it was necessary for labourers to be residential instead of day labourers is explained painstakingly by the author. It also details the wage structure, treatment of the labour force, their life in the gardens and most important non-reproduction of labour force. The crisis created by Henry Cotton’s scathing report on the indenture system and the subsequent dismantling of the system shows the contradiction between the bureaucracy and the planting interests in the British Empire over the working of the tea plantations. The chapter on ‘Dominance and Dependency’ is a revelation of the power structure within the planting community.Without using any Marxian categories, Behal shows how the planters were an organized,unified and well defined class of ‘capitalists’with their own hierarchies and spread over two continents to perpetuate and protect its global interests. There is also an equally curious and interesting chapter on ...


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