As innocuous as it may seem, but it all began around a school bus. It was the month of July, at the peak of monsoons. A couple of days before we would reach the Dooars in North East India, school students, mainly girls, in the Chuapara Tea Estate in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri staged had staged a tiny rebellion. Little did they know that it would escalate in the manner that it did.

According to the terms an agreement in the 1980s, the garden management is responsible for providing school buses to the children of tea garden workers as most of these estates are remote. But the children at Chupara had been complaining for a while that the rickety bus packed nearly 150 of them together in a single trip, making them feel suffocated. Because of the overcrowding, some of them even skipped school.

On July 1, they marched in a procession through the lanes in which the workers quarters were located. The next day, 400 children blocked the roads through the garden. They wouldn’t budge, heeding neither to the pleas of the union uncles, nor to the cajoling of their parents. They were adamant. They needed two trips.

The management was unmoved. To dissipate the protest, it gave a false assurance. But it declared a lock-out soon after because of what it called the children’s “temerity to create chaos and confusion by indulging in acts of indiscipline”.

By the time we arrived, the bus service had been shut down pending a resolution.

Credit: Cheena Kapoor

The tension and uncertainty in the workers lines was palpable. The Dooars, meaning the doorway to the hills, had a notorious familiarity with such closures, particularly since the turn of the millennium. Between 2002 and 2007, managements had shut down 17 gardens. As a consequence, approximately 1,200 people in the tea gardens are estimated to have died of hunger.

Beyond the serene landscape were unpruned tea bushes, unkempt factories, starvation, child trafficking and distress migration. While the hunger deaths briefly found mention in the newspapers at the time, the plight of the garden workers was soon buried. As we travelled through some of these closed gardens, we gathered pieces that told a larger story.

Skeletons of the factory at Bandapani tea estate in Jalpaiguri. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

In the Bandapani estate in Jalpaiguri, we met Nitu and Jonus, both in their early teens. The estate has been shut for the last six years. The settlement in which they lived was named after district from which many early immigrants from Chotanagpur had been drawn: Chaibasa, in present day Jharkhand. Along with Dumka, Hazaribagh and Ranchi, Chaibasa formed one of the biggest catchment areas for tea garden labour in the twilight years of the 19th century.

The notorious coolie trade under colonial rule exploited the dispossession, indebtedness and despair of Adivasis to transport them, often by force or deception, as far as Assam or the Dooars – or even further afield to plantations in Trinidad, Guyana, South Africa and Malaya. These tectonic shifts in demography disrupted millions of lives.

A century and a half later, these communities are on the move again.

Nitu plays marbles in the workers lines in Bandrapani. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

The moribund economy of the Dooars region has rendered these communities vulnerable yet again. The movement that began as trickle became a torrent ever since the closures of estates in early 2000s: men, women and even children started seeking work as far as Sikkim, Bhutan, Delhi, Bangalore and Kerala.

Just as they’d done in Chotanagpur decades before, traffickers and dalals circled at the scent of distress. The closed and sick gardens, we were told, were relatively more prone to unsafe migration and trafficking.

Jonus in Bandapani. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

Nitu and Jonus were easy prey. Both were taken to Sikkim where they worked as agricultural labourers in return for food and no pay. In such arrangements, a token lump sum is often given to the parents after two or three years. Nitu was finally brought back by his mother in December 2018 after about two years.

Ever since, he has been going to pluck tea leaves in a neighbouring garden in a packed pick-up truck that leaves at 7 every morning. He earns Rs 150 for a day’s work.

Jonus was taken when he was about 9 or 10 years old. He speaks of a thrilling escape from Sikkim, jumping off the window and scrambling his way to the bus stand. But after this, he travelled to Bangalore to work in the hotel industry with several others from the same garden, earning Rs 9,000 a month. He blames the closure of the garden for the situation in which he and his friends find themselves.

On his return from Bangalore, though, he has decided to complete his schooling by any means. So he wakes up at 5 am and goes to break boulders on the adjacent river bed for a paltry wage. Much of this mining is conducted illegally by contractors in the Teesta, Mahananda, Torsha, Jaldhaka, Leesh, Ghish, Chel, Raidak, Birbiti, Diana and Sankosh river beds in the Dooars.

Through the day and night, a line of trucks carry these to urban centres, near and far, as construction material. Mining has been banned in many places, given the fragile topography of the Dooars and the risk of changing river courses. But for thousands like Jonus, this often remains the only option as the gardens are faced with sickness or closure. By 9 am Jonus rushes back from the river to make it to school in time.

The day we visited, both Nitu and Jonus did not have work because the incessant rains had turned the streams into gushing torrents. It was impossible to break the boulders in the showers and, with no bridge, the pick-up truck couldn’t take Nitu to work in Lakhipara.

Umri and her husband (at the door) at Dalmore garden. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

In the Dalmore tea estate next to Bandapani, we met Umri, who recounted how she had been handed over to a broker for a mere Rs 2,000 by her own son nearly eight years ago. She was transported first to Nepal and then to Kuwait on forged papers to do domestic work. She was sent back after three years with no pay and now fends for herself and her husband with his failing mental health.

However, she considers herself lucky as we heard of several others who remain trapped abroad without proper papers. Umri’s sister, for instance, also had been flown to the Gulf, and the last Urmi heard from her was about six months ago.

Credit: Cheena Kapoor

Dalmore is among the sick gardens that has struggled to stay open over the years. Traditionally, work in the estates has been divided by gender – plucking of leaves in the gardens is done by women and factory work mainly by men. In Dalmore, however, almost all the factory workers were women. The men, we were told, had almost all migrated to other places.

Credit: Cheena Kapoor

Workers in Chuapara did not want a similar fate for their children while the prospect of a lengthy closure loomed large since the lock out. At the same time, the workers we spoke to had no doubt that the grievances of the school children were legitimate. Narrating tales of everyday humiliation and control by the management, they almost betrayed a sense of satisfaction at the fact that the children had done what their parents couldn’t.

Nonetheless, there were genuine fear that this could just be an excuse for the management to shut the garden for longer or to force a cut in their annual bonus.

Sarad Tirki in Chuapara garden. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

Meanwhile, the matter spiralled out of the garden and landed on the tripartite table between the union leaders, the management and the labour commissioner. While everybody hoped for a speedy resolution of the matter, some, like Sarad Tirki, were upset about the manner in which the union leadership seemed to be shirking its responsibilities.

Sarad and his friends in his home at the Chuapara garden. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

Tirki’s mother is a garden worker in Chuapara. Intense, lively, and articulate, Tirki was concerned about the well-being, dignity and culture of Adivasi workers in the gardens, particularly of the young people. In fact, he and a group of his friends in the adjacent gardens, all savvy and self-taught in technology, had reported on the students’ protest live on their YouTube channel, the Dooars TV.

He lamented the fact that the union, their only defence against the management’s dominance, had largely been reduced to being the management’s mouthpiece. His apprehensions were not unfounded.

We reached the factory gate by 6 am the following day, as the union had called for a factory-gate meeting. The heavy downpour through the night had by settled for a consistent drizzle. As the siren summoned the workers, umbrellas and anxious faces huddled around the gate. While there was a general relief that the garden was re-opening, but there was also a murmur of annoyance as the union members berated the workers for their “indiscipline”.

Credit: Cheena Kapoor

“Just like kids are supposed to be under the control of their parents, in the same way workers are supposed to help the management run the gardens,” said one. “The management gives us ration and wages, in return it is the responsibility of the union and the labourers to support the management.”

One after the other, each representative of the union from various parts of the ideological spectrum – left to right – repeated the importance of anushashan or “discipline”.

In an industry with an overwhelmingly female workforce, barring one, all of the union representatives were male.

Credit: Cheena Kapoor

There was not a single word about the legitimacy of the students’ grievances or the insensitivity of the management. In fact, what seemed to bother the representatives the most was the fact that the protest had been organised without consulting the union.

With regard to the school bus, they had accepted the management’s condition that from now only the children of permanent workers could travel in the bus.

The crowd dispersed uninspired. A few grumbled about the timidity of their leadership. Order had been restored. Work resumed.

At around10am, the yellow bus finally chugged towards the bus stop for the first time after seven days. The students cheered.

Credit: Cheena Kapoor

In the days that followed, however, it soon became clear that the authorities would not allow the children of workers who were not permanent to board the bus, even though they were residents of the same garden.

Out of the 4.5 lakh tea garden workers in the gardens in the Hills, the Dooars and the Terai regions combined, only 2.62 lakh workers are permanent. Tea gardens have progressively limited the number of workers in their permanent rolls and swelled the ranks of daily wage labourers and bigha (or casual) workers since this allows management to avoid the provisions of the Plantation Labour Act that were to safeguard the rights of the permanent workers.

The students hadn’t staged their rebellion to exclude some of their friends. But the union uncles weren’t bothered.

If not the management, would the government step in for the students who would be excluded? Who would be raising such questions if the unions weren’t?

Credit: Cheena Kapoor

While the minimum wage for bidi pluckers stand at Rs 297 a day, tea garden workers get a minimum daily wage of Rs 176 a day. Gardens like Ramjhora (adjacent to Dalmore garden) are not even willing to pay that by threatening closure. How long would workers bear the raw deal under the threat of closure?

Word got around that four women workers at Chuapara had in fact been summarily suspended for what many believed to be their vocal support for the school children’s agitation. Who, if not the union would speak up?

The search for answers took Sarad Tikri and his friends to Mattu da, Mattu Oraon, of Sonali garden in Bagracote subdivision of Jalpaiguri.

Mattu Oraon spoke about the golden days of Sonali garden in the 1970s. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

Here was an example of workers combatting closure by taking charge of the enterprise themselves.

An initiative that had begun in 1974 as a grasp at survival turned into a bright example of a workers’ cooperative in just a couple of years. By 1977, the Sonali garden experienced the highest yield that the estate had ever recorded. Workers’ income rose by 50% and they had a direct voice in the running and finances of the garden.

It was also the first garden in the country to implement equal pay for women and men, much before such a legislation was passed by Parliament in 1976.

Sukra Oraon, amember of the Sonali cooperative. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

For managements, though, the cooperative was a threat. False cases were registered against several cooperative members including Mattu da, who had to spend several years in hiding and hardship. The power of the planters lobby and the apathy of the Left government that came to power in West Bengal meant that Sonali had to be condemned to oblivion.

Vinay is trying to build a workers cooperative. Credit: Cheena Kapoor

But can Sarad Tikri and his friends reimagine Mattu da’s model? Along with him, we met Vinay, Pushma di and others eager to take the first steps towards reviving the closed Bandapani and Madhubani gardens. We witnessed one of the committee meetings on the sides in Madhubani where they have started with a cooperative for allied activities.

The success of a similar initiative in the neighbouring Mechpara garden has added to their hopes.

What the future holds for the gardens will to a great extent be determined by the prospects of such small initiatives. The yellow school bus is a testament to the fact that young people are not going to lie low any longer.

Credit: Cheena Kapoor

The research for this essay was supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.