LOOKSUN TEA ESTATE, INDIAWe walked into West Bengal, and it was like strolling into a deer park.
Tea bushes stretched like topiary for miles, the tough, leathery plants trimmed into neat rows called melas that grew under the shade of scattered trees. The Himalayas rose glass-blue above the northern horizon, a darker shard of sky. India is the world’s second-largest tea producer, after China, and its Assam and Darjeeling teas are famous. (In this video by Paul Salopek, watch how tea is produced on a plantation in West Bengal.)
Lila Oraon, 40, has been picking tea for 25 years.
Thousands of tea pickers toiled on the remote plantations. Many were indigenous Adivasi women, the descendants of bonded laborers who were relocated to the region from elsewhere in India more than a century ago by the colonial British. Plantation owners preferred hiring women because of their reliability and purported superior "feel" for plucking tea leaves. The women waded through the waist-high tea bushes, armored in aprons and gloves against the stiff, sharp branches. They lived with their families in shacks without plumbing. The nearest decent hospital was a four-hour bus ride away. They earned poverty wages—the equivalent of $2.44 a day.
“The wage is low, but what else can we do?” said Lalita, a 40-year-old picker at the Looksun Estate, who uses only one name. “We have to survive.” She said leopards often prowled the tea gardens and had to be scared away with firecrackers. Wild elephants stampeded through in June and July. Cobras surfaced from their holes during the monsoon. “They don’t do anything to us, we don’t do anything to them,” she said. “And then they go back home.”
The Communist Party of India had planted its hammer and sickle flag at the tea estate entrance. Its cadre was agitating for a daily wage hike of 50 rupees: about 70 cents. The plantation’s supervisor, a melancholic man sitting in the estate’s archaic tea factory, said it would never happen.