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The tea party’s over: the plight of India’s workers

November 6, 2008

Tea: it’s one of the simplest drinks to make. All you need is a tea bag, hot water and some sugar. It takes a lot more effort to produce the tea, though, than to enjoy it. Since 1998, upwards of 4,000 Indian tea workers and their family members have died from disease, starvation and poverty, as I have learned through a program with the Pulitzer Center to research and raise awareness about this situation.

Because of the expanding tea industries in both Kenya and Sri Lanka and the overall decreased demand for tea in our coffee and latte-chugging world, the tea industry is facing a downward spiral in India. Plantation after plantation has had to shut down, especially in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal. While many plantations are still pulling in a substantial profit, the owners are not reinvesting their profits back into their plantations and their workers. Instead, they are putting their money into other industries and failing to adjust their laborers’ salaries to inflation in the market.

Laborers and their families are quickly succumbing to poverty-induced disease and starvation. Unable to afford the most basic of foods, families are forced to scrounge the forests for snakes and rats. Malaria, septicemia, TB, cancer and hepatitis are running rampant because of these families’ weakened immune systems. Many parents slowly starve themselves to death, sacrificing their food for their children. As a result, many children are left orphaned, unable to fend for themselves. Given that survival is a constant struggle, the literacy rate among these children has dropped dramatically, providing little hope for their future.

By and large, marginalized tea workers are left to fend for themselves without any basic necessities. Getting clean water to drink, cook with or clean with is not just a matter of turning on a faucet; villagers must trek an average of 1.5 kilometers just to fetch polluted water. Proper nutrition and hygiene become secondary when food itself is out of reach. The remoteness of the plantations means that the workers have few skills other than those needed to grow tea, making them fully dependent upon the plantations for their entire livelihood and leaving them abandoned when those very plantations close down.

There are no known efforts being enacted by this swiftly growing country to ease the suffering of its own people. Any aid being given to the needy is negligible to nonexistent.

Ironically, India is quickly gaining ground as one of the most influential superpowers in our globalized economy. It was the first country to provide aid after the catastrophic natural disasters in both Burma in China, acting even before the United States. Unfortunately, India’s benevolence does not reach inside its own closed doors. While eager to flaunt its thriving economy to the rest of the world, India fails to show the same charity to its own people.

So the next time you take a sip of your Darjeeling black tea, think of how much each tea leaf affects the lives of the thousands of tea workers in India. For while we Americans may associate tea with rainy days, grandmothers, Brits, finger sandwiches and the Boston Tea Party, in reality, tea has much more significance and many more life-or-death implications for those cultivating it than we might ever imagine.

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