Young mothers in Assam pay with their lives to produce tea

Devjyot Ghoshal

By: Devjyot Ghoshal

Posted on: 8 August 2016

Babita Jayram has beaten the odds.

The 21-year-old sits in one corner of the hospital bed, brushing her hair with the slow, steady strokes of a purple comb. The nine months of pregnancy mostly spent at a tea garden on the eastern fringes of Assam were uneventful. There were no complications during the delivery. A healthy newborn, curled gently on her lap, sleeps quietly.

Another woman sits on the opposite side of the bed, cradling her own infant. Some of the other 27 beds in the ward even accommodate a relative or two, precariously perched on the edge.

An assortment of cloth and plastic bags hang from nails hammered into weathered walls. Thin curtains, barely green, flutter in a meagre breeze made possible by the toil of ageing fans above. Then, the power goes out on a muggy, overcast June afternoon. The postnatal ward of Dibrugarh’s Assam Medical College and Hospital, the best-equipped government hospital in all of eastern Assam, turns into a warm, dimly-lit cave packed with recovering mothers and newborns.

Reena Dutta Ahmed, who heads the college’s gynaecology department, insists they are the lucky ones.

“You people cannot imagine,” said Ahmed, a slight, wispy-haired woman. “No other faculty in any other department can imagine a pregnant lady coming with two gram or three gram.” The doctor was referring to the levels of haemoglobin in blood. The recommended level is about 12 grams per decilitre.

“She cannot breathe. You know, she cannot breathe,” Ahmed went on, describing the condition of the mothers she encounters, with some vexation. “After a few minutes she is blue, then she dies.”

India accounts for 17% of all maternal deaths in the world. The country’s maternal mortality ratio was 167 per 100,000 live births in 2013. The ratio for Assam was 301, the highest for any state in India. Within the state, the five districts served by the Assam Medical College and Hospital—Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Jorhat and Golaghat—had a collective maternal mortality ratio of 404 per 100,000 live births in 2013, which resembles the ratios in sub-Saharan Africa.

By Ahmed’s assessment, there is one main culprit: “In our hospital, 80% of the mortality is from the tea gardens.”

Hundreds of tea gardens in this region grow over half of India’s total tea. Hand-picked leaves from here find their way into nearly every second cup of tea consumed in the country. Assam teas are also supplied to makers of major global brands such as Liptons, Twinings and Tetley. Even London’s upmarket Harrods stocks a selection.

Yet Assam’s prized tea industry has turned into a veritable death trap for thousands of expectant mothers. Most of them belong to tribal communities that were brought to work in the tea gardens over a century ago.

An industry brews

Tea began trickling into Britain in the 1650s, procured by Dutch tradersand shipped halfway across the world from China. The British East India Company gradually waded into the trade, bringing small quantities of tea along with its usual cargo of silks and other textiles from the Middle Kingdom.

Within two centuries, the dribble turned into a deluge. By the 1800s, tea imports had become the single largest item in Britain’s trade with China, almost entirely facilitated by the East India Company, which owned the monopoly in the market.

Then, in 1833, the British Parliament dissolved the monopoly.

Scrambling to find new regions that could feed the lucrative trade, the East India Company stumbled upon tea in its own backyard—Assam. The discovery had actually been made in 1823 by Robert Bruce, a major in the company’s service, who had chanced upon wild tea trees near Sadiya in eastern Assam. A decade later, the coincidence was transformed into a serious commercial venture.

By November 1838, the first consignment of Assam tea arrived in London. Eight chests of the produce were auctioned in London on January 10, 1839, fetching between 16 and 34 shillings a pound. Buoyed by such robust prices, that year, a group of merchants decided to form the world’s first commercial tea company: the Assam Company.

But there was one hurdle to establishing industrial-level tea production—Assam did not have enough labour.

“The demoralisation produced by opium, and a liking for independent labour which characterises the Assamese, throw difficulties in the way of a large production of tea in Assam,” The Chamber’s Edinburgh Journalreported on January 25, 1840.

“Mr Bruce looks to the introduction of workmen from other parts of India, for the means of carrying on the manufacture on a large scale,” the erstwhile weekly magazine added, quoting a report by Charles Bruce, Robert’s brother.

A history of exploitation

In 1841, the Assam Company recruited a large group of labourers from the tribes of Bihar’s Chotanagpur division. Some 650 contracted cholera. Most died. The others absconded.

But the exercise continued. Arkatis, or recruiting agents, fanned out across the impoverished and famine-stricken tribal belt of eastern and central India to lure cheap labour for the fledgling colonial enterprise. The scheme worked and thousands of migrant workers from the Munda, Oraon, Santhal and Gond tribes began entering Assam’s tea industry by the late 1870s.

The article was first published on Quartz India, please click here to read the full story.




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