Women in command at Assam tea estate management

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Avantika Jalan flanked by Deepa Chetri (left) and Damini Narang at the Chota Tingrai Tea Estate office in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district.

Avantika Jalan flanked by Deepa Chetri (left) and Damini Narang at the Chota Tingrai Tea Estate office in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district.
| Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

TINSUKIA

It took 181 years for the tea industry in Assam to appoint a woman as the manager of a tea estate.

Chota Tingrai Tea Estate has not had a woman manager yet but almost all other executive jobs in this “garden” are handled by women – a first among 803 major estates in Assam.

In 2018, Manju Baruah became the ‘bada madam’ of the 633-hectare Hilika Tea Estate in eastern Assam’s Dibrugarh district. Her appointment, she said, had disrupted the traditional management structure in a tea estate used to address the manager as the ‘bada saheb’ since the first plantation was set up by the British in 1937 in the district’s Chabua.

Almost simultaneously, Avantika Jalan appointed four women in managerial or executive posts after becoming a director of Chota Tingrai, one of six estates the Jalan group of industries owns. She is the director of Jalannagar Development Private Limited, which holds the Chota Tingrai Tea Estate.

Simi Baruah, the first woman to have graduated from Dibrugarh University’s tea course, could not continue as the green tea factory head due to health issues. Priyanka Bhattacharya, the daughter of a plantation employee who ran the administrative office and helped the plantation workers create bank accounts, left after landing a job at a top software firm in Pune.

Damini Narang replaced Kironi Kurmi as a field executive in 2020, assisting Deepa Chetri in the job that largely entails making the rounds of the 355-hectare estate to ensure the plantation workers take proper care of the tea bushes.

“Deepa was the first woman to be hired when I started working with organics. She and Damini are a field management team that hardly leaves room for complaints,” Ms Jalan said.

The estate’s tea processing plant is now taken care of by Augustina Kerketta while Mousumi Sharma, who joined the estate as a trainee in 2017 is the welfare officer for more than 600 permanent plantation workers, a majority of them women.

Dependent on women pluckers

“Something that intrigued me was that the tea estates, which bank on women for plucking and other productive work, did not have a single woman in managerial roles. We decided to open up the management system to deserving local women,” Ms Jalan told The Hindu.

An estate of 300-350 hectares normally has five or six persons at the executive level. Four of Chota Tingrai’s six are women.

“The way our women executives deal with the workers has made a substantial difference to the overall dynamics of working in our estate,” Ashok Rajkhowa, Chota Tingrai’s manager said.

“Our job demands patience and delicate handling of situations whenever a crisis involving the plantation workers comes up. We are perhaps wired for such an assignment,” Ms. Sharma said.

Field inspection requires a similar approach. “One has to be firm but gentle while pointing out where a worker goes wrong in sprinkling water or fertiliser on the tea bushes,” Ms. Narang said.

Chota Tingrai, named after the Tingrai stream flowing nearby, is known for producing organic teas and blends ranging from masala chai and mirchi chai to Assam whole-leaf and Japanese-style green tea.

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