Sunil Gurung is one of the 50,000 workers from the eastern and north eastern states of India who have found the Nilgiris, in South India, a safe place to work.

So, why did Sunil Gurung make that long journey from Alipurduar in West Bengal to the Nilgiris? What made him and so many like him leave their familiar surroundings and venture out into the unknown?  Was it just an escape from abject poverty to a better life or was it more?

The answers to these questions are quite simple. Gurung wanted to better his lot and provide a decent life for his children; so did they all. While almost all of them have left home for economic reasons, quite a number of them have fled their homes because they didn’t want their children recruited by subversive groups.

When Sunil did leave his home, it was not for the pristine beauty of the Nilgiri Mountains. It was for the hot, dusty construction sites and the labor camps in and around Delhi. The work was not just back-breaking, it just didn’t pay enough. Often, construction on a particular site would stop either because the builder did not get the requisite sanctions or because he ran out of money. The talk at the camp fires at night would be all about the opportunities down south; friends, relatives and even the labour contractors spoke of better wages and more humane conditions.

Sociologists would say that the tide has turned, that this is reverse migration. Right up to the 1980s, thousands of matriculates from South India, armed with diplomas in typing and Pitman shorthand flocked to Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay looking for work. Over the centuries manual labourers from the south also crossed the seas in droves to work in Malaysia, Singapore, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean.  Now the movement of labour is from the eastern part of the county to the south. Gurung, of course, didn’t know any of this as he boarded the Nizamuddin Express to make his journey. He was just looking for work and greener pastures.

Chilo's family owned a small farm in Jharkand. In 2009, she moved to the Nilgiris to work at Craigmore tea estate. Her husband, too, works at the estate. Once a year, she visits home. But she is happy here.
Chilo’s family owned a small farm in Jharkand. In 2009, she moved to the Nilgiris to work at Craigmore tea estate. Her husband, too, works at the estate. Once a year, she visits home. But she is happy here.

Gurung worked in Kerala, (which in a 2016 count has a migrant labour population of 4 million), for a few years and when the opportunity arose, moved to the Nilgiris. He says that work on the tea estate suits him fine, as does the climate. Nilgiris is also a very safe place to live. Devashola, the estate where he works provides free housing and health care: all deciding factors in his decision to bring his family down. Sunil Gurung’s story is true of most migrant workers in the Nilgiris, today.

“The wages in the Nilgiris are higher than in West Bengal; the Nilgiris Settlement Wage stipulates Rs. 241 per day which is double of what is paid in West Bengal. This is higher than the minimum wage by Rs. 6 to Rs. 10,” says Balaji Rao, Managing Director, Devashola Tea Estate and Nilgiri Agro Agencies (P) Ltd. Mr. Balaji says that most of the workers on his estate are from the area bordering West Bengal and Nepal. They are largely unskilled but hard working. 

“Many of the labourers that come to work on the plantations with their families have very young children.  Since the Nilgiris is prone to extreme climate, sickness is a concern. The social responsibility on plantation owners is immense,” says Balaji.

Mangu Oran is a tea roller at Craigmore's Woodlands factory. He too is from Jharkand but hopes to stay here until his retirement.
Mangu Oran is a tea roller at Craigmore’s Woodlands factory. He too is from Jharkand but hopes to stay here until his retirement.

The major attraction for workers from so far away is the better working conditions in the Nilgiris. The big plantations provide free housing, health care and access to schooling, which is no longer high priority for young adult children of Tamil estate workers, who no longer want to work as “coolies”.    

On the other side of the fence is Tamil Selvan (name has been changed), who tells everyone that he has ‘retired’ as a maistry or foreman on a small tea estate near Coonoor. The truth is his children have stopped him from working as they feel he has done enough. His three children, who live in Chennai and Bangalore, are all professionals and quite well to do.  

Tamil Sevlan is especially proud of his daughter, a post graduate, the first woman in the family to get a college education. Dr. Sr. Sheela VJ, Principal of Providence College for Women, Coonoor, adds that most of the girls who enroll in the college are the daughters of daily wage earners. The college degree helps these girls to get more paying jobs and even start their own businesses.

The tea estate workers in the Nilgiris, who enjoyed relative job stability, were able to educate their children and equip them to become professionals. These aspirations received a major boost by the Reservation Policy of the Tamil Nadu Government, wherein 69% of seats in professional and other colleges are reserved for students from the backward class and scheduled caste. This has opened the doors for children of even daily wage earners to become doctors, engineers, lawyers and civil servants.

By the mid 1980s, the migration from the Nilgiris to the cities was in full spate. The educated children of estate workers no longer wanted to do manual labor on the estate. They moved to blue collared jobs in the industrial clusters in nearby cities. But the real change came with the explosion of jobs in Information Technology which brought in the big bucks, travel opportunities and access to a better quality of life.  As the Tamil workers migrated to urban centers, their vacancies were filled by workers from the eastern and north-eastern states

What makes the working conditions in the tea estates in the Nilgiris better is that worker welfare has been an ongoing exercise as early as the 1930s. A senior planter explained that as estate managements got more professional, many of the sterling companies provided workers with amenities such as water, electricity, roads, drainage and healthcare, which was normally provided by the state. It was not all humanitarian; of course, it was more pragmatic, as Communism and the genesis of the trade union movement were already starting up in the neighboring princely states of Cochin and Travancore (present day Kerala).

The workers were further benefitted when the Indian Parliament enacted the Minimum Wage Act in 1948 to “ensure a basic standard of living including good health, dignity, comfort, education and provide for any contingency.” This was followed by the Plantation Labour Act 1951 which ensured safe drinking water, separate toilets for men and women, medical facilities, crèches, canteens, facilities for housing, education and recreation, leave with wages and sickness and maternity benefits. The State governments played and still play a major role in enforcing these conditions. A senior planter pointed out that though these rules are pan-Indian; in Tamil Nadu it is actually enforced.

The socio-economic changes in the estates in the Nilgiris have been instrumental in improving the lot of estate workers who have now moved on to better things. So when the new set  of workers move into the ‘lines’ recently vacated, they listen with awe to the success stories about the children of the previous occupants – a boy or girl who is now an engineer somewhere or a Collector someplace else; and now they dare to dream ahead for their children.

Photographs by Mahesh Bhat

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    Felt good after reading your publishing Ms Varghese as I am planning to invest in a Tea Estate nearest to Coonoor. Having worked as a medical officer in the Pasteur Institute and Nonsuch group of Tea Estates earlier in the seventies I get pleasure visiting Coonoor every summer and passionate about staying in the picturesque tea gardens.

  2. Thank you very much for your contribution, it was helpful for my research work. Where can I get your published materials Nina Varghese.

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