A solo photography exhibition titled Cha Chakra: Tea Tales of Bangladesh ran from January 19 to 26 at Alliance Française de Dhaka in Dhanmondi. It featured 48 photographs by Faiham Ebna Sharif, a photographer who has been researching on tea industry in Bangladesh. In this interview with Arts & Letters, Faiham talks about the colonial structure that has turned tea garden workers into bonded labourers.
You have been working on the tea garden workers since 2015. What inspired you to choose this subject?
I spent a significant amount of my life in Sylhet. I studied in Sylhet Cadet College. Many in the college staff were from tea garden workers’ community, as the college is situated next to the Mulnichera Tea Garden, the first ever commercial tea garden in undivided India. Sometimes there would be excursion in tea gardens, arranged by the college authorities. This connected me somewhat inseparably with tea garden workers. Later in 2015, I learnt that workers of Chandpore and Begumkhan Tea Garden in Chunarughat, Habiganj were staging a strike against the government decision to transform a portion of the area into an economic zone, repealing a pre-existing leasing contract. By then I had quit my job as a staff journalist, taken a course in photography and started a freelance career in journalism and photography. I went to Habiganj on a stint for a national online media outlet. While I was preparing my report, it dawned on me that writing a small report or article would not reveal the magnitude of their problems. I decided that I would work on the tea gardens of Bangladesh for a long time.
Tea garden workers were brought to Bangladesh from different states of India during the colonial period. Living for the last two centuries in this country, have they lost their language and culture?
Frankly speaking, they have lost so many things! The process of their bonded slavery had started back in the 1840s. There was a distinct class of brokers called “Aarkanthi”, who used to shepherd poor people of different communities and minority groups to the budding tea estates across the Indian subcontinent. They would visit different villages to spin this myth that working in the tea gardens would be anybody’s dream job, that the pay would be tremendously high, that they would be able to pay their interests back and make their lives prosperous. Beguiled by these brokers, they would embark on a perilous journey and many of their people died of starvation while crossing vast tracts of land on foot. These brokers targeted the economically disadvantaged minority groups so that they could influence them easily. Leaving their ancestral homes was the first thing that the workers lost in a long story marked by numerous losses. They were totally unaware that they took on a grim journey that would sap the last drop of their energy. I wrote it in the exhibition pamphlet that there are approximately 90 minority groups working in different tea gardens and tea garden owners intentionally put together at least 20 different communities in the same garden so that they can never be united and organised. They are tussling with each other over their beliefs, rituals and social status. They have been pushed towards a precipice, and now they’ve realised that they’ve been lost in a land not their own and have become bonded slaves for the rest of their lives. They live in the “estate within the state”.
Wages of tea plantation workers of Bangladesh are meagre, to say the least. Now they are paid maximum 85 TK (just a little over one US dollar) per day, which has come through decades of strikes and protests. Can they really get by with a payment as meagre as this?
One of the objectives of this photography exhibition is to get people to ask these questions. While 85 TK is the maximum wage, many tea garden workers are not paid this amount. There are different types of workers in a tea garden: Seasonal, contractual and occasional. These workers do not even get 85 TK a day. It appears that there are some fringe benefits for the permanent workers, such as housing, ration, medical treatment and provident fund. But the truth is, some of these are available on paper, and only for the permanent workers.
It is said that managers of tea gardens in Bangladesh live like gods. They always remain distant and unapproachable. Has the situation improved in recent years? Tea gardens are run by a hierarchy-driven system. The owners belong to the highest tier. Then comes the management (which includes the manager), and there are three more tiers after management. The structure itself is colonial. Tea garden workers are exploited by the first, second and third class employees, and live in extreme poverty. Ironically though, talking to a high-tier employee in the office becomes a matter of pride for these disadvantaged people. They relate these stories to their younger generations: “In such and such times, following such and such strikes or riots, I had a chance to talk to the owner or the manager and he asked me to sit before him.” Even now they feel uncomfortable to sit before government officials in different offices. However, some of their leaders have gained some facilities through trade unions.
The trade union is known as Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU). Has it played any significant role in changing the life standard of tea garden workers?
There were different trade unions at work previously. They have now disappeared for their inner tussle and internal politics. Now there exists only one – the BCSU – which represents tea garden workers but it can never bargain properly with tea garden owners. The ILO convention 1908 empowers a bargaining capability, but this trade union cannot use it because they are so exploited that they can never be united for a proper negotiation. Also, the owners always provide some special facilities to union leaders so that they can be influenced to contain any resistance from tea garden workers.
As citizens of Bangladesh, tea garden workers are free to live anywhere in the country. Why can they never step out of the tea gardens? What is the nature of this invisible chain that always confines them to their ancestral profession?
Agriculture defines their lives. They have always lived in an agrarian society. So, naturally they prefer this way of life. But the structure that confines them to their profession has to be analysed now. They have no land ownership. They have been brought from different parts of the subcontinent and tethered to an oppressive system. They have no permanent address; all the land they use and live in is owned by tea garden owners. For reasons like this, they can never stand strongly against the owners. It is said that they have been provided education facility, but in reality this is only up to primary education. In today’s world, how much does a person learn through his/her primary education? Here the psychological target is: If a worker gets higher education, he/she will step outside the tea garden. So, they must remain uneducated – this is the notion of tea garden owners. Receiving only a primary education can never endow you with an understanding to defy and break this century-old colonial system. The laws were created that way to facilitate the maximum interest of owners. It is said that if there are 400 permanent workers, an owner needs to set up a hospital. So, if there are fewer workers, will they never fall ill? Do they never need any medical treatment? But even if there are 400 workers, the owners never set up hospitals or provide mandatory facilities. And there is no regulation whether they follow rules or not. And unlike mainstream landless people, they think moving out in cities will not give them any opportunity as they do not know the language of the mainstream and foster different cultures and beliefs. Tea garden workers are the marginalised of the marginalised.