TINSUKIA, India (WOMENSENEWS)–A handful of women in this northeastern city of India could be signs of something brewing in India’s tea industry.

They have stopped laboring on someone else’s plantation, planted businesses of their own and are happily uprooting family expectations of how to earn a living.

"My grandmother, or even my mother for that matter, wouldn’t have imagined doing anything other than tea plucking for a living," says 30-year-old Onjoli Komar. "But they are proud of what I have dared to do, in my own small way. I am proud of myself too!"

Small tea growers in 2009 provided about 30 percent of total tea production in this northeastern state of Assam, with sales of 500 million kilograms, according to the state’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

"It always helps to have some extra earnings," says Komar. "That was the only reason I got into tea cultivation. And while it was a new experience, I had the comfort of having knowledge in this field."

In recognition of the rise of small tea growers, the federal government in September announced a separate category for them under the Tea Board of India, the Kolkata-based industry regulator that has begun offering technical-assistance workshops to small growers.

Women, however, are still a nominal part of this shift, says Raj Kamal Phukan, deputy secretary of the Assam branch of the Indian Tea Association, a Kolkata-based trade group. "Their land holdings are not large… So as a trend, tea growing among them has not yet come into its own."

But they could be early shoots.

"There is a lot more awareness among tea-garden laborers today than earlier," Phukan says, "especially about land rights and better livelihood opportunities."

10 Years of Plucking

Before she started her own business, Komar worked for 10 years as a plucker in the tea plantation that surrounds her house in upper Assam State.

Each morning she would pick up her cane basket, hang it from her head and go work in the vast, lush environs of the local tea estate.

Today, she goes no farther than the tea saplings outside her own front door to make a living.

"I make a profit of about 3,000 rupees (about $58) or more a month, depending on the amount of leaves generated and the price we get for it," she smiles.

Abandoned by her husband when she was pregnant eight years ago, Komar had a hard time holding her family together. Then, three years ago, she met a man who identified himself as a small tea grower.

"When he told me that he grows tea plants on his plot of land and has been earning good profits, it made me think. I didn’t have a big plot; just one bigha," she says.

Bighas are traditional parcels of land and their size can vary in different parts of India. In Assam, a bigha is 14,400 square feet or about a third of an acre.

Komar says she didn’t have enough money for the initial investment of about $115. The grower offered to provide saplings and pesticides in exchange for half her sales.

"It sounded good, so I agreed," she says.

With the first plucking, Komar’s garden yielded 20 kilograms of green leaves, which she sold to a private factory at 14 rupees, or 30 cents, a kilo. Now she plucks every few days, rotating where she works.

Bharati Koda is also a small grower, but she says she’d rather grow tea trees than harvest them.

"I didn’t want to take the extra effort of spraying pesticides, weeding, plucking leaves and then selling them, although the profit margin is decent. I am happy with my nursery. This time I have around 200 saplings, which I sell for around 7 rupees each," she says.

Many Mouths to Feed

Like Komar, Behola Majhi was also a tea-garden worker; she worked in a tea estate in the Tezpur district of lower Assam. She decided to start a small tea plantation when she saw that her husband was wasting all their hard-earned money on "lao pani," a home-brewed liquor.

"We are a family of six and my husband and I are the only earning members. Life was a struggle and to add to it my husband would throw away all the money on alcohol," she says.

She’d heard about people on tea estates–including lower-ranking managers or "babus"– setting up their own tea plantations.

"That made me think of a portion of land in our backyard which is not low lying and thus ideal for tea cultivation," she says.

For the initial investment, Behola borrowed some money from her brother and bought her first batch of tea saplings.

"At first, it was not easy. Along with my two sons, I had to work for hours under the sun, digging the soil, making drains so that the water would not collect, and planting saplings. We also had to water the plants and spray pesticides. Together with all this, I continued my work at the tea estate, too, because tea shrubs require three years to grow fully and be ready for plucking."

Her first plucking was this year. She gathered 35 kilograms of green leaf, which she sold to a factory.

"The first thing I did with the money was to secure admission for my children at the nearby private school. I also opened a bank account where I save some of my earnings," she says with pride.

The Karmakar brothers work on a large tea estate in the Dibrugarh district of upper Assam. But they handed over their two bighas of private land to their wives to cultivate.

"Our husbands go to the tea garden factory for work and we work on our own garden," says Sharmili Karmakar, the wife of one of the brothers. "We get about 25 to 35 kilos of tea leaves with each plucking, which we sell at 10 to 15 rupees per kilo. It’s good business and our husbands now rely on us for a lot of things, instead of always the other way around."

This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women’s Feature Service. For more articles on women’s issues log on to: http://www.wfsnews.org.

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Azera Rahman is a writer for the New Delhi-based Women’s Feature Service.

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