How Kerala’s Tea Plantation Workforce Was Reduced to Itinerant Labour In A Global Economy

23 Sep 2022 14 min read  Share

As the plantation system collapsed in Kerala’s tea belt from the mid-nineties following a crisis in the international tea economy, a largely Dalit workforce, indentured labour since the 1860s, found itself in crisis. Large numbers of workers who had lived on plantations for more than five generations were now compelled to seek work outside, the former untouchables joining the ranks of fellow Dalits who power India’s unorganised and informal sectors. An exclusive extract from anthropologist Jayaseelan Raj’s new book ‘Plantation Crisis: Ruptures of Dalit Life In The Indian Tea Belt’

Tea-plucking women waiting for the factory truck, Peermade tea belt/JAYASEELAN RAJ

Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork (2009-2015) in the Peermade and Munnar tea belts of Kerala, Plantation Crisis explores the collapse of the plantation system, and the abandonment of its workforce during the recent crisis in the international tea economy. The book has a unique vantage because its author, the anthropologist Jayaseelan Raj was born and raised in a Tamil Dalit plantation household. Here’s what he has to say about the book:

“Ethnographic accounts are generally written by anthropologists outside their own community. I had the rare opportunity to carry out ethnographic fieldwork in the very micro community into which I was born. This book also draws on my experience growing up in a workers’ household as a plantation boy…In distant tea estates where I did not know the people, I would be asked leading questions indicative of my caste and social origin This was mainly done by the upper-caste managerial staff, trade union leaders, government officials and merchants in the nodal towns, who often wanted to put me in my place.”

Indian tea production, as Raj’s book outlines, has been under severe crisis since the mid-nineties mainly due to the loss of world market for Indian tea following the collapse of the USSR, the Gulf War and the neoliberal structural adjustment policies. The size of the tea industry, which is second only to China, has made this a huge blow to the country’s agrarian economy. As such, the economic crisis has had an enormous impact on the plantation workers. 

These workers are the descendants of the Tamil Dalits who migrated to the colonial plantations in various parts of the world mainly through the indenture system since the 1860s.The tea companies, with total impunity, shut down plantations without providing any alternative means of livelihood for the workforce that provided them labour for over a century. In Kerala, there have been eight cases of suicide and twelve deaths due to starvation on tea plantations since 2001. The workers have faced increasingly unhygienic work environments, shattered social life/community relations, utter poverty and withdrawal of the welfare measures previously enjoyed. The crisis was a real shock for the workers, and the cataclysmic proportions to be compared, indeed, with the kind of shock that natural calamities such as earthquakes and tsunamis can have on local populations.

While many families remained on the plantations, large numbers of workers who had lived there for more than five generations were now compelled to seek work outside. Some went with their families either to their ancestral villages or to regional industrial townships such as Coimbatore and Tirupur in South India. 

They joined the ranks of the massive Dalit (ex-untouchable) workforce, powering India’s unorganised and informal sectors. Adding injury to this insult, the workers experience the stigma of being Tamil Dalits, as they move out of the plantations in search of employment. In other words, they are exposed to aspects of a caste-ridden society from which they had previously been shielded. This excerpt narrates their experiences of wage hunting and caste discrimination:


“Out of the 10 families, three families from which many family members left the plantations in the years of the crisis between 1995 and 1998, are considered in greater detail to understand their vulnerability and mobility. The first of the three families is that of Sundaram. Sundaram, 46 years old, was a temporary worker in the Hill Valley estate when the crisis hit the tea industry. In 1997, when he was 27 years old, he moved out of the plantation with his wife Kokila, his parents and his youngest brothers Suresh and Robin. He has four siblings: one elder brother, two younger brothers and one sister. 

The elder brother Karuppasamy is a carpenter on the Hill Valley estate. One younger brother works in Tirupur’s textile industry as a tailor. Another brother is a manual labourer in construction in his native village Nagaram in Tamil Nadu. His sister is married to a permanent worker on a nearby tea estate. 

Sundaram dropped out of school when he was nine to take care of his younger siblings. He began working as a servant for a Syrian Christian family in a valley town when he was 13. The Syrian Christian family ‘recruited’ Sundaram through a friend who was a field officer on the Hill Valley estate. It was common to recruit plantation workers’ children as servants for relatives of the managerial staff. 

Sundaram returned to the plantation after five years as a temporary worker. He worked in the tea factory for eight years. As the company did not promote him to a permanent position, allegedly due to the economic crisis, Sundaram moved to Nagaram, his native village in Tirunelveli district of southern Tamil Nadu. He told me that he moved because he realised that he did not have a future on the plantation.

Sundaram’s story is similar to those of many youths who were temporary workers during the crisis. Back in Tamil Nadu, he managed to obtain a ration card and rented a hut for 500 rupees per month. Having been employed as a manual labourer on the plantation, Sundaram could not manage to become a semi-skilled worker such as a driver or mechanic. He became an assistant to a mason in his native village, earning a daily wage of 350 rupees. 

Sundaram also went to southern Kerala whenever he could not find work near his village. The wage was higher in Kerala (500 rupees). Sundaram said that although wages were higher in Kerala, so was the cost of living. He managed, however, to save money by sleeping at construction sites and subsisting on rice soups which he cooked in a kerosene stove he carried with him. 

For a brief period, he worked in the dyeing units of the textile factories of Tirupur. This paid better. When I asked him about the health hazards of the dyeing units, Sundaram responded: ‘At the end of the day, what I care about is how much I could save for my family. I do not care about my health.’ He was paid 650 rupees for working nine to 10 hours a day. Although daily manual labourers should not work more than eight hours, he had to work a bit more to keep his job secure. He lost his job after the government temporarily shut down the dyeing units because of the pollution.

Sundaram was vulnerable to the debt trap since his income was central to the survival of his household as his wife did not do any paid labour. Sundaram told me that he wanted his wife to concentrate on taking care of the children’s education and not bother about bringing in income for the family. His father could not work due to poor health. His mother found work under the MGNREGA (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee) scheme. 

His mother’s income was a much-needed addition to the family, but most of her money was spent on ‘tonics and pills’. Sundaram, however, managed to save more money than his brother Karuppasamy, who stayed back in the plantation, as his wage was much higher than the plantation wages. However, as is evident from the narrative above, Sundaram lived a precarious life as a migrant casual labourer relying on various odd jobs, in contrast to the secure job his elder brother had on the plantation. According to Sundaram, the price ‘to see some money’ was not having a secure job in the plantation. 

Another price he paid was facing overt caste discrimination. Sundaram observed that for Dalits, their future lies in the towns. He wanted to move his family to the city not only for economic reasons and for his children’s education but also because he faced severe caste discrimination back in the village. He told me that upper-caste tea shops there discourage Dalits from entering by creating ‘unnecessary troubles’ such as providing tea in dirty cups and asking for exact change (the exact cost of tea and snacks). Even if the tea shops had plenty of coins and smaller denominations, they would demand that Dalits pay the exact amount. Sundaram was disappointed that he could not move his family to a town. 

Sundaram could not tolerate explicit discrimination. He had enjoyed relatively egalitarian relations in the plantations, where caste identity is overshadowed by the class order of the plantation production relations. The unbearable discrimination led him to join the Dalit Panthers (VCK– Viduthalai Chiruthai Katchi). Through VCK, he became a community leader for the Paraiyar Dalits. He was entrusted with the responsibility of resolving family feuds and conflicts within the group. 

In one of our meetings, he told me that he did not know much about B.R. Ambedkar, a great social reformer and the father of the Indian constitution who fought vehemently against the caste system and untouchability. There is indeed no statue of Ambedkar nor any socio-political organisation in the Hill Valley estate dedicated to the cause of Dalits as there are in many other parts of the country. He came to recognise ‘Ambedkar’s sacrifice’, as he puts it, only after moving to Tamil Nadu. 

The experience of caste discrimination away from the plantation in turn led to a greater consciousness of caste identity and a Dalit movement among the Tamil-Dalit plantation workforce. Whenever someone such as Sundaram visited the plantations, they were eager to talk about the role of caste in Tamil villages and how divisive caste is there, unlike in the plantation where, according to Sundaram, people from different castes live like siblings.

While Sundaram wanted to move his family to a big city, Ilaiyaraja succeeded in moving his family to Chennai. In 1997, at the age of 40, Ilaiyaraja left for Chennai with his parents and younger sister. He chose Chennai mainly because his ancestors came from a village located around 40 km from this city. Ilaiyaraja used to be a temporary worker, and the economic crisis led to a loss of guaranteed work on the plantation. Ilaiyaraja’s elder brother, Selvam, remained at the estate as he was a permanent worker. Ilaiyaraja had studied up to grade 10. His high school education helped him obtain a job as a marketing agent for a cement company in Chennai. He was paid Rs 7,000 a month. His father passed away in 2008 and his mother did not work. His wife, Jayalakshmi, worked as a salesperson in a textile shop in Chennai and earned Rs 6,500 per month. So, the total income of Ilaiyaraja and Jayalakshmi was Rs 13,500 per month.

However, for Ilaiyaraja, this income was not enough to survive as ‘lower middle class’ in a major city, as he needed to pay Rs 5,800 in rent and Rs 270 for electricity and water supply per month, monthly school fees of Rs 700 each for two of his children, his mother’s medical expenses and a loan amount of Rs 1,200 for his motorcycle.

The rest was spent on food. He saved a maximum of Rs 1,000 every month. Ilaiyaraja could have chosen to stay at the family house in the native village to save money, but instead he rented accommodation in another location to mask his caste identity. He told me that he did not want his children to feel the inferiority of being identified with the ‘S.C.colony’, or what is popularly called ‘parai chēri’, a derogatory term used for the Dalit colonies in Tamil Nadu.

Another family that moved out of the plantation is that of John, a 46-year-old Dalit Christian of the Pallar caste. John had also been a temporary worker, and like Sundaram and Ilaiyaraja, he lost his job. John went to Coimbatore with his parents in 1997. He has two elder sisters and one younger sister, all of whom married into workers’ families in tea estates in the Peermade tea belt. In Coimbatore, John became an assistant to a plumber named Murugan who had moved out of the plantations in the late 1980s. After one year of training, John became an independent plumber in 1998 and is now a popular plumber in the area.


According to him, he was busy and did not need to beg for work. He made around Rs 15,000 per month and supported his entire family; his father had died three years earlier, his mother was too old to work and his wife could not find ‘suitable’ (non-manual labour) work. He has a son and a daughter, aged 14 and 12 respectively. Both were studying in a Christian management school. Despite John’s success, he said he had to lie about his caste (or he had to pretend to be a person of higher caste) to become friends with the upper-caste small business owners in the industrial town of Coimbatore. It is these petty capitalists who provide work for John. 

As mentioned, Karuppasamy and Selvam, the elder brothers of Sundaram and Ilaiyaraja, stayed on at the plantations. Karuppasamy inherited his father’s status as a permanent manual worker. His wife, Maria, is also a permanent worker, and she inherited the work from her mother. Both Selvam and his wife are also permanent workers. The flip side is that Karuppasamy and Selvam earn less than half as much as their younger siblings outside the plantations. Selvam told me that the lack of money is a serious problem for ‘major spending’ such as hospital expenses, children’s education, weddings and ritualised gift exchanges. They both said they had considered leaving the plantations on many occasions but did not want to go back to their native villages. 

The relative protection from caste discrimination needs to be regarded as a positive effect of being in the plantation despite the lower income. At the same time, three ex-temporary workers, Sundaram, Ilaiyaraja and John, have one thing in common in their otherwise different trajectories outside the plantations: they now all experience overt caste discrimination, whereas the caste discrimination they faced in the plantations was of a more structural, much less overt, kind.

The case of plantation Tamil Dalits in Tirupur is even more distressing. The fear of caste discrimination is so severe that most Tamil Dalits from the Kerala plantations in Tirupur hide their caste identity; I did not encounter anyone who disclosed it. Workers told me that revealing their Dalit identity would affect their ability to secure a skilled or semi-skilled job. A senior finance manager of a large firm told me that nepotism is a major factor when it comes to appointments and that Dalits would not be considered even for clerical positions.

I came across other Dalits from Tamil Nadu villages who concealed their caste identity in Coimbatore and Tirupur. But it is more difficult for them. The plantation Tamils can take advantage of the fact that the Tamil high castes have little knowledge of Kerala’s caste hierarchy and practices. The plantation Dalits claim to belong to higher castes from Kerala (for example, to be Christian Nadars). They hide the details of their ancestral villages and their relatives in Tamil Nadu to limit the chance of getting caught. 

Those who conceal their caste have a better chance of getting a job or a house to rent than those who cannot or will not hide it. I met six families who managed to find housing in streets dominated by upper-caste people simply because they lied about their caste. I also met with 17 families who had returned to their ancestral villages in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. 


They shared stories of ‘cultural shock’ as they were confronted with caste insults and violence of a kind they had not experienced in the plantations. They had to use the public water tap and purchase their groceries at the state-run ration shop (PDS) at separate times from the higher-caste villagers, and they faced caste segregation in the use of separate temples and burial grounds from those of the higher castes.

The plantation workers’ search for new means of subsistence in the unorganised sectors shows that they are becoming part of a larger pool of the Dalit community who form most of the labour force in the unorganised and informal sectors. As Thorat and Attewell (2010) observe, this migrant Dalit labour force in the informal economy is a de-unionised and marginalised population who have been uprooted from their land to work elsewhere. 

Accordingly, as the plantation workers merge with these migrant communities, as in the case of the Tirupur textile industry, they end up as an alienated workforce, as a continuation of their ancestors, who were in a similar situation in the early years of plantation development. Indian capitalism has historically relied on an unorganised workforce and their exploitation by major and small business owners, which results in the absolute poverty of the workforce (Harriss-White and Gooptu 2001). It is in this situation that plantation Tamils find themselves as they integrate into the unorganised labour force dominated by Dalits.

Although Tamil Dalit workers migrated as indentured labourers in the colonial period, they won a modicum of security and protection in their low-paid manual labour jobs in the tea industry over the decades. With the crisis, as the plantations came under new regimes of control, labour rights were slashed, vacancies were not filled, temporary workers replaced permanent ones and the plantation Tamils became part of the casual seasonal migrant labour force in other parts of the country. The crisis in the global tea economy ushered in by neoliberal reforms led to the casualisation of the workforce in the tea plantations. The crisis forced the workers to become ‘footloose’ labourers, for they move from one place to another in search of a livelihood and a dignified life.

(Jayaseelan Raj is Assistant Professor, Centre for Development Studies.)