From the Series: Plantationocene
The Plantations Enquiry Commission (PEC) was one of many evaluative bodies formed by the Government of India in the years after Indian independence in 1947. Such commissions, composed of newly appointed Indian bureaucratic and techno-scientific experts, were charged with assessing the state of the country’s industries. An express purpose of such assessment was to sustain, if not grow, industrial development with the support of the Indian state and Indian capital.
Today it is difficult to imagine an Indian economy that does not include tea plantations. India remains the world’s second largest exporter of tea, behind China, and domestic tea consumption is widespread across regions and social classes.
Tea was introduced under British colonial rule, and by independence in 1947, the tea plantations of Assam, West Bengal, and Kerala had become major economic engines. The 1956 Report of the PEC notes that “tea in India from the beginning has been done on a plantation scale” (GOI 1956: 59). At independence most of these plantations remained the property of British “Sterling companies.” So as the Nehru government plotted India’s path to modernization in the 1950s, it confronted the entrenchment of one of the country’s most colonial economic forms.
In many ways, such state commissions were attempting, as Hannah Appel (2017, 295) describes, to render the national economy “both intelligible, possessing representational unity or naturalized authority, and compelling—the stuff of fantasy and desire, power and subjugation.” Rendering the plantation both intelligible and compelling required imagining a national economic future—including the welfare of labor, the redistribution of capital, and the growth of middle-class consumption—through the perennial biology of tea bushes.
Perenniality does not mean forever living. An individual tea bush can be productive for about sixty years, which meant that just as the PEC set out to reduce, in their words, “non-Indian” power and capital inputs, many tea estates were coming to a point where the replantation of tea bushes would be essential to viability. At no point, however, did the Indian government consider eliminating, nationalizing, or otherwise radically reforming tea plantations. Instead, the PEC’s 1000-page report emphasized the importance of plantations to the national economy, declaring that “The industry’s continued welfare and prosperity have . . . to be jealously safeguarded” (GOI 1956, 249). Further, tea was a “labour-intensive industry,” employing a million people across the country.” Tea plantations thus provide a service in country in which unemployment is one of the serious economic problems” (GOI 1956, 12). What was to be sustained here was not only the plantation form, but a large-scale labor force that was, and continues to be, attached to the plantation across generations (Behal 2014; Besky 2017).
No one with any influence considered the idea of walking away from plantation-grown tea. Instead, the future of the economy came to depend upon the reinvigoration of tea and tea plantations. “In our assessment,” the PEC commissioners wrote, “the immediate problem before the tea industry in India is not so much any large-scale extension of the area under cultivation as of continued maintenance of results already achieved and improvement of existing assets” (GOI 1956, 254; emphasis added). What the PEC plotted was an economic future dependent on the maintenance of the colonial agrarian landscape. It plotted a version of what Katherine McKittrick (2013) calls “plantation futures,” in which the national economy was built upon a particular ecology that yoked the welfare of people to the welfare of commodity crops.
While tea’s perenniality facilitated the expansion of tea plantations under colonial rule, it also became a problem for the postcolonial state. Plantations are durable in some ways, but in others, they are also fragile (Li and Semedi 2021).
The fragility of the plantation was becoming apparent in the 1950s. In 1956, British capital still controlled 50 percent of tea production and just over 50 percent of the land under tea. According to the PEC report, “40% of the existing tea bushes were planted before 1910 and would be due for replanting before long” (GOI 1956, 57). In the renowned tea-growing district of Darjeeling, 80 percent of the tea bushes had been planted before 1900. The only answer was to figure out a way to support new Indian “Rupee companies” in the work of replanting bushes on the land they acquired—often through favorable incentives provided by the Indian state. As the PEC suggested, “A greater rate of progress in replanting would appear to be necessary to prevent the industry gradually running down the vitality and productivity owing to the progressive aging of the plants” (GOI 1956, 62).
To ensure sustained production and a perennial Indian-run plantation system, the PEC proposed the establishment of a replanting fund for Rupee companies. For the commissioners, “Healthy bushes [were] necessary for the prosperity of the industry. The bushes will have vigour and health only if periodic replanting is done” (GOI 1956, 210). In addition, the report advocated for the opening of State Bank of India branches in plantation zones that “should be responsive to the needs of the tea companies and proprietors,” including the provision of “abundant credit facilities” (GOI 1956, 160).
Thinking about this transitional moment in postcolonial India allows us to consider the contemporary plantation: to consider its persistence, its perenniality. McKittrick (2013, 5), quoting George Beckford, notes that the plantation has a “built in capacity to maintain itself.” Thinking with the materiality of a geological epoch of a “Plantationocene” points to this durability. To take the infrastructures of production still called plantations, we can see that maintenance is a human act as well, one that enrolls state actors that and workers alike in ways each feels profoundly differently. In India, the plantation (albeit in different ways) “ushered in” particularly ways of living today (GOI 1956, 4). McKittrick (2013, 4) notes that the plantation “at least in part . . . contributed to the racial contours of uneven geographies.” The postcolonial governance work of keeping the plantation going entrenched uneven ways of living and racialized forms of difference. An elite male Indian managerial class supplanted a British one. Yet workers, mostly from Nepali, Adivasi, and tribal groups, the backbone of the post-independence “national economy” remained not only landless, but saw their status as Indian citizens become increasingly tenuous. The futures of workers on these perennial plantations appear to be always already tied to an industry that continues to hang on, as replantation once again, now 75 years after independence, emerges as a means of infusing life into the nation’s plantations.
Appel, Hannah. 2017. “Toward and Ethnography of the National Economy.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 2: 294-322.
Behal, Rana. 2014. One Hundred Years of Servitude: Political Economy of Tea Plantations in Colonial Assam. New Delhi: Tulika Books
Besky, Sarah. 2017. “Fixity: On the Inheritance and Maintenance of Tea Plantation Houses in Darjeeling, India.” American Ethnologist 44, no. 4: 617–631.
Government of India (GOI). 1956. Report of the Plantation Inquiry Commission, 1956. Part I: Tea. Delhi: Government of India Press.
Li, Tania and Pujo Semedi. 2021. Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
McKittrick, Katherine. 2013. “Plantation Futures.” Small Axe 17, no. 3 (42): 1–15.