By Fannie Dionne
Tea garden workers are working eight hours per day for a meager salary (around CAD$83 per month) used for food, provisions, clothes, and the education of children. They are often denied a just wage and access to legal benefits, and they are sometimes forced to become indentured labourers, living in the tea estates from generation to generation and being totally dependent on the tea estate owners. Life is confined to the routine of working in the tea estates, followed by household work and taking care of their children and families. “This is why the people of our tea gardens are unable to afford quality education and break the cycle of poverty,” writes Nishita Lakra, community organizer for the Human Life Development and Research Center.
“At one point, I was very poor, but a Jesuit priest helped us when we were children. He helped us flourish as people, and now I’m a strong woman trying to impact other women in the same way,” says Samapti Chettri. She is a facilitator for the self-help groups of the Human Life Development and Research Centre (HLDRC), a Jesuit organization launched in 2013 that addresses injustices faced by tea plantation workers in Darjeeling, India. The HLDRC serves the most vulnerable people in the Darjeeling district: In the Ignatian manner, it addresses the root of inequality and oppression in order to be a true agent of social change. The small collectives organized in the local communities and are composed mainly of women working on the tea plantations who have revolutionized the lives of the participants.
The HLDRC serves the most vulnerable people in the Darjeeling district: In the Ignatian manner, it addresses the root of inequality and oppression in order to be a true agent of social change.
“The tea industry, while a major contributor to the provincial and local economy of the region, has not given back to the tea plantation communities that have sustained it for more than 150 years,” says Fr. Lalit Tirkey, SJ, who was director of the HLDRC for many years. Germina Minj, for example, explains that with her meagre salary, she didn’t even have enough money to buy rice in the market. The cycle of poverty had to be broken.
The Jesuits of the Darjeeling Province in West Bengal are working to improve the lives of women and their families. Their efforts to bring about real change in society include raising awareness among disenfranchised tea estate workers about their rights, advocating with the government, providing education and alternative sources of income, and accompanying workers in their struggle for a better life.
With the help of Canadian Jesuits International, HLDRC has launched, among its other programs, alternative livelihood opportunities for tea plantation labourers. The number of self-help groups has continued to grow. “One of the reasons for the dramatic increase in the number of groups is that HLDRC provides opportunities to explore a variety of ways to pursue or supplement livelihoods,” Fr. Tirkey explains.
“One of the reasons for the dramatic increase in the number of groups is that HLDRC provides opportunities to explore a variety of ways to pursue or supplement livelihoods.”
Together with other women, Minj started a self-help group, asking each woman to pay a monthly fee. “We very quickly saved a lot of money, so we got together to decide what to do with the group,” she says. The group agreed to ask the bank for a loan, so that they could open a store on a piece of land. But they needed more money. Other people lent a goat and a cow, which created another source of income from the sale of the goat and cow’s milk.
Self-help groups can also support more of their members’ personal initiatives. For example, Christina Sore, who lives with her family of eight, is a member of the KIaramtoli group. Through membership fees, the group was able to obtain a loan from a bank to support the women. With 30,000 rupees (approx. CAD $500), Sore was able to start a small business. “With this money, I opened a store — Sharan Telecom — [which has] a Xerox machine and other small machines. The Jesuit-run HLDRC also helped me to set up the store.”
Some groups offer training opportunities: courses in English, basic computer skills, sewing, weaving, and even livestock rearing, which give people more opportunities to find work outside the plantations. Jhana Burman is learning how to custom produce different types of clothing. “I like the atmosphere here; the teacher is always there to help us. Once I am adequately trained, I will open a small store so that I can help my family with monthly expenses. And I will train others so that they can also make something of their lives.”
The loans and skills that the women acquire help them start small businesses. “We offer training courses in the village area, especially to empower women. We teach them how to start a business based on their knowledge and interests. We also show them how to improve their standard of living. We show them how to have a business and a home life at the same time,” says Chettri.
“We offer training courses in the village area, especially to empower women.”
Some groups have also embarked on raising community awareness in areas such as health and hygiene, maternal care, environmental action, and the campaign against human trafficking.
“Livelihood support is a holistic and multifaceted endeavour as far as HLDRC and tea plantation communities are concerned,” Fr. Tirkey concludes. “People facing livelihood challenges sometimes need only a little assistance — a plot of land, a microloan, some seeds, or some training and advice — to significantly improve their lives.”
The work of Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) and of the organization itself is Ignatian because it allows us to put our faith into action. It engages us as Christians in the transformation of the world in which we live and allows us to implement all the Universal Apostolic Preferences, particularly that which calls us to “walk with the excluded.”
- Victor Reyes, CJI
By providing leadership training and support to 30 self-help groups, all but five of which are led by women, the HLDRC, has been able to reach about 5,000 people. HLDRC also conducts research and maintains a database of migrant and missing women, including victims of human trafficking. It is an active member of Lok Manch, a national platform to promote the dignity and well-being of marginalized people in 12 Indian states through political interventions and improved access to their legal rights, including health and education.