From Laborer to Cultivator, a Journey of Change

From Laborer to Cultivator, a Journey of Change

Publication info

Arputha Sheela, CARE India

It was Saturday, the weekly payday for the tea workers, when they are usually at home. But not Ramya.

At age 32, Ramya  is a young widow. Her husband died last year due to alcoholism and she is left with five children and an aging mother-in-law to look after. All he left behind were two and-a half acres of land, out of which they had to now lease out half an acre of land to pay for her husband’s funeral and another acre to meet the expenses for her brother-in-law’s wedding. They were now left with just one acre of land.

Ramya is now the only wage earner in her of her family. She preferred to work as a daily tea laborer at others’ farms so that she would have a more regular income. It usually fetches her around 100 rupees (about $2) per day and she works five days a week. Sometimes she works on weekends at other tea estates, so she can make more money to support her household. This earns them more income than cultivating tea on her own acre of land.

As Ramya left for her day’s work in the tea garden, she knew that it would mean missing a CARE-facilitated women’s group meeting in her village. She could already see Rajeshwari, a CARE field officer, going through the accounting books and trying to gather women for the meeting. Ramya had attended a training program organized by CARE on tea cultivation practices and found them very useful. She wished she could put them to use on that little piece of land that she now had.  But Ramya had no choice; a day’s wages would go a long way in meeting her family’s needs.

Ramya slipped on her favourite red sweater and checked her pockets for the finger caps she used to protect her hands from sharp twigs while plucking tea leaves. It was 9:30 A.M., so she was already late. She rushed out of her home. When she entered the tea garden, it was already 9:45. Plucking had started at 9:15; so she was thirty minutes late.

Her heart thudding, she approached the owner, Bhojaraj. “Oh, it just dawned for you, is it? I take pity on you and give you work and you abuse my charity. Go, get on with your work, you lazy girl,” he said.  Slipping on her finger caps, Ramya started working.  For just 100 rupees, she had to pluck 35 kilograms (about 77 pounds) per day. So Ramya worked furiously, taking just a short break for lunch.

By 4:45 P.M, they had all done their plucking for the day. Usually, one of the workers volunteered to carry the bags up to the weighing area to be weighed. The carrier was usually paid 10 rupees (18 cents) for each bag. When Bhojaraj asked who was going to do it today, Ramya volunteered. There were five bags. If she carried them, she would get an extra 50 rupees. The bags had to be carried along a narrow path. It was difficult, but Ramya wanted to do it. In spite of the cold, Ramya was sweating with effort by the time she had transported all five bags.

Four men were busy weighing the bags. Two others were loading them into the pickup truck, while another was noting the number of bags and their weight. Bhojaraj stood smoking nearby, monitoring the whole process. The men were almost done. Ramya was waiting patiently nearby, mentally calculating the amount she would get. She planned to go and get some groceries and something for the children as well.

The truck left. Ramya was the only woman waiting there. All the others had left. Bhojaraj had deliberately made her wait, while he settled pay with the others. Finally he turned to her, running his eyes along her body, and said, “What, you are wearing sweaters with pockets. Getting rich, eh?”

“No, sir.  It was a gift from my husband.”

Counting out the money, Bhojraj commented, “What are you going to do going home so early? You don’t even have a husband.” As he said this, he thrust her money into her sweater pockets, brushing his hands against her body making Ramya recoil in shock. Her body started to tremble. She pushed his hands away. In doing so, some on the notes fell to the ground. Ramya didn’t even bother to pick up the money. She turned her back on him and ran away.

When she got home, she found her mother-in-law cooking. The older children were doing their homework and the younger ones were playing. “What took you so long?” her mother-in-law asked, barely glancing at her. Ramya mumbled something in reply and collapsed onto the bed.

After some time, she started to feel cold and feverish. She drew the blanket up to her chin and huddled on the bed. Seeing how tired she was, Ramya’s mother-in-law asked, “Shall I get you some black tea?”

“No,” Ramya replied in a dead voice.

When Ramya collapsed on the bed crying, her mother- in-law was worried. She went to her side and felt her forehead. It was then that she noticed the bruises on her hands and feet. Ramya then told her mother-in-law about the entire incident. The old lady’s eyes filled with tears.

“Forget it,” the mother-in-law said. “These are the problems of being a single woman. But you do not have to endure this anymore.” As she applied a balm on the bruises,  she said, “You do not have to live through this nightmare again. We have options. I wish you had stayed behind for the meeting today. In today’s meeting, we heard some very good news. Since our group has been so prompt with our contributions, the bank has now come forward to give us 30,000 rupees (about $554) as a revolving loan. And the interest is only one percent. We can use this to get at least half an acre of our land out of the lease. We do not have to work anymore as laborers on other’s farms and be at their mercy.”

Hearing this, Ramya felt invigorated. Were they truly going to be free of their servitude and burden? Did she really not need to put up with insult and abuse any more? She slipped her hands into her sweater pockets and drew out the money. There was only 100 rupees. She gave it to her mother-in-law and asked her to repay the women who had contributed on her behalf. That night Ramya slept peacefully in a long, long time.

Today, Ramya has retaken one acre of land that she once had leased, on which she now cultivates tea. She also works as a laborer on the lands of others in her village to earn some extra money. For the other women from the village, Ramya’s is a tale of courage that they narrate to every visitor to the village with pride.