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Emerging Vulnerabilities in India’s Plantation Economy

Abstract

Despite sustained demand, the plantation economy, particularly for tea, coffee and rubber, is seen to be in a crisis and hence undermining the livelihoods of workers and small producers involved in the production of these commodities. Based on secondary literature, we elaborate the factors contributing to this ‘crisis’ in the plantation economy and what we see as problematic in the institutional response to this ‘crisis’ and hence in ensuring decent livelihoods for workers. First, we point out that the crisis is an outcome of shifts and slippages in governance regimes and a failure of capital to make sustained investments in the sector. We highlight gaps in governance such as exit of capital without ensuring decent livelihoods or decent living wages for labour in large plantations, casualization of work, reliance on small grower models and concentration of marketing power in tea and coffee value chains that allow little room for value redistribution. Second, we point out that plantation interests cannot be reduced merely to commodity-specific interests. Biodiversity, gender, politics of land grab and sustainability in terms of ecology are emerging as equally important aspects of the plantation question. A value chain approach that emphasizes ‘upgrading’ as a way out to secure better livelihoods ought to therefore also incorporate value creation and destruction of ecologies that currently sustain plantation crops and what this may imply for workers’ and small producers’ livelihoods. The strong productivist logic of some of the interventions in the plantation economy may therefore require a rethink and critical assessment. The chapter therefore develops a critique of the premises underlying some of the policy shifts. Finally, we discuss a few micro-level interventions to suggest possible pathways towards a ‘high road’ to addressing the crisis.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It is all the more important to note that majority of the workers do not even possess lands, so that they could think of constructing a house post retirement from the plantations.

  2. 2.

    In fact, this perspective has been mooted to advance the New International Division of Labour (NIDL’s) explanatory power by moving away from nation states as units of analysis and allowing space for peripheral regions to serve multiple roles in the global division of labour.

  3. 3.

    As per the estimates of the International Tea Committee (ITC) (2006), India’s share in global tea exports had declined over time from 37.18 per cent during 1961 to 29.46 per cent (1981), further down to 16.82 per cent (2001) and 12.2 per cent during 2016 (Tea Board 2016).

  4. 4.

    The tea plantations in Assam follow a general policy of worker management, by which, temporary workers are made permanent only if there is a vacancy caused by retirement of a permanent worker or death of a permanent worker. This being the case, there are many instances of temporary workers remaining temporary for 10 years, 20 years and even retiring as temporary workers (Viswanathan 2018).

  5. 5.

    http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4480e.pdf. Accessed on 16 August 2018.

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Vijayabaskar, M., Viswanathan, P.K. (2019). Emerging Vulnerabilities in India’s Plantation Economy. In: Shyam Sundar, K.R. (eds) Globalization, Labour Market Institutions, Processes and Policies in India. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-7111-0_6

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