Many believe that tea planting is the only all-male bastion that has kept women planters out so far. However, in the mid-1990s, Tata Tea (then the largest tea producer in India, with whom I was an executive) recruited several young female graduates as assistant managers for tea gardens at Munnar. It was an unprecedented step in the annals of the Indian tea industry.
The tyros took to the rigours of tea planting gamely. Turning up for work at 7:30 am, like their male colleagues (and even earlier during high-cropping periods), they picked up the basics of tea cultivation and labour management fast. To communicate effectively with the workers, they painstakingly learnt Tamil, often leaving the labourers in splits as they ‘roughed up’ the language. Yet, they eventually developed a good rapport and empathy with them (particularly women, who constituted about 65% of the workforce), resulting in improved productivity and labour relations.
Having learnt to ride a 100cc motorcycle on treacherous tracks in tea fields (with all the attendant spills), the young ladies donned sombreros and soon zipped around the tea gardens. Sometimes, they ran into a wild elephant or a gaur on a sharp bend, leaving it as startled as they were as they fled! Over time, they learnt to face these and other occupational hazards (like contending with bloodthirsty leeches or a monstrous rat snake) with equanimity.
Making up for their lack of a rugged exterior with their empathy and persuasiveness, they turned out to be as hardworking and result-oriented as their male colleagues of equal service and experience. Their rapport with the female workers — primarily deployed for the crucial plucking operations — was their forte, and this led to a marked increase in productivity and quality standards. Indeed, Sanskriti Dwivedi, with her consistently high performance ratings, went on to manage — independently and successfully — one of Tata’s largest tea estates at Munnar. Another first for a woman.
Recognising their status as budding tea planters, the local planters’ club — the hub of social life — accorded them permanent membership. They participated in its affairs, livening up cultural functions at Diwali, Independence Day and New Year’s Eve. Besides becoming members of the local wildlife conservation and angling associations, a few of them also keenly pursued golf. Theirs was typically a planter’s life, replete with an ivy-coated, colonial-type bungalow and domestic help on call.
In time, Cupid struck and some of them married their colleagues, settling down to domesticity. Others, having acquired vital experience, left in search of greener pastures or to pursue higher studies. Thus ended a novel eight-year experiment that proved women were capable of making a mark in this tough and demanding profession. Surprisingly, the other major tea producers did not follow suit, and the Tata initiative ended in 2002. It was certainly good while it lasted.
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