Hathikuli is the biggest employer in the Kaziranga area and as we soon found out, the largest organic farm in all of Asia. The management of this massive tea operation taught us a lot about tea and what an operation of this size means to both the local community and the environment surrounding it. The plantation covers 470 hectares and employs more than 3,000 workers, the majority of whom are working as tea pickers, which they have done for generations since the plantation opened more than 100 years ago.
While sipping on delicious organic tea from plants just feet away, the manager, Chandan, told us that the board members made a conscious decision in 2009 to prioritize their impact on the local environment. The first year they converted half of the crop to organic and the operation has since been 100% organic. This fact was astonishing to hear, because the change meant going from over a million kilos (2.2 million lbs) of final product per year to around 430,000 (946,000 lbs). There is an increase in product value but not nearly enough to cover the loss. So essentially we have major businessmen making a decision to lower revenue in order to help the environment, by decreasing the amount of toxic pesticides that were contaminating the surrounding waters. Since Kaziranga is mostly swampland and rivers, all these pesticides had a detrimental effect on the ecosystem.
The assistant manager took us on a tour of the beautiful green plantations where we had the chance to meet some of the local workers and to satisfy our curiosity about this forward-thinking company. As always, the Indian hospitality was above and beyond. Workers in the fields work 6 days a week, 8 hours a day and make 95 rupees per day. 95 rupees a day is around 1.6 dollars U.S., not exactly a dream wage by any standard. However, the workers get an hour lunch, housing, 48 days paid vacation, 84 days paid maternity leave and all medical care paid for. Amazingly, the medical care extends to their entire family. The plantation even has a professional and fully-equipped hospital to tend to any of the workers’ needs. We had lunch with the doctor who was extremely well- educated, well-traveled and dedicated to her profession. She has the assistance of multiple nurses and is on-call 24/7. When asked what she deals with, she told us “I am a jack of all trades, and deal with anything from a headache, to childbirth, alcohol addiction, trauma surgery and anything in between”.
Hathikuli Tea Plantation is just one of the many examples of the conservation efforts in effect to protect Kaziranga. The people of Assam are extremely proud of this national treasure.
Next time you sip on a cup of organic tea, there is a good chance that it was grown right here in Kaziranga!