Pub. Date:
University of California Press
The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India

The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India

by Sarah Besky
Current price is , Original price is $29.95. You

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Please check back later for updated availability.


Nestled in the Himalayan foothills of Northeast India, Darjeeling is synonymous with some of the finest and most expensive tea in the world. It is also home to a violent movement for regional autonomy that, like the tea industry, dates back to the days of colonial rule.

In this nuanced ethnography, Sarah Besky narrates the lives of tea workers in Darjeeling. She explores how notions of fairness, value, and justice shifted with the rise of fair-trade practices and postcolonial separatist politics in the region.  This is the first book to explore how fair-trade operates in the context of large-scale plantations. 

Readers in a variety of disciplines—anthropology, sociology, geography, environmental studies, and food studies—will gain a critical perspective on how plantation life is changing as Darjeeling struggles to reinvent its signature commodity for twenty-first-century consumers. The Darjeeling Distinction challenges fair-trade policy and practice, exposing how trade initiatives often fail to consider the larger environmental, historical, and sociopolitical forces that shape the lives of the people they intended to support.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520277397
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/16/2013
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture Series , #47
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Sarah Besky is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Natural Resources and Environment and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan.

Read an Excerpt

The Darjeeling Distinction

Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India

By Sarah Besky


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95760-2



Chowrasta, Darjeeling town's central plaza, is the hub of early morning activity. Up and down "The Mall," the paved circular walkway that leads in and out of Chowrasta, macaque monkeys and homeless dogs compete for scraps of food for their morning meal. Students from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute jog and practice calisthenics, dressed in matching polyester tracksuits. On clear mornings, the plaza draws vista-seeking tourists, anxious for a view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the Himalayan peak to the north and the world's third highest mountain, and the deep verdant tea plantations in the valleys to the east and west. The Mall and its bent and broken colonial-era iron fencing creates a perimeter around the Mahakhal Temple, and most mornings find older Tibetan women and men performing kora, a walking meditation that takes the form of circumambulation around a sacred site, thumbing prayer beads and quietly meditating as they make their way along the path. The word chowrasta appears in many Indo-Aryan languages, and in each, it is best translated as "crossroads." In Darjeeling, Chowrasta marks the convergence of several roads, each leading up into town along a ridge that runs north to south, roughly perpendicular to the Himalayas.

Seen from Chowrasta, the tea plantations that spread down the ridge to the east and west appear as a "natural," even beautiful foreground to the high Himalayas and the towering Kanchenjunga, a carpet of green below the blues and grays of the mountains. But the tea landscape, like Chowrasta, was formed through the confluence of multiple historical, political, and ecological factors. Scholars of the Himalayas have long acknowledged that this mountain region is a unique contact zone between Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman influences, but Chowrasta's bandstand, the paved strolling paths, and the homes that dot the roads leading out of the plaza are ever-present reminders of the colonial presence in this landscape. More importantly, the living landscape, from the tea bushes to the towering evergreen duppi trees, which were imported and planted by the British, constitutes a botanical contact zone.

Contemporary Darjeeling has emerged over, around, and within material (and lively) colonial infrastructures, from Chowrasta to the tea bushes in the valleys below. Darjeeling's potholed roads, dried-up water pipes, mildewed bungalows, overgrown duppi, and even its fields of tea bushes are what Ann Stoler calls "imperial ruins": material symbols of British colonialism for Darjeeling residents, from tea pluckers, to merchants, to planters. In this chapter, I use the imperial ruins of Darjeeling as material conduits for stories about the development of Darjeeling and its plantations, and as deteriorating reminders of the role Nepalis, British imperialists, and the climate itself continue to play in the life of the place.

At first, it might seem strange to couch tea bushes and trees as "ruins," but seen as part of what Stoler calls an "ecology of remains," we can understand ruins as anything but static. Indeed, they are "visible and visceral senses in which the effects of empire are reactivated.... To think with the ruins of empire is to emphasize less the artifacts of empire as dead matter or remnants of a defunct regime than to attend to their reappropriations and strategic and active positioning within the politics of the present." In other words, Darjeeling is a living and lived-in "imperial formation"—a landscape manufactured by both human and nonhuman actors and experienced as a set of material, symbolic, and social relationships.

In this chapter, I tell stories about how a few imperial ruins—statues, botanical gardens, tea bushes, and tea plantation factories—have become reappropriated and positioned in the present, using those stories to narrate key moments in Darjeeling's colonial past. Tea workers and townspeople often reminded me that the successes of the Darjeeling tea industry would never have been achieved without the British. To Darjeeling residents, this history of colonization has become visible in Darjeeling's landscape of imperial ruins, the social and material remains that Darjeeling residents were, in Stoler's words, "left with" after the colonial period.

The term landscape has two important meanings. In one sense, a landscape is a static, looked-upon, talked-about material world. In a second sense, a landscape is a moving, dwelt-in world. For anthropologists, ideas about and experiences of landscapes inform one another to produce "place." Making place means making political, economic, or social use of the landscape's past, or perhaps even inventing or revising it. In the chapters that follow, I describe several forms of such place making. As Stoler argues, some imperial ruins "are stubbornly inhabited to make a political point, or requisitioned for a newly refurbished commodity life for tourist consumption." Stoler's theories are grounded partly in her work amid the remains of Javanese sugar plantations, but her thoughts fit the ways in which Darjeeling's ruins are looked at and lived in. Tourists do still come to the area looking for vistas of tea plantations and mountains, and Nepali political activists do couch themselves as struggling to inhabit the plantation and the entirety of the Darjeeling landscape on their own terms.

A landscape is also a living aggregation of plants, animals, people, and nonliving materials. The living and nonliving, human and nonhuman elements of a landscape come to structure one another. They, as philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari put it, "mutually become" together. That the valleys of Darjeeling were suitable homes for a monoculture of tea is as much an ecological and climatological fact as an historical one. The soils, rainfall, and altitude do support tea bushes remarkably well. Once established in Darjeeling, tea managed to thrive. Seen as a living legacy of the imperial moment, tea also acts as a stubborn political reminder. Like other, more familiar kinds of ruins (buildings, monuments, roads), the flora and fauna of empire blended and meshed with previous ecological forms. Tea, like those "manmade" imperial structures, was what Stoler would call both a "ruin" and an agent of "ruination," an active reminder of colonial production and a continued force of colonial destruction.


With the formation of the British East India Company in 1600, British trade in India grew steadily. Rural Bengal and urbanizing Calcutta became the center of the Company's Indian trade, and later, in 1858, after the dissolution of the Company and the incorporation of India into the British Empire, Calcutta became British India's imperial center. With the development of trade and later Empire in British India, came increased incidences of disease. From imperial hospitals in the plains, surgeons took detailed morbidity and mortality statistics in an attempt to determine the relationship between climate and health. They kept records of temperature, rainfall, wind, and other conditions in order to figure out what influenced the death rate in their colonial territories. The sweltering climate and dense settlements of the plains, particularly in the trading port and imperial center of Calcutta, were thought to be a breeding ground for malaria and other tropical diseases. A "change of climate" became a popular prescription for those ailing in the plains.

Wars with Nepal (1814–16) and Burma (1824–26 and 1852) quashed powerful and expanding kingdoms in close proximity to Bengal and brought these fertile mountainous lands into the subjugation of the East India Company. British settlers in India looked toward the recently annexed lands in the Himalayas separating the Indian subcontinent from the tea fields and trading ports of China to establish seasonal hillside homes. In the mountains, British settlers could escape from the heat and disease of the plains, but they would also be in striking distance of Tibet, which was closed to foreigners but presented a tantalizing source of trade.

In the mid-1820s, the East India Company set up an experimental settlement in Cherrapunji in recently annexed Assam, located in India's northeastern arm, in hopes of establishing a retreat for ailing troops to convalesce. The damp climate and misty rolling hills reminded soldiers and officers of the British countryside, but Cherrapunji turned out to be one of the wettest places in the world. The whole settlement literally washed down the hillside in one of the first rainy seasons. The Company rebuilt Cherrapunji, but continued to look for something more permanent in the northwestern and northeastern Himalayas, close to regional centers in the Punjab and Calcutta.

After the Anglo-Nepal Wars, in 1828, the East India Company dispatched army officers to the Himalayan foothills around the Dorje-ling monastery (dorje meaning "thunderbolt," and ling meaning "place" in Tibetan). This time, they went in search of a high-altitude respite for convalescing British officials. In 1829, Company lieutenant general George W. Lloyd, while arbitrating a border dispute between the kingdoms of Nepal and Sikkim, declared that the area of Dorje-ling was "well adapted for the purposes of a sanitarium." In 1835, Lloyd negotiated with the Chogyal of Sikkim the annexation of a narrow strip of land, twenty-four miles long and five to six miles wide, hugging the ridge of the highest foothill in the region. The Deed of Grant specifically cited the region's climate as a reason for the annexation: "The Governor General having expressed his desire for the possessions of the Hills of Darjeeling, on account of its cool climate, for the purpose of enabling servants of his Government, suffering from illness to avail themselves of its advantages. I, the Sikkimese Raja, out of the friendship for the said Governor General, hereby present Darjeeling to the East India Company." "Darjeeling," whose name was adapted from the name of the original monastery, quickly developed into a bustling town. For a decade after the signing of the Deed of Grant, the British paid a yearly allowance for the use of the Darjeeling ridge. But British-Sikkimese relationships deteriorated through the 1840s, as the British continued to press for the establishment of a trade route to Tibet, which required passing through Sikkim.

After the East India Company acquired the Darjeeling ridge in 1835, British administrators, fearing that Darjeeling would become another Cherrapunji, settled on the ridge for nine months and took copious notes on the temperatures, rainfall, and other climatic factors. British East India Company officials deemed the ridge a favorable site for a sanitarium for British soldiers and officers suffering from tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases, not only because of Darjeeling's climate, but also because they deemed the region to be "uninhabited." Despite a population of nomadic Lepchas, the indigenous peoples of Darjeeling and Sikkim, Lloyd determined that "there are no villages in the Sikkim hills that I have ever seen, each man or family lives in the midst of his own cultivation, but there are collections of huts in a similar style with a quarter of a mile of each other, which scattered groups are sometimes for want of a better name called villages.... But I must explain that the Lepchas are migratory in their habits and quit the spot they have been cultivating at the expiration of the third year and take up a new location." British officials characterized the Lepcha as happy, gentle, and candid people—unsuited for the manual labor required to build a hill station. According to the British officer L. A. Waddell, the Lepcha "represent(ed) the state of primitive man." The Lepcha were thought to live closer to nature; they knew about the local flora and fauna and served as guides to the Himalayan interior. Both nomadic Lepchas and the land under which they practiced swidden cultivation were conceptualized as "free."

The fact that Darjeeling was deemed to be "uninhabited" when the East India Company acquired it led British cartographers and administrators to categorize their new possessions as a "wasteland." As a wasteland, Darjeeling was marginally autonomous. Unlike elsewhere in colonial India, where local Rajas maintained (at least for a time) a marginal degree of control of the land inhabited and used by the British, or where outposts of provincial government controlled remote parts of the polity, the whole of the Darjeeling district was largely managed and controlled by British settlers and colonial officials. In 1865, the British solidified the boundaries of the present-day Darjeeling district and the entirety became classified as a "nonregulated area." The classification of "nonregulated" meant that the acts and regulations of the British Raj (and the Bengal presidency) did not automatically apply in the district, unless specifically extended. This categorization was generally applied to "less advanced" districts of the empire.

Under this fluid administrative setup, Darjeeling became one of several colonial mountain refuges, or "hill stations." Early on in the imperial project, hill stations served primarily as sites of leisure and recuperation. As more and more military and civil servants built homes in mountain "wastelands," these communities grew. Seen as clean and relatively empty, hill stations were sites of refuge for convalescing soldiers and British officers, and for the wives and children of civil servants. Even though they were "nonregulated," many hill stations were the seasonal capitals of imperial administrative centers. For example, Darjeeling was the summer alternative to Calcutta in Bengal, and Shimla served a similar purpose for Delhi and the Punjab. Hill stations were romantic and quaint European villages, unlike the rest of regimented India. Streets were lined with gabled gothic villas, Tudor cottages, gingerbread ornamentation, and Swiss chalets (quite unlike the standardized verandahed bungalows across the Indian plains), as well as a multitude of schools. Unlike elsewhere in India, which was largely dominated by men, as the British presence in India grew, hill stations became the homes of women and children. The Darjeeling district became a site for the education of both English and Anglo-Indian children, often the progeny of tea planters. (Darjeeling remains home to several internationally renowned English-medium boarding schools.) Hill stations were originally conceived as sites where the British could reproduce the social and environmental conditions of home. Only later did they become industrial centers for the production of commodities central to imperial expansion and British daily life such as tea, rubber, and cinchona, the source of quinine, a malaria preventative.


Out of this wasteland, European settlers carved bungalows, gardens, reservoirs, churches, schools, and all of the other makings for the social reproduction of Britishness. The most iconic of these built environmental perturbations was Chowrasta, where settlers could gaze at Kanchenjunga and take afternoon strolls. Chowrasta was constructed during the heyday of hill station development. As an imperial ruin, Chowrasta is the symbolic center of British colonial control and the geographic center of the land that the British East India Company annexed from Sikkim. Chowrasta was once the site of afternoon concerts by the Darjeeling Police Band, a brass ensemble that would entertain British vacationers each afternoon (fig. 8).

At the north end of Chowrasta, where the bandstand once stood, there are two statutes, both commemorating Nepali culture heroes. The larger of the two statues is an imposing, gilded full-body image of Bhanubhakta Acharya (1814–68), the Nepali poet who translated the Ramayana from Sanskrit into Nepali, and who is widely considered to be the first poet to write in Nepali. The monument strikes pride in Darjeeling residents, as it is a reminder that Darjeeling—not Kathmandu—is the home of the Nepali Sahitiya Sammelan (Nepali Literary Society), which was forced to operate outside of Nepal in exile because authors, poets, and artists like Bhanubhakta were persecuted by the monarchy for writing in vernacular Nepali, not Sanskrit. Bhanubhakta looks south across the open plaza, dwarfing and partly occluding the view of a second monument, to his countryman and contemporary Jang Bahadur Rana (1814–77), a soldier and politician who facilitated Bhanubhakta's release from imprisonment. Jang Bahadur became Nepal's prime minister in 1846, after distinguishing himself in battle with the British and consolidating political control over the country.

During the period of my fieldwork, and indeed throughout the postcolonial history of Darjeeling, these statues have been alternately venerated and desecrated by Darjeeling's pro-Gorkhaland activists. On one hand, the statues were sites of cultural and ethnic pride, to which Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJMM) politicians during my fieldwork would point during their weekend rallies at Chowrasta as monuments to "ancestors." On the other hand, these statues of Nepali heroes served as constant reminders that Gorkhas, while citizens of India, had ancestral roots outside of the country. In fact, the present Bhanubhakta statue is a reproduction of the original, which was destroyed in 1991 by Gorkhaland subnationalist activists from the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), whose leaders disparaged him as a "foreign" poet. The statues thus call attention to the complex relationship between Darjeeling Gorkhas and Nepal (fig. 9).


Excerpted from The Darjeeling Distinction by Sarah Besky. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Maps and Figures
Notes on Orthography and Usage

Introduction: Reinventing the Plantation for the Twenty-first Century
1. Darjeeling
2. Plantation
3. Property
4. Fairness
5. Sovereignty
Conclusion: Is Something Better Than Nothing?


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews