Mission Rimpocha – Philosophy in a Cup of Tea

This is a Guest Post by Praveen Rengaraj, Founder, Motley Brew. 

Missio-Rimpocha

A strange sense of déjà vu came up on me as I was boarding my flight today. The airline, had the green Bombay Burmah peacock stencilled on its side just below the cockpit . It hit me like a bang, a sense of timelessness, coupled with mixed feelings, pride, elation, sadness and regret. Settled into my seat, I soon drifted off and was hallucinating with a myriad memories and images of my days in the plantations. Damn, I could even smell the fragrance of freshly manufactured tea wafting up the hillside as I rode up the bend above the factory with the crisp mountain air stinging my face.

Many years back or rather a quarter of a century earlier, as a fresh Commerce graduate from one of the finest colleges in India, I was headed for a week long interview to this prestigious plantation company, which insisted I fly in at their expense. Filled with stalwarts and legends in the plantation industry in South India, this company was a pioneer in organics and bio dynamics in the tea industry in South India. Sadly, their pioneering effort seemed to disintegrate post the passing away of the CEO in harness and coupled with the various issues the plantation industry seems to be facing these days, they seem to be struggling to keep their head above water 

This is not a unique case, the whole plantation industry especially the tea estates seem to be completely burdened with a whole lot of issues, many have shut down or changed hands in distress to new owners, who in desperation, continue to bleed the estates to recover their
investments. In all this turmoil, one Darjeeling tea garden Makaibari, (I refer to it as a garden and not an estate, as everything here has been personally manicured by a master gardener), has withstood every storm in its path and has made a resounding success for itself. This garden is not blessed with nature’s bounty, it is situated in the rain shadow area of Kurseong and is not as high as the other Darjeeling estates, yet it has made its mark as the finest in the world and commands prices accordingly.

The master gardener was popularly called ‘Rajah’ Banerjee, though his real name is Swaraj K Banerjee. He was steadfast in stating that Makaibari was never his and even though he was the fourth generation owner of the garden, he always mentioned that he was ‘never an owner but a steward in passing’. Being a nature worshipper, he embraced the bounty of nature around the garden and introduced organic and biodynamic practices into the garden to bring it to where it is today. When asked as to what did he do differently, he would wax eloquent about how this was nothing new to India, that all traditional farming was done the organic and biodynamic way. When I learnt a little more, I realised not only was traditional Indian farming mostly organic and biodynamic in nature, even the fishermen in Kerala, where I reside now, also follow the moon phase for fishing. So, in reality, it is nothing new, just changing times forced people to choose shortcuts laced with chemicals and greed. No one can hope to exploit the environment and win, one ultimately lies dead in defeat. There are many many illustrations to second that thought.

My first association with Rajah was way back in 2004, when I was posted in Siliguri with another iconic tea company, J. Thomas & Co, the world’s oldest tea broking firm and whose executives are popularly called ‘tasters’ as that is what is their primary function. I was very keen on learning the nuances of Darjeeling manufacture as I had experimented with it in a high elevation estate in the Nilgiris. My boss, a rather large hearted and bold one, decided to break the traditional, hierarchy based company protocol at peril to his career and sent me on the quiet to his ‘uncle’ who was none other than Rajah himself for a couple of weeks of ‘unofficial’ training in Darjeeling manufacture. (even the CIA declassifies files post a certain time, and I thought since its been a long time, I might as well spill the beans)

I was cautioned by my boss to keep my mouth shut and just absorb what is around and not offer my ‘genius’ ideas and suggestions, but Rajah and I got along rather well, not withstanding the difference in age and experience. His incessant probing over long walks and amidst introductions to his horses, he would make me drop a brick or two of what I thought was my ‘genius’ idea. He would ponder over them rather diligently and accept them even though they were from someone vastly inexperienced in comparison to his knowledge. He calls me an ‘alternate voyager in sustainability’, a title that Iam rather proud of.

Rajah has now moved on to a larger mission Rimpocha, after selling off his stake as well as gifting away a decent chunk to the workers of Makaibari. In his words, Makaibari was his ‘karma’, and Rimpocha his ‘dharma’. I tend to understand that his karma was to give back manifold to nature in Makaibari, much more than what he took from it, and to the people of the garden who tilled it, brought it to bearing and are now profiting from it . There is a thin line between profiteering from nature and exploiting nature, the key here is to give back to nature and to give back a little more than what one takes from it. Now his dharma is to bring all his practices and learnings in Makaibari to a larger level and transform Indian agriculture or rather take it back to its origins through permaculture.

The very foundation of Makaibari was built upon its co-existence with nature and soil conservation. The tea garden was just one third and the dense tropical forests encompassed the remaining two thirds of the land of Makaibari. In addition to this, Rajah encouraged the constant planting of bamboo and flowering and fruit trees amongst other forest trees in various spots of the garden.

Bamboo for the locals, when reared sustainably, was instrumental in literally everything they required from making cribs for babies to lighting funeral pyres. The flowering and fruit trees bore flowers and fruit and with them came the birds and the bees. Animals followed and Makaibari has always played host to several of the big cats. This healthy symbiotic relationship between man and nature has yielded great dividends and Rimpocha seeks to bring this across the broad spectrum of agriculture in India and perhaps overseas.

Another feature was the reliance on the Indian cow. While the cow is in news for all the wrong reasons now, the traditional reverence to the Indian cow as a ‘gau mata’ or ‘cow the mother’ was not without reason. The bovines not only tilled the soil, they nourished humans with their milk and their dung was used for bio gas and compost. Rajah encouraged every family to own a cow, helped them sell their milk for additional income , encouraged bio gas to make life easy for the women and also stopped felling the forests for firewood. Most importantly, he taught them how to make compost and bought it off them, encouraging and boosting their income. The results may have been slow to show, especially for gardens prone to chemical fertilisers but they are permanent in nature. One just has to take a walk through Makaibari to appreciate it, it actually feels like walking on an expensive lawn and one is very tempted to take off one’s shoes and walk barefoot . The soil underneath is full of life, with worms and other organisms doing their bit for permaculture.

One of the most notable things that Rajah has always done is being consistent in his affection and concern for the well being of his workers, especially womenfolk, and constantly finding ways and means of boosting their income and their living standards.Happy workers make great teas. He has consistently believed in women’s empowerment, considering the bulk of the labour force in the plantations is made up of women. Come to think of it, in rural areas, women work the hardest, most menfolk may do some work or the other, but the women have
to cook, raise the family, tend to the cattle and then work on top of it. Constantly finding ways to encourage them, he coaxed and cajoled them into using bio gas, then got the willing ones to convert a room in their homes for eco tourism. The very base of Makaibari and now Rimpocha has been built on empowering womenfolk.

Traditionally plantation companies never encouraged education, worrying that the workers’ children would get educated and move on to the cities. While estate schools are compulsory under Indian plantation law, Rajah was steadfast in educating the children not only in academics but also in a sustainable way of life. He and his wife would sit over bi-weekly sessions with the children, where they could come to him with collected plastic bits in return for sweets and they would sing and dance and tell them all that they learnt over the week. No wonder that many still come back to work in Makaibari with an education.

Rajah has always proposed that the workers of the estates should be made stakeholders in progress. Only when they realise that they are owners and have to work together for the collective good, will they change the bottom line of companies . An exercise in collective ownership has been experimented in South India in the tea estates of Munnar and has been profitable so far.

Perhaps it is high time that this philosophy is experimented upon and implemented across the board in agriculture in general and plantation companies specifically . Colonial hierarchy-based ownership and management was the need of the hour when the British planters toiled
hard to bring vast tracts of pristine forest under tea cultivation. They had to impose a hierarchical system of management for absolute control as they were dealing with a huge number of native labour, whom they sought to control and exploit and over time, the constant exploitation of land and labour has left most companies in losses. The labour costs are high and so are the chemical inputs, added to that there is excess supply often of average quality and the realisations low. History has been witness to the fact that anyone who exploits nature and land will have to pay the price for it at some stage. Over the past decade or so, most of the fine, illustrious tea companies have been struggling to continue operations even though tea is perhaps the most popular drink in India and India by itself is the world’s largest consumer of tea. 

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The time may be right for workers to be made stakeholders in progress. As owners and stake holders, they will themselves re align their expectations and work their way into profits if they are to sustain. Ownership does wonders and brings out the best in people. A better, chemical free produce also means better remuneration.This could offset the loss in yield and if not better the profits ,at the very least sustain them. Its a matter of time before better demand paves the way for higher profits. The thin line between profits, yield and quality needs to be balanced tight to make it sustainable for all.

The Rimpocha way is not one that is limited to tea plantations alone. It can be replicated in every form of agriculture and not just that, even if one were to have a small garden on a roof top or verandah, one could very well initiate permaculture. In a world which is seriously feeling the scourge of climate change, a country which moves back to its roots, practicing what is preached to the world, permaculture and co-existing with nature, may just be the answer.

Rimpocha as a philosophy is just about lighting up the path for the future and in Rajah, we have the biggest supporter of all.

Rajah-Banerjee-Makaibari
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Praveen Rengaraj is an independent consultant in the boutique hospitality and realty business. He started his  career as a tea and coffee planter and the logical career progression saw him become a tea taster and advisor. He then moved towards building successful boutique hospitality projects and actively consults with companies adhering to his thought process of sustainability. He spends most of his time communing in nature, either by the sea or in the mountains where his passions in landscape photography and angling for rare and elusive fish find their expression. He is also an avid golfer and continues to keep upto date in the world of tea, which was and continues to remain his first love.

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