How Apeejay Tea and Me “broke” the glass ceiling in the nearly 200 year old Assam Tea industry

By Manju Baruah

When I joined Apeejay Tea as a trainee Welfare Officer in 2000, I was one of the six female Welfare Officers the company had hired in Assam in a big change they were introducing then to the Welfare Officers position in tea plantations. Who knew that I would become a garden manager in 18 years but here I am in Apeejay Tea’s Hilika Tea Estate – as a Manager. This is why I feel that the company and me both together broke the glass ceiling of tea industry which till I was elevated to this position had never seen a woman heading an estate as tea garden manager. The work of a tea garden manager is an “outdoor job” as the operations are spread across hundreds of hectares. So, if you cannot visit every operation physically and make rounds to every nook and corner of the garden, then this job is not meant for you, irrespective of which gender you belong to. Thus the nature of the job had determined that tea industry has traditionally been dominated by men. But I always believed that right at the top, it is not about gender, it is about being mentally and physically active.

Being the first woman tea estate manager in the nearly 200 year old history of the industry in Assam fills me with immense pride and I am thankful to my company, Apeejay Tea, for having the faith in me to put me at the helm of affairs at Hilika Tea Estate and to everybody across India and the world who have messaged celebrating the milestone.

Me at the gardens during plucking

I never planned to become a tea planter. My childhood dream was to become an IPS officer. After my father retired from his job in 1993, I wanted to be self-reliant. During that time, I came across an advertisement of Apeejay Tea in The Assam Tribune. The company was looking to induct women in the welfare officer’s post, a first in those days. I applied, got through and joined Apeejay as a Trainee Welfare Officer in 2000 at its Hokonguri Tea Estate.

Once I bagged the job, the first thing I did was to get involved with the workers and started spending time with them. I soon realised that this was my calling and felt that this was a great responsibility to take care of workers and their families. No other job gives one the scope to work for the welfare of so many people and improving their skills. So this job is not a job for me, but it is more of a responsibility towards my own people. I soon found that Apeejay Tea valued its people as much as I did as a person.

Watch me and my garden colleagues speaking to News18 Channel in Assam on a feature for International Women’s Day.

Episode 1
News 18 Assam / North East
Episode 2 , News 18 Assam / North East

I started taking initiatives in all types of organisational activities including factory, field and certification work, etc. Everyone in the Apeejay Tea ranks then encouraged me and some of my managers took special care in mentoring me. Gradually, I developed an interest in teaching and supervising garden activities in the field in a correct way and at the end of the day, I started taking pride in getting things done correctly. Soon, I started gaining knowledge about various aspects of the job, courage to talk with people, dealing with people and at the same time, the experience to face different situations. I believe respect begets respect. In this way, I became responsible towards the workers and of course, to the goals of my esteemed organisation.

I grew from being a Trainee Welfare Officer to becoming a Trainee Assistant Manager, Assistant Manager, Senior Assistant Manager and Deputy Manager working across different estates of Apeejay Tea. Our Chairman Mr Karan Paul called me to convey the news. I was so surprised that I congratulated him on my promotion instead of thanking him! I remember he laughed heartily at my slip of tongue and told me that it was my achievement and charted the course of what he expects out of me! The way Karan Sir spoke about my work I felt validated that I had worked honestly and sincerely even if I did not know it at that time that something was waiting for me and someone was watching my sincerity.

I would specially like to mention the role played by our GM – HR, Ramakrishn Ghosh, who identified me and thought me capable to be given the mantle of handling the affairs of an entire garden. Recently I accompanied Mr Ghosh and the HR team to the National HRD Network ‘s International Women’s Day 2019 gathering and shared that gender is not a factor and I felt “naturally” empowered in our company .

Here I am , a tea Planter, with Rumpa Das, a passionate Mountaineer, and Vandana Rao, an ace runner at NHRD International Women’s Day 2019 gathering as we share the skills that helped us in our careers.

Tea Industry is labour intensive and most of our work is manual. One needs to provide proper training and guidance to the workers job wise and at the same time, motivate them and provide a conducive environment for their skills to grow. For example in our company, we recognise plucking as a skill so we have Best Plucker Awards based on Quantity, Quality and Attendance on a bi-monthly basis culminating in choosing of Champion Pluckers who get the Chairman’s Trophy and a cash award of Rs 5000! In fact, I am happy to know that our HR has identified one of Hilika’s lady workers for plucking the highest quantity of leaf in our entire company for a surprise award which carries a cash award too. She will be felicitated at the end of March in our Cluster’s Award ceremony which I am looking forward to.

Me giving out the bi-monthly Best Plucker Award when the initiative first started off in April 2018

Since childhood, I was strong, grew up in a village with three brothers and did not have any fear then nor do I have fear now. There is nothing to fear except God if you are right and fair to all. There has never been a single instance when anybody did or tried to do anything wrong with me or by me. I have stepped into fights between men, pulled them apart, scolded them amidst big crowds and ensured everyone makes peace. This, one can do, only when “accepted” and this acceptance does not come easily, one has to work on the ground and one has to be honest. I visit each ward of my Estate and see the quality of work. Standard of work depends on our acceptance. If we accept a work the standard of that work fixed there. But if we do not accept then our struggle starts here for betterment and I have to be with my people for hours on the ground as a result it brings you closer to the workers. I work with different categories of people – young, middle aged and old. They come from different corners of India having different cultural backgrounds, language and dialect. There are physical as well as behavioral differences among them too. So, if we work in different Estates of Assam we come across different situations which make us rich with good experiences. If we bring all that knowledge to work then our targets can be achieved. This is what I have done.

Me speaking at the UN Women Conference in Kolkata at the launch of “Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces: Informed by Experience in the Tea Sector”

Successful completion of all the Estate activities depends on proper planning – long term, short term and day-to-day planning. Because if we cannot implement or execute a work in right time and right way, productive result cannot be expected. At the same time, it will not be cost effective also. After all, we have to carry out lots of cultivation and development work within the estate throughout the year like – plucking, weed management, pest management including IPM, drainage work, foliar & Nutrition management, propagation, manufacturing etc. which require proper planning to execute in a systematic way. Besides these, another most important work is welfare and development of workers and their families, taking care of maternal health of garden women and their children, etc.  All of them need time bound planning for successful implementation and achievement of targets. It is our social responsibility to contribute towards the overall growth and development of our garden people who make tea a special drink for both masses and classes. One of the Apeejay Tea gardens where I have worked in we had a huge problem of leaf theft and my division and sections were about 5-7 kms was away from my office. I pursued the leaf thieves and went to their village along with some of our line chowkidars and in their own ‘angan’ discussed with them how wrong such theft was. All of them were not bad and we were able to liaison with them.

Me speaking to women employees at HO on International Women’s Day 2019

When I look back, I find that I have had to compromise with my family life to reach where I am today. For example today on International Women’s day I am in Calcutta because I am speaking at an NHRD conference for International women’s day along with two other achievers from other industries but like all working women who are mothers, I had to organise my work as the tea season 2019 has started & I  rescheduled celebrations of our women in Hilika to the weekend and I also had to organise the care of my daughter while I was away. My husband works in the telecom industry. He stays in a nearby city and comes home on weekends. I take pride in my own professional growth and I want to be self-dependent. I am very concerned about my daughter because children demand time from their parents. So I hardly go to clubs or any other social outings. I prefer to spend all my evenings with my daughter because in the day time, I am busy with my job and she is busy with her school. My daughter does miss friends at home which she would have otherwise had in a normal city or town life and that is why I have to be very attentive towards her. Perhaps when she finishes middle school, I will encourage her to go to residential school so she can spend more time with her own age group. 

I am often called “Bada Madam” – the alternative to Bada Saheb which is the legendary and aspirational terminology of a boss in the tea industry. Sometimes they call me “Sir” and I don’t mind.

Me with my colleagues at the HO in Kolkata

Indeed the tea industry is traditionally male dominated and women started joining Assam Tea Industry from 1995 onwards but Talent is gender neutral. If motive and ethics are right and you are doing full justice to your job, it doesn’t matter what gender is at the top of the management structure. I believe that there is nothing that a woman can’t do which a man can.

Manju Baruah is Manager, Hilika Tea Estate, Apeejay Tea Limited

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