Book Shelf

The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee

Planting times

Elite Clubs of India
Grounds of sorrow, grounds for joy.

By Aparna Datta

“Some Coffee Beans May Also Be Tainted”.

Triggered by this Knight Ridder article published on June 24, 2001 the coffee industry worldwide is currently in soul-searching mode. The article was a sequel to a series titled A Taste of Slavery, carried in May 2001, exposing the rampant use of child slave labour on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast.

“Chocolate isn’t the only American staple tainted by slavery. In addition to being the king of cocoa, Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s fourth-largest Robusta coffee grower…The two crops often are grown together, so the taller cacao trees can shade the coffee bushes…As with cocoa, there’s no way to tell whether a shipment of coffee beans contains beans picked by slaves or those picked by paid workers,” wrote journalist Sumana Chatterjee.

Thus was born a cause celebre, enough for the New York-based Tea & Coffee Trade Journal to publish, in its issue of January 20, 2002, an article titled “The Plight of Coffee’s Children”, that discusses “various aspects of the problem and root causes of child labour in coffee”. A sequel, “will look at the steps being taken by industry players, governments, and international agencies to… ensure that coffee fields around the world are free of exploitative child labour.”

As the editorial in the Jan/Feb issue says, “The slightest insinuation that any child labour, slave or not, taints coffee beans could taint the consumer’s taste for the product. How many times have major manufacturers been boycotted for things they were not responsible for or had no control over? Therefore it is imperative that we as industry members know the facts.”

Hmm. So what’s all the fuss about? The coffee community and industry observers in India might well be forgiven for viewing this emerging issue in ethical shopping in bemused wonder. For it’s common knowledge that there’s no child labour on coffee plantations in India. Period. But, just as growers and exporters have had to get savvy on the issue of environment-friendly coffee, could they now have to contend with another possible demand from buyers – “Certified – no child labour”?

No doubt the article focuses on the conditions prevailing primarily in the coffee regions of Africa and Central America (log on to for the full text). No mention of India, and therein lies the rub.

So as not to get tarred with the same brush greater awareness, about the enlightened labour standards on Indian coffee plantations, is imperative in international circles. The coffee fields of India, far from being the killing fields of child slave labour, are instead oases of gainful employment with relatively superior standard of living indices. Due recognition of our positive labour practices could create a competitive edge – getting the good word out could yield yet another ace for Indian coffee.

From the late 1820s, the coffee plantations in Southern India took shape in a distinctly benign, developmental mode, in contrast to other coffee producing countries where the intent was more exploitative. R H Elliot, in his book Gold, Sport and Coffee Planting in Mysore (1898) referring to the economic changes in the forty years of his planting experience, observes, “And this progress…has benefited all classes, and the labouring classes by far the most of all. In 1856, the pay of a labourer was 2 rupees 4 annas. It is now (in 1893) six to seven rupees a month, and a labourer can live on two rupees a month…in India it means the creation of a social and ever wide-spreading revolution. For when in India capital is introduced, and employment on a large scale is afforded to people, the poorer of the peasant classes are at once able to free themselves from debt… the local labourer is almost a thing of the past, for he has taken to agriculture and coffee culture. Field after field, and village after village, has thus been irrigated by that capital for which India thirsts…enabling land to be more largely and fully developed…”

While British pioneers may be largely credited with the progressive character of coffee development in India, another factor is that of good governance. The heartlands of the early planting industry were in the then kingdom of Mysore, widely acknowledged as one of the best-governed princely states, and Coorg, administered by the British till Independence. Even in the first hundred years of organized planting, the enlightened policies of the government, coupled with the commitment of private planters, laid the basis for the enduring institutions in the coffee industry.

Soon after Independence, The Plantations Labour Act of 1951 gave a legal framework to the terms of employment. The Act is considered exemplary, even today, far exceeding the labour standards in coffee lands anywhere else in the world. It provides for health, welfare, including recreation, education and housing, the hours and limitation of employment, and leave with wages. Significantly, the Act explicitly prohibits “employment of young children”, defined as under twelve years. Traveling through the coffee regions, the morning faces of uniformed children going to school is a recurring sight, not children out in the fields.

In truth, the coffee plantations of India are evolved socio-economic entities. However, the statutory requirements, socially responsible as they are, come with a price tag. Coffee growers abide by the regulations, and absorb the social costs, irrespective of the fluctuations in world coffee prices, which have now reached historical lows. With the developed countries upping the ante on environment and labour at the WTO, this is one export sector where India comes through looking good on both counts, and deserves to be identified and acknowledged on its own merit.

So, how does the Indian grower distance himself from the rest of the pack on the issue of child labour? Further, could the perception of Indian coffees be enhanced based on the positive labour policies? Every origin has a bundle of attributes – could labour welfare be treated as a parameter in coffee evaluation? How can this translate into tangible benefit in terms of better prices? Could the Indian grower lobby for a form of “labour credits” a la emissions trading, and get the foreign buyer to actually put his money where his mouth is?

For starters, growers and exporters could shift the paradigm from ‘no child labour’ to ‘labour welfare’ and build in the feel-good facts into their presentations, much the same way as ‘shade-grown’ is now an integral part of the pitch on Indian coffee. Clearly, it is a point of differentiation, and an opportunity to carve out a niche for Indian coffee solidly grounded in our fine traditions. Never did a cup of Indian coffee seem so ‘well balanced’, or more potent.

© Aparna Datta

Published in The Economic Times, India’s largest circulated business daily, on March 9, 2002



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