The appointment of Manju Baruah as the manager of Hilika Tea Estate in Assam is news. It is unique news, too, in that she is the first woman to hold this position in the nearly 200-year history of tea growing in the state that produces around half of India’s tea. The national press and social media coverage of her promotion amounts to more than 120,000 news items.
She joins the tiny list of female executives in an industry where 60 percent of the field workers are women. In Darjeeling, Lassi Tamang is the first factory manager of the stellar Jungpana estate; almost every article on her adds “one of the first of all in Darjeeling.” Aventika Jalan, co-director of 75-year old Chota Tingrai, is one of the most noted innovators in Assam and has been able to develop a cadre of women in her management team.
That’s about it: unique achievements by a few outstanding females in a social and business context notorious for the working conditions for women, labor abuse, severe health and nutritional maladies, inequitable pay and social subjugation. Most commentators and many industry executives recognize that this must change and that opening opportunities for women to grow their careers and enhance their lives is an essential part of this.
Manju Baruah’s career is her own success but it provides a few hints as to how more women of ability are likely to rise to their merited management positions. She is in her early 40s and after earning her MBA started out as a trainee welfare officer at Apeejay Tea, one of India’s oldest tea producers and its third largest. The company owns 17 tea estates in the prime tea growing areas of Assam, spread over 50,000 acres. The company acquired Typhoo, the third largest UK tea brand, in 2005. Apeejay is one of India’s largest bulk sellers in the domestic auction sale system and exports tea to nearly 50 countries.
The position of welfare officer was mandated by Assam state legislation in the 1980s. Mousumi Bharali, an Appejay WO, described the early days of her work as including handling elopements, neighbor disputes, sanitation, and housing issues. Apeejay was a leader in expanding the position. In the early 1990s, it upgraded it to assistant manager status and near the end of the decade “adopted the historic policy of appointing lady welfare officers.” (Mousumi Bharali. 2018)
It was this, “one of the wisest decisions the company had ever taken”, that both provided new job opportunity and attracted educated job applicants. One of the blockages that articles on Manju Baruah’s appointment and its implications emphasize is that in the rural and often backward tea communities, women not only lack education but perceive no value in it by the very fact that they have never seen it as being of benefit for females.
Ms. Baruah manages more than one thousand employees. Profiles highlight her being an avid biker who rides a motorcycle across the 633-hectare tea estate (2.3 square miles) to carry out her work every day. The job of a tea estate manager is very demanding. It involves almost round-the-clock work, constant adjustment to weather and seasonal shifts, lack of resources in remote areas, and strong and visible on-the-ground presence and leadership. This, of course, encouraged the stereotype of it not being a job for a woman.
She acknowledges but dismisses the challenges of being a woman in a patriarchal culture and an often overtly misogynist work tradition. “A woman manager is certainly a disruption of the traditional management structure in a tea garden, but it’s a disruption of a good kind,” she said.
In an interview published early this year, she profiles what a tea manager must aspire to – and indirectly profiles herself:
“You have to be a good observer… fair to all but right at the top of what it takes is – being mentally and physically active. The tea industry is an “outdoors” job and all our works are scattered in thousands of acres or more so physically if you cannot visit every operation and make rounds in every nook and corner of the garden, then the top job just isn’t possible for you – and that’s irrespective of gender.”
Sources: India press, Apeejay Tea