First Woman to Manage Assam Tea Estate

Manju Baruah (Photo courtesy of Apeejay)

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 industrywhere 60 percent of the field workers are women. In Darjeeling, LassiTamang is the first factory manager of the stellar Jungpana estate;almost every article on her adds “one of the first of all in Darjeeling.” AventikaJalan, co-director of 75-year old Chota Tingrai, is one of the mostnoted innovators in Assam and has been able to develop a cadre of women in hermanagement team.

That’s about it: unique achievements by a few outstanding femalesin a social and business context notorious for the working conditions forwomen, labor abuse, severe health and nutritional maladies, inequitable pay andsocial subjugation. Most commentators and many industry executives recognizethat this must change and that opening opportunities for women to grow theircareers and enhance their lives is an essential part of this.

Manju Baruah (Photo courtesy of Apeejay)

Manju Baruah’s career is her own success but it provides a fewhints as to how more women of ability are likely to rise to their meritedmanagement positions. She is in her early 40s and after earning her MBA startedout as a trainee welfare officer at Apeejay Tea, one of India’s oldest teaproducers and its third largest. The company owns 17 tea estates in the primetea growing areas of Assam, spread over 50,000 acres. The company acquiredTyphoo, the third largest UK tea brand, in 2005. Apeejay is one of India’slargest bulk sellers in the domestic auction sale system and exports tea tonearly 50 countries.

The position of welfare officer was mandated by Assam statelegislation in the 1980s. MousumiBharali, an Appejay WO, described the early days of her work asincluding handling elopements, neighbor disputes, sanitation, and housingissues. Apeejay was a leader in expanding the position. In the early 1990s, itupgraded it to assistant manager status and near the end of the decade “adoptedthe historic policy of appointing lady welfare officers.” (Mousumi Bharali.2018)

It was this, “one of the wisest decisions the company had evertaken”, that both provided new job opportunity and attracted educated jobapplicants. One of the blockages that articles on Manju Baruah’s appointmentand its implications emphasize is that in the rural and often backward teacommunities, women not only lack education but perceive no value in it by thevery fact that they have never seen it as being of benefit for females.

Manju Baruah (Photo courtesy of Apeejay)

Ms. Baruah manages more than one thousand employees. Profileshighlight her being an avid biker who rides a motorcycle across the 633-hectaretea estate (2.3 square miles) to carry out her work every day. The job of a teaestate manager is very demanding. It involves almost round-the-clock work,constant adjustment to weather and seasonal shifts, lack of resources in remoteareas, and strong and visible on-the-ground presence and leadership. This, ofcourse, encouraged the stereotype of it not being a job for a woman.

She acknowledges but dismisses the challenges of being a womanin a patriarchal culture and an often overtly misogynist work tradition. "Awoman manager is certainly a disruption of the traditionalmanagement structure in a tea garden, but it's a disruption of a good kind,”she said.

Inan interviewpublished early this year, she profiles what a tea manager must aspire to – andindirectly profiles herself:

"You have to be a good observer… fair to all but right atthe top of what it takes is – being mentally and physically active. The teaindustry is an "outdoors" job and all our works are scattered inthousands of acres or more so physically if you cannot visit every operationand make rounds in every nook and corner of the garden, then the top job justisn’t possible for you - and that’s irrespective of gender." 

Sources: India press, Apeejay Tea