2001 ASSLH conference – The ‘freeing’ of unfree labour: Coolies in the tea gardens of Assam 1908–1948

Rob Castle and Jim Hagan
University of Wollongong

In a previous paper1, we compared the industrial relations of coolies employed in the tea gardens of Assam with those of Aborigines who worked in the cattle industry of tropical Australia. Despite the different locations and the disparate nature of the two industries, we found some striking similarities in the role of the employers, the response of their employees, and the policies of the State. We explained these in terms of the demands of international markets, the domination of the industry by British capitalists, Imperial policies, and colonial administrative practice. Our paper concentrated on a period of about half a century, from the time when the rapid expansion of both industries began, to 1908. In that year the Governor-General of India gave his assent to an Act which began a legislative process whose avowed purpose was to remove restrictions on the free movement of coolie labourers working on the Assamese tea gardens

The conditions of employment in the tea gardens of Assam were subsequently the subject of three inquiries by the Government of India, an annual series of Resolutions of the Assam Parliament, and a matter of some concern to the International Labour Organisation. The tea gardens attracted the attention of the Non-Co-operation Movement, and the All India Trade Union Congress; recruitment for the tea industry and the regulation of the industry itself was the subject of a number of Acts of Parliament as was abolishing indenture and establishing rights of freedom of association. These developments generated a considerable contemporary (and retrospective) secondary literature, which we analyse in this paper.


Free labour is labour which is free to offer itself to employers of its choice, and to withdraw from employment if it wishes. It receives its payment regularly in cash (wholly or mainly), and is free to dispose of its income as it desires. It can bargain over wage rates with information it has about the wage rates of others; it can form associations for its own benefit, and it can pursue its work without undue risk to life and health.

Judged by those standards, the coolies who laboured on the tea gardens of Assam at the turn of the century had very little freedom. They had been recruited hundreds of miles from that Province under an indenture which bound them to the service of one employer for a period of some years, and for a wage which could not be varied. Accommodation for them and their families was frequently squalid, and they were not free to associate with others for any but religious purposes. If they broke their indenture, either by “absconding” or not working to their employers’ satisfaction, they were subject in law to criminal proceedings, and in fact, to the punishment of the manager, which was often brutal.

The wages paid to tea garden coolies were generally lower than those prevailing in other occupations in Assam, and in that sense they were cheap. But coolies cost a lot to recruit, they “absconded” very frequently, and by 1906 it had become impossible to attract them to Assam in sufficient numbers. The Assam Labour Enquiry Committee of that year found that the Province’s evil reputation deterred recruitment, and recommended a number of measures aimed at improving the conditions of employment. It believed that de-regulating the methods of recruitment would also help increase the supply of labour, and subsequent legislation reflected the Committee’s views.

In 1908, the Parliament of India passed the Assam Labour and Emigration Act, which allowed the Government of Assam to dispense with the restrictions on recruiting contractors imposed by Act VI of 1901. The 1908 Act also allowed the Governor General in Council to direct the proceeds of any fines or fees levied under the Act to meet “the costs of sending labourers and other persons back to their native districts”.2

The Government of Assam applied its new powers. It published a Notification declaring that

The eight labour districts of the Province ceased to be subject to provisions [which allowed] a coolie who is brought up to Assam as a free emigrant to be placed under contract after arrival.3

It also prohibited the re-engagement of time-expired labourers under the 1901 Act, and by withdrawing sections 195 and 196, abolished the employers’ power of private arrest.4  Seven years later, the Government of India rescinded all recruitment by contractors, and set up a Labour Board to supervise recruitment and migration. The Board consisted of 15 representatives of the tea industry, other than of the coolies who worked in the gardens.5

The increasing need for labour lent action to ideology. Acreage under tea expanded every year from 1907/08 to 1920/21, so that by the latter year the area under crop was about 23 per cent greater than in the former. The first year in which tea acreage actually declined was 1921/22, and it did so again for the next two years, after which it began to increase again, expanding even during the first years of the Great Depression. It then fell, but only for two years, and by less than one per cent. Then it began to rise again, so that at the outbreak of the Second World War, the acreage under tea in Assam was almost 30 per cent greater than it had been 30 years before in 1907/08. Despite the increased plantings, tea remained a very profitable crop. In 1939, 128 out of 143 tea companies in Assam declared a dividend of 15 per cent or more on aggregate capital.6 In that year, the British bond rate averaged four per cent.

High profit resulted mainly from containing the cost of labour. The technology of producing tea on the plantation did not change. The rapid expansion of tea acreage required a corresponding expansion of the labour force, and one which was great enough (in combination with other methods) to keep wages on tea gardens below those earned by local labour. In this, the planters were perennially successful; all inquiries into labour on the tea gardens noted their achievement.7

Area Under Tea, Total Labour Force, and Number of Annual Emigrants
Selected Years, 1907/8 to 1939/40

Area Under                            Total Labour Force                               Number of Annual Emigrants

Year Tea (acres) Adults Children


Adults Children Total
1907/08 342,345 452,464 287,331 739,795 58,934 25,890 84,824
1918/19 405,951 622,902 462,055 1,084,957 135,028 87,143 222,171
1920/21 420,163 571,526 439,518 1,011,044 16,850 8,622 25,472
1923/23 411,499 563,341 428,975 992,316 34,607 7,255 41,862
1927/28 428,891 585,104 440,117 1,025,227 33,851 8,994 42,845
1931/32 431,037 618,295 454,318 1,072,613 38,185 12,764 50,949
1932/33 428,012 615,249 474,241 1,089,490 27,964 11,937 39,901
1939/40 438,409 605,555 571,950 1,177,505 17,280 7,497 24,777

Based on MA Siddique, Evolution of Land Grants and Labour Policy of Government, pp. 162-3, citing Report on Tea Culture in Assam, and Report on Labour Immigration into Assam.

Planters were highly organised, internationally, nationally and locally, for the purposes of marketing and for managing labour. Members of the Indian Tea Association controlled 90 per cent of all tea acreage in Assam, and the majority of them were represented in the India Tea Association, London.8  They had pressed for the abolition of the contractor system prior to 1915, and in 1917 they came together in the Tea Districts Labour Association. Representatives of these bodies dominated the labour Board which the Act of 1915 established.

The supply of labourers to Assam had always depended to some extent on the state of the local economies of the recruiting districts. In 1918, drought and famine spread through tea labour recruiting districts. The Labour Board oversaw the migration of about 220,000 labourers (including wives and children) into Assam in 1918/19, and over 100,000 in the next year. Their arrival coincided with a check to the expansion of the tea trade and a sharp rise in the cost of common foodstuffs. The wages they could command “were not enough to keep “body and soul together”. In some gardens wages amounted to no more than three pice a day.”9  When managers refused demands for higher wages, thousands of coolies left the gardens.

There had been plenty of disputes between managers and coolies for many years beforehand. The Assam Labour Enquiry Committee noted their increasing incidence in 1906; at the end of the century, there had been 272 prosecutions in the year for rioting and unlawful assembly.10  Most of these were in response to ill treatment by managers, and the number of coolies involved was small, and the dispute was usually confined to one garden. But in May 1921, after a series of smaller strikes, some 8,000 coolies in the Chargola Valley walked off and almost every garden there was left without labour. They were followed by about 209,000 coolies in the Surma Valley. At two public meetings before the walk-offs, leaders of Congress had supported the workers’ claims for wage increases, and urged them not to cooperate with the planters until they met their demands. The alternative to industrial confrontation on the gardens was to return to their villages, and live a simple and plain life. As they left the gardens a few days later, many coolies shouted “Gandhi Maharaj Sri Jai” (Hail Gandhi!).11

The thousands of coolies began to stream towards the nearest ghats and railway stations to begin their journey home. At the railway stations, officials refused to sell the coolies tickets, even though public subscriptions provided enough money for their fares. On the night of 20 May, the 3,000 coolies stranded at Chandpur Railway Station were suddenly baton-charged and flogged. Next day, Gurkhas with fixed bayonets attacked the coolies while they were sleeping. No- one knows exactly how many were killed. One official estimate was that “300 people died owing, perhaps, to police action and cholera.”12

In November 1921, the Government of Assam established a committee to inquire into the conditions of coolie labour in the tea gardens. It found that the strikes were the result of

A combination of economic and political conditions, and that undoubtedly the existence of economic grievances rendered coolies more ready to listen to the exhortations and incitements of non-cooperators and other agitators.13

It did not however recommend that planters should raise the coolies’ wages. Nor did it, in compliance with a resolution of the Indian Tea Association, take any evidence from the coolies themselves. In the Committee’s opinion, this would have risked “playing into the hands of unscrupulous agitators.”14

The Committee did however recommend the repeal of the Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act of 1859, an Act of the Government of India. This Act provided for imprisonment for up to three months with hard labour for labourers found guilty of breach of contract, and planters had made increasing use of it after the Assam Government had abolished penal provisions for breach of contracts in 1908 and 1914. The Government of India finally repealed the 1859 Act in 1925, effective from April 1926. At that time, there were still 120,000 labourers bound by it.15  Its repeal marked the formal end of a legal system which coerced labour into working under threat of imprisonment. From April 1926, all tea garden coolies could legally withdraw their labour in bargaining over wages and conditions of employment. To that extent, their power to bargain freely was strengthened.

The Tea Districts Emigrant Labour Act (Government of India Act No. XXII of 1932) also added significantly to their power to move freely. The Act of 1908 had recognised the labourers’ right to repatriation; the Act of 1932 confirmed it, and provided the labourer’s “right of repatriation as against the employer employing him at the time of…expiry [of the engagement]” (Section Seven). Section Ten also provided for repatriation in other circumstances—for example, a breakdown in health, or misconduct by the employer. All repatriation was to be at the employer’s expense.

These were important additions to the coolies’ power to bargain freely over wages and conditions. In practice, they were heavily offset by other circumstances. The first of these was the changing nature of the supply of labour. By the 1890s, some planters were attempting to secure their labour supply by offering coolies who had served out their contract land on which to settle. The Government of Assam reinforced this policy by making land available for the same purpose. By 1926/27 this policy had succeeded to the extent that about 65 per cent of the new labourers engaged to work in the tea gardens were born in Assam. By 1930, according to one estimate, there were 600,000 ex-garden labourers settled on government land.16

Despite this added labour, Assam remained a large importer of coolies, even when the acreage under tea declined during the Great Depression, and when the Government of India restricted the export of tea in the post-Depression years. Act No. XXII which guaranteed the tea labourers’ right of repatriation also abolished the Labour Board, allowed the deregulation of restricted recruiting areas, and established a Controller under whose supervision migration was to continue. The Act’s theory was that the greater supply [would remove] the need for control: when more people offered for recruitment then could be accepted, “The necessity for control should disappear entirely”. 17

What the Act did was to add to the pool of labour already made redundant by declining production. By 1934, the Government recognised that “much more labour was available than could be accepted”, but in that year 48,000 coolies migrated to Assam, and an average of about 25,000 arrived each year until 1940.18

Oversupply severely limited the coolies’ power to bargain. So did the collusive practices of the planters. Members of the Indian Tea Association were required not to offer wage rises without first consulting the Association, an event which occurred only rarely.19  Locally, they enforced their wages agreement through “District” or “Circle” Committees. If a labourer wished to move from one garden to another, he had to present a reference from his former employer; and a transfer fee applied.20

But, as the Committee of Enquiry into Conditions of Labour in Plantations noted in 1946, “In actual practice the labourer did not feel free to move”.21  One reason for this was that the practice of taking a thumbprint for receipt of the “bonus” at the end of the engagement gave coolies, unaware of their legal rights, the impression that they were still under contract. Another was the presence of the chaukidar, who acted as a watchman to see that they did not leave the plantation, or receive unauthorised visitors. Planters insisted on their rights as owners of private property to deny entry of any person who did not have their permission.22  An attempt in the Assam Legislature to open tea gardens to public access failed.23  Within the gardens, planters permitted meetings only for religious purposes.

These limits on free association made the organisation of effective industrial action almost impossible. Besides prohibition of access there were other serious difficulties. The tea plantation coolies came from several different regions in India. They differed in religion and culture, and they lacked a common language. Overcoming these problems was beyond the resources of the infant trade union movement. Although the All-India Trade Union Congress dated from 1920, India’s 343 registered unions in 1938 still only had a combined membership of 390,000.24 A registered union did not appear in the gardens until 1939, and apparently did not last long. The Committee of Enquiry into Conditions of Labour in Plantations noted in 1946 that there was only one “functioning” trade union operating in the Assam gardens. Its organisation was limited to a few gardens, and it had about 900 members—out of a workforce of over one million.25

Despite lack of trade union organisation, there were still strikes. The 1946 Enquiry noted that there had been at least 115 of them in the years 1930-39, involving as many as 5,900 labourers in 1934, and not less than about 2,000 in any one year. Some of them the Enquiry characterised as “protests against ill-treatment”. The others were the result of “economic grievances, including demands for higher wages”.26  None of them succeeded in having any significant effect on wage rates. In 1946, the daily wage rates of agricultural workers in Assam were still “much higher than the average daily wages of labourers in tea gardens”.27  This remained true even after due allowance had been made for subsidised food and accommodation in the gardens:28

The criterion laid down by the Assam Government about 23 years ago [following the recommendation of the Assam Labour Enquiry Committee that the standard wage should be sufficient to provide the labourer of average capacity and industry with wholesome food, sufficient clothes, and a little money over] is not fulfilled even to this day.29

In the judgement of the 1946 Enquiry, the Assam Government had not helped the coolies in their quest for higher wages. It was not interested in the merits of strikes, but only in keeping the peace, and maintaining the status quo.30  It did not act on a recommendation from the Royal Commission of 1929-31 that it establish a statutory body to fix a minimum wage.

Nor did the Government act on a series of detailed recommendations in the Commission’s Report for the improvement in coolie housing on the estates. Its one response to the Commission’s many suggestions for increasing the freedom of coolie workers and improving their conditions of employment was to appoint officials to inspect the gardens biennially. The 1946 Enquiry reported that

As there is no statutory authority for these inspections, they have no binding force. It appears, however, that all these Inspecting Officers hardly have a talk with the labourers privately, ie without the presence of the manager or supervisor, and that they collect the necessary information from the managers themselves.31

It was information so gathered that allowed the Honourable Sir Frank Noyce to state in answer to a question in the Legislative Assembly that

There is no reason to believe that the conditions of labourers in the Assam tea estates was not satisfactory.32

He was aware that some of the recommendations of the Royal Commission had not been carried out, but “Assam was not a wealthy province”.33

In one respect, however, the 1946 Enquiry conceded, there had been an improvement: “medical facilities” had improved since 1931. Coolies could choose to work in tea gardens without risking their health to the same extent as their forebears; planters could count on few interruptions to production due to ill-health, and look forward to a greater rate of reproduction in their labour force.

The Enquiry of 1946 was the last conducted under the aegis of the British Raj. It is at once a summary and a critique of British policy towards the conduct of Indian plantations. Following its recommendations, the new Government of India proclaimed a Minimum Wages Act in March 1948. The Act was both a statement for the future, and a judgement on the past. Its verdict: that coolie labour, no matter how legally free to bargain, could not necessarily secure for itself a wage regarded as a minimum by the standards of the time.


1 The authors’: “Unfree Labour on Assamese Tea Gardens and in the Northern Australian Cattle Industry”, paper read at the Conference of the Indian Association for the Study of Labour History, New Delhi, March, 1998.
2  Act No. 11, assented to 11 September, 1908; Section three.
3 Government of Assam, Resolution on Immigrant Labour in Assam, Shillong, 1908 in State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
4 Ibid.
5 Assam Labour and Immigration Act, No. VIII of 1915; S.K. Bose, Captial and Labour in the Indian Tea Industry, Bombay, 1954, p.93.
6 D.V. Rege, Report on an Enquiry into Conditions of Labour in Plantations in India, Delhi, 1946. Profitability increased in the war years; by 1942,147 out of 155 companies were paying 28 per cent or better.
7 E.g. Rege, op.cit., p.56.
8 Rege, op.cit., p.70.
9 M.A.B. Siddique, Evolution of Land Grants and Labour Policy of Government, New Delhi, 1990, p.159, citing D.C. Lall, Coolie: The Story of Labour and Capital in India, London, 1932, p.31.
10 R. Behal and P. Mohapatra, “The Rise and Fall of the Indenture System in the Assam Tea Plantations’, Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. III, 1992, p.146.
11 Siddique, op.cit., p.171.
 12 Siddique, op.cit., p.173.
13 Report of the Assam Labour Enquiry Committee 1921/22, quoted in Siddique, op.cit., p.175.
14 Ibid., p175.
15 International Labour Review, Vol. V, 1928, p.603.
16 Siddique, op.cit., p.176.
17 Report of the Royal Commission on Labour in India, London, 1931, p.372, in British Parliamentary Papers, Vol. Xi, 1931.
18 Siddique, op.cit., p.161.
19 Siddique, ibid., p.176.
20 Rege, op.cit., p.28.
21 Ibid., p.28.
22 Ibid, p.29.
23 Ibid, p.29.
24 C. Revri, The Indian Trade Union Movement, New Delhi, 1972, p.236.
25 D.V. Rege, Report of an Enquiry into Conditions of Labour in Plantations in India, Delhi, 1946, p.71.
26 Ibid., p.71.
27 Ibid., p.56.
28 Ibid., p.51
29 Ibid., p.47.
30 Ibid, p.72
31 Ibid., p.30.
32 Legislative Assembly Questions and Answers 18 February 1936, p.987.
33 Ibid., p.986.