INTEREST PIECE: TEA AND TRAINS
By Niladri Gupta
Tocklai Tea Research Institute
Chai, Garam Chai (Tea, Hot Tea) is a commonly heard welcome call when a train chugs into any railway station in India. The hot cup of tea gives a refreshing feel especially in the early mornings after a night’s journey. Tea and Indian Railways (the largest railway network in Asia and second largest in the world under one management) have closely been associated with each other ever since railways became the main mode of transport in India after its inception during the colonial past.
Journey of the Indian Railways
The railway system in India especially for passenger traffic made its first journey on 16th April, 1853 from Bombay (Mumbai) to Thane. The train comprised of 14 carriages hauled by 3 locomotives named Sindh, Sultan and Sahib (which came from Great Britain by ship) and was part of the The Great Indian Peninsular Railway. The proposal to set up a railway system in India was initiated in Great Britain in 1843 by Lord Dalhousie (who later became the Governor General of India) who realised the interest amongst bankers, traders and shipping companies in Great Britain as well as India in train travel. The railways were set up by private companies which received a guaranteed 5% return annually on investment from the British East India Company. Railways in India actually started in western part of the country because a few freak accidents led to the delay of Calcutta, the capital of the British East India Company during that period, receiving the first railways in India. A story of perilous travel on the world’s great oceans: HMS Godwin the ship carrying the locomotive for the East India Railway from Great Britain was misdirected and ended up in Australia, while the ship carrying the railway coaches capsized at the sandheads in Bay of Bengal before entering the Hooghly River. Finally, the East India Railway saw the light of the day on 15th August 1854. Now, Indian Railways is one of the largest railway networks in the world with 64000 km of track covering 7000 stations and catering to 23 million passengers and 2.68 million tonnes of freight daily. Thus the tag line for the Indian Railways: Lifeline to the Nation.
The Tea Connection
Tea was discovered in India by Scottish explorer Robert Bruce in the Upper Brahmaputra Valley, Assam in 1823 being brewed by the local Singhpho tribe much before the railways came in India. The first tea produced in Assam (a consignment of 12 chests) was sent to England for public sale in 1838. With the advent of tea trade in Assam, north eastern India was connected to the port of Kolkata from Dibrugarh (Upper Assam) by the Brahmaputra navigation channel and from Silchar (Cachar) by the Barak-Surma-Meghna navigation channel. The Railways came to Assam in 1881 with the construction of the railway line between Dibrugarh and Makum collieries to transport tea and coal to Dibrugarh. Similarly, the Chittagong port (presently in Bangladesh) was also connected to Assam via Barak Valley in 1903 to transport tea, though the railway fell into obscurity after the partition of the country in 1947. The Indian section of the route is currently being connected to the rest of the country and is likely to be opened by April, 2015. A railway journey through the tea landscape of Assam from Lumding to Dibrugarh is a memorable experience as the train passes through vast stretches of the tea estates in south bank and upper Assam (the largest single tea growing region in the world) and through national parks of the region. Though the railways were introduced to transport tea to the ports (directly or indirectly) for export, the Indian railways presently do not carry much tea as part of its freight which declined by 59% in the 1990s due to increase in road network in the country¹, but the livelihood of a large number of vendors selling tea are dependent on the Indian Railways passenger traffic.
The Chai Wallahs
From my childhood days I had a fascination for railway journeys and the thing that hasn’t changed much over the years are the tea vendors (chai wallahs as they are commonly called in India) with a kettle and a bucket of cups getting on, moment a passenger train enters a station and in some cases they are on the train even before the train has come to a halt. Incidentally, they are the last person to get down after collecting their dues when the train has already picked up enough speed. I always wondered why they risked their life so much for selling just a cup of tea. No statistical figures exist of the number of tea vendors who earn their livelihood by selling tea in the Indian railway network but it accounts for a major livelihood source for a considerable section of the population. In accordance, Indian Railways have also given importance to the tea vendors by introduction of licensed tea stalls at all railway stations and automatic vending machines in some stations keeping in mind that tea is one of the most consumed beverages of the country. The vendors have also brought in innovations in the way tea is prepared and served to the passengers in form of masala chai, lemon tea or ginger tea. The tea industry of Assam, North Bengal and South India caters to the 23 million passengers that Indian Railways carry everyday through a few thousands tea vendors, thus critical in supporting their livelihoods. Trains and tea are two very important flag bearers of the Indian economy; jointly promoting the most consumed beverage in the world.
¹Vaidya B.C. (2003) Geography of the transport development in India. Concept Publishing Co. New Delhi; pp 10-11