If the exotic brew made from the leaves grown in Darjeeling is considered to be the champagne of teas, the produce from the world-famous Makaibari tea garden in the region enjoys the status of the king of champagne - the exclusive Dom Perignon Mathusalem. And the man who used to make that mystical tea, which sold for a few lakh rupees a kilo and was favoured by royalty ranging from the Sultan of Brunei to Queen Elizabeth II was the inimitable Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, better known as Rajah Banerjee.
Rajah Banerjee, the fourth-generation owner of the tea estate spread over 1,670 acres on the steep slopes of the eastern Himalayas at Kurseong (roughly midway between the airport and railhead at Siliguri in the plains and Darjeeling city), has been a legend in the tea industry. Besides pioneering organic and biodynamic cultivation of tea, he produced the most exclusive teas in the world. He not only made the best tea, he is also the guru of the fine art of selling it at astronomical prices. And most of all, he is an ardent ‘fair trade’ practitioner who made partners out of his workers, empowered them and made them happy and prosperous. Banerjee is a legendary figure and his name has been synonymous with Makaibari and Darjeeling tea.
But more important than all of these, he merged spirituality with his enterprise, drawing on the tenets of Sanatan dharma and Buddhism to create a unique business entity. According to this 70-year-old, respect for nature and all creatures is a fundamental tenet of Sanatan dharma, and as a planter, that has been his guiding philosophy. A successful, sustainable business model built on partnerships and eco-friendly practices is all there in the ancient Hindu texts, he says. And wed to that the mysticism of Tibetan Buddhism, what you have is a happy and profitable synergy of enterprise, ecology and humans.
Thus, it came as a shock to his legions of admirers and followers from all across the world when Rajah Banerjee suddenly posted a YouTube video last weekend (17 March) announcing the end of his association with Makaibari. E-mails, calls and messages on social media came pouring in, and all mourned the end of a glorious era in the Darjeeling tea industry. For Banerjee, the quintessential gentleman, it is but the beginning of another chapter of his life.
“The successful Makaibari experiment will now be replicated by me across the length and breadth of the country. My mission is to make India the organic food bowl of the country and empower the marginalised farmers and women. A healthy soil is healthy mankind, and healthy mankind leads to partnerships and, thus, a holistic state,” he told Swarajya at his new office in Siliguri. Banerjee will start working with the 44,000-odd small tea growers of North Bengal who are a highly exploited lot. He is mentoring an exciting ‘green’ startup and has been roped in by tea gardens in Sikkim and some other states that want to turn organic and produce exclusive teas. “All that I learnt and implemented at Makaibari will now be replicated on a much larger scale,” he proclaims.
Makaibari gained fame and became a byword not only for its exclusive and organic teas, but also because of the empowerment of its workers, its fair trade practices and its innovative initiatives that resulted in prosperity for its workers, many of who turned into entrepreneurs. Banerjee’s philosophy had been simple: one cannot exist as an island of prosperity amidst a sea of poverty. “Most owners (of tea gardens) don’t think beyond profits. They pay the minimum wages and statutory dues to workers, but don’t empower the workers. I believe in making the workers partners in my progress. Unless that happens, no enterprise can flourish. The workers have to have a stake - economic and emotional - in the enterprise. They have to become partners,” said Banerjee, who is also renowned for his ready wit and flamboyance.
The Makaibari Story
It all started in 1852 when a teenaged Girish Chandra Banerjee, the scion of a prosperous zamindari family, ran away from home after a feud and met a fugitive Englishman, an army deserter. Together, they took over a tract of land where some locals used to grow maize (and, hence, the name Makaibari from ‘makai’, Nepali for maize) and planted tea bushes there. They also set up a factory —India’s first tea factory — in 1859. The rest, as they say, is history.
Girish Banerjee’s son Tarapada Banerjee took over the operations and added more areas to the estate. The expansion continued under his son (Rajah’s father) Pashupati Nath Banerjee who took the first baby steps towards ecologically sustainable farming way back in 1945 by creating grass banks and planting trees in large sections of the estate. As a result, tea is grown in only 550 acres, or about a third, of the estate and the rest is sub-tropical forest with more than 450 species of birds and animals, including some leopards.
Pashupati Nath Banerjee was once on a tour of the estate and had reached the lower end of the slopes when he got caught in a thunder squall. He took shelter under a tree and noticed how the rainwater flowing out of the cultivated portion of the estate was brackish while the water flowing out of the uncultivated areas covered by trees, wild bushes and a lot of undergrowth was clearer. He realised that all the top soil, with its wealth of nutrients, was being washed away from the cultivated areas. This realisation motivated him to create grass banks at regular intervals between the tea bushes to hold the top soil from being washed away by the frequent rains.
But Makaibari’s comprehensive organic journey started in 1972, and once again quite by providence. Rajah Banerjee returned to Makaibari on a short vacation in the summer of that year. “I was planning on doing something in England and had no intention of returning to Makaibari to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he said. While on vacation, he went horse riding — his favourite pastime (he still is a fine equestrian and a proud owner of two thoroughbreds) — and had a fall. Though it was a minor accident, it was a life-changing one. “I felt I was being asked by some greater power to stay back and work for the people here. I decided to make Makaibari my home forever,” he recalls.
Rajah Banerjee soon realised that creating grass banks and leaving large areas of the estate to flora and fauna is not enough. He scoured libraries and studied sustainable methods of farming in the ancient times and realised the answer lies in mulching as well as going organic. “I tried convincing my father, but in vain. So I, along with a couple of workers, chose a segregated five acre plot of estate where we started this practice of mulching. We stopped using fertilisers and pesticides and started using cow dung, compost and neem leaves extracts for pest-control. We processed the tea plucked from this section separately in the factory. And during the morning tea tasting sessions, my dad would taste tea from this section and declare it to be fantastic. He would ask me to find out which part of the garden the leaves came from, and I would feign ignorance and tell him I will find out. This little game went on for about six months and ultimately, I took my dad to that patch of the estate and told him all about my little experiment. It was only then that he was convinced and gave the go-ahead to make Makaibari a truly organic estate, the first one in the country,” says Rajah with a broad smile.
The Makaibari Community
After he took over the operations at Makaibari, Rajah Banerjee turned his attention towards turning the workers of the estate into stakeholders. “I realised the women folk of Makaibari, like their counterparts elsewhere, were a marginalised and suffering lot. But in ancient India, women were an empowered lot and we had the concept of stree or nari shakti. But we lost it somewhere along the way. The challenge was to get women to assume their rightful place,” said Rajah.
The way to empowerment of women was quite simple and, again, Banerjee found it in Hindu philosophy. The cow, he realised, could empower women and create a sustainable and holistic environment for Makaibari. He created a joint body of all the stakeholders of Makaibari with a corpus of funds, from which loans were given out to women for rearing cows. The cows give milk, the dung was used to make compost which generated biogas for cooking and fertilisers for the tea bushes. So the women no longer had to go to the forests in search of firewood, their children became healthier with the consumption of milk and the women made money not only by selling the excess milk, but also the compost to the garden. The money they made went for better education for their children.
A revolution of sorts happened in Makaibari, which now has 1,500-odd community members staying in seven villages that dot the large estate. “Once women had money in their hands and started contributing to the family income, they got a greater say in family matters and started making wise choices for their families,” said Banerjee, who also followed it up with other welfare measures like setting up a state-of-art computer training center for the children of the Makaibari community, a well-stocked library and scholarships for meritorious students.
Another game-changer was the introduction of homestays. Rajah Banerjee explained the concept to a few enterprising youngsters of the Makaibari community, got them to undergo professional training in housekeeping and hotel management and then facilitated sanction of small loans to interested families to build an extra room and washroom in their houses for guests. This became a money spinner and today, there are 33 homestays in Makaibari that guests from around the world flock to all year round. Banerjee also incubated and mentored youngsters from the Makaibari community to become small entrepreneurs. Many are doing very well in their businesses today.
The Makaibari community - the 670 households of stakeholders -thus prospered. It was then that Rajah Banerjee thought of taking a giant leap forward. “Four generations and more of the Makaibari families have been associated with the garden and so they are the real owners. More than a decade ago, I laid out a plan to make the whole community the legal owners of the garden while I would only look after the factory, the production part,” said Banerjee. He wanted the womenfolk to come forward and take ownership of the garden. “When women are owners, they run a place much better with total dedication and honesty,” explained Banerjee.
Countdown To Departure
Unfortunately, the womenfolk were not ready to take the plunge. Banerjee’s two sons were also not interested in running the garden and he himself was not getting any younger. This realisation about his mortality struck him hard when he suffered a severe health setback in 2014. It was, thus, with a heavy heart that the same year, he sold a majority stake in Makaibari to a larger group. But Banerjee soon discovered that his management principles differed fundamentally from that of the new owners. And he started thinking of selling his remaining stake and moving on.
The 104-day shutdown of the Darjeeling Hills from mid-June to end-September last year in support of the demand for Gorkhaland crippled Makaibari, like all other gardens in the hills. The last straw that broke Banerjee’s back, proverbially speaking, came in the form of a devastating fire that reduced his 160-year-old heritage bungalow, with priceless artefacts and memories, to ashes. That was on 16 March 2017. “That was a signal for me to move on, to give up Makaibari and spread the learning from Makaibari elsewhere,” said Banerjee. Exactly a year later, on 17 March 2018, he announced his departure for ever from Makaibari.
But the last, of course, has not been heard of Rajah Banerjee. In fact, the world will get to know and hear more of him as he replicates his unique Makaibari experience on a much larger canvas. Banerjee’s new avatar is ‘Rimpocha’, meaning the re-incarnation.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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