Camellia: “The Shrub


 November 19 2014

We are grateful to Dr. Abhijit Rabha for allowing us to show his paper on “The Shrub that gave us the Brew of Conflicts.”

Camellia: “The Shrub that gave us the Brew of Conflicts

Tracing the historical facts of impacts of industrialized tea plantations in the Natural

Landscapes of the Brahmaputra, the Barak and the Surma Valleys of Assam

By: Dr. Abhijit Rabha, PhD, Indian Forest Service.

Presently, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council.


Key Words : Tea, Landscape, Disturbance, Biodiversity, Impact. 


 The disadvantageous trading relationship of the East India Company of the Great Britain (GB) vis-à-vis China, led to many ramifications of historical developments on Socio-Political and Environmental events and impacts in the various countries of South East Asia, including India. As the demands of imported Chinese Tea picked up in GB, the reciprocating need to counter  pressurized the monopolistic, influential and powerful business entity named the East India Company. An underhand measure to pay the Chinese traders for the imports of tea with opium produced in the Province of Bengal backfired, and became the genesis of the ‘Opium War’. The urgency to break the Chinese monopoly over the Tea Trade led to search of economically and financially viable Tea growing areas, run with a modern industrialized way from plantation to processing. The chance discovery of Camellia sinensis var. assamica in the jungles of upper Assam following the last Burmese invasion of Assam, led to establishment of modern Tea Estates in Assam.
This started the pinball effects and after effects of Tea on the Environment, Ecology and the Socio political scenario of the landscape. The Tea Estates created dis-contiguity in the heterogeneous natural growth forest patches as these were replaced by monoculture of the cash crop. The plywood industry and the establishment of the railway network had a profound destructive influence on natural growth forest ecosystems, compounding the damaging effect of Tea.

The impact of the introduction of indentured laborers from Chottanagpur area to work in the Tea-Estates is felt in Assam much after independence and arrival of democracy. The influence on the mindset to go for cash crops like Tea and Rubber has pushed the land-use pattern of Assam into an ecological threshold in recent decades. Furthermore, the establishment of industrialized Tea Plantations has a bearing on the genesis of disputes and rows over boundaries between Assam and the neighboring state of Nagaland. 

Historical Narrative:

               The regime of the Socio-Environmental conflicts in the landscape of Assam, at the contemporary times has a genesis in the developments related to the world’s most popular drink after water: Tea.          

Such conflicts are a conglomerate of the pinball effects set in motion over a timeline. Promotion of processed tea as a social more and the policy to gain the supremacy over global tea markets caused irreparable damages to the natural wealth of the balance associated with it.

             A kind of globalization existed during the British Colonial rule. The Landscape  of Assam is a classic case of acute depletion of natural resources due to market pressures far outside the source locations. 

Liberalized policy for Tea impacted the natural growth forest stands as more and more forested areas euphemized as ‘Wasteland’ were opened up, cleared and turned into the monoculture of Tea cash crop. The Provincial Forest Department in Assam tried initially to adjust for such losses legally as ‘De-reservation’. Having realized the pattern of growths of various mixed Tropical Forests in Assam and the spatiotemporal aspects; , the Provincial Forest Department tried to resist the pressures of the Tea Lobby.
As a result the Provincial Forest Department and the Revenue department came into loggerheads. In cases of any disagreement between the Deputy Commissioner of the District and the Divisional Forest Officer, the view of the Conservator of Forests was held as final.  In 1899, in such an instance, F. J. Monahan had written to the Government of India about the tough stand taken by conservator of forests against an already sanctioned deforestation work in the Inner Line Reserve of Cachar.[1] For instance, in 1913, several tea companies like the Jardine, Skinner and Company, Begg and Dunlop Company and Balmer and Lawrie Company pressurized the provincial administration to open up a large area in the Katakhal Reserved Forest in Cachar[2]. They argued that the specified area did not have any capability for future forest growth. However, W. F. Perree, the officiating Conservator of Forests of the Eastern Circle, strongly opposed such a proposal. Insisting that even if that the area identified by the Tea companies did not have any tree growth, it should not be opened up for tea cultivation and opined in favor of agrarian utility as the in Surma Valley the pressure of the peasantry was high. The provincial government had no option but to accept the proposal of the Conservator of Forests!

The Article 2 of the Treaty of Peace signed between the Representatives of the East India Company and the King of Bhamo signed under a tree on the riverbank on the 24th of February, 1826 on the fourth day of the decrease of moon at a place named Yandaboo (Lat.21.633333; Long.95.366667 and also MGR Coordinate: 46QGJ4496394109)[3] in the Kingdom of Ava contains the following:

             “His Majesty the King of Ava renounces all the claims upon, and will abstain from all future interference with, the principality of Assam and its dependencies, also with the contiguous petty States of Cachar and Jyntia. With regard to Munnipoor it is stipulated, that should Ghumbheer Sing desire to return to that country, he shall be recognized by the King of Ava as Rajah thereof.”[4]


 4              When the British came to Assam, it had the resources of land, rivers, forests and minerals; all waiting for development. In 1823 and 1831, Robert Bruce and his brother Charles, an employee of the East India Company, confirmed that the tea plant was indeed native to the Assam area and sent seeds and specimens to the officials of the newly established Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. Mr. Robert Bruce had commanded a division of gunboats in Upper Assam during the first invasion of the Burmese. Nathaniel Wallich, a government Botanist there initially identified it as an unremarkable species of Camellia but did not realize that the specimen was in fact from a tea plant.

 According to an account, Maniram Dewan led Mr. Robert Bruce to the Tea trees. Before his death, in 1825, Robert passed his knowledge to his brother Charles.  After being appointed to the Bentinck’s committee in 1834, Wallich sent out a questionnaire to establish which parts of India had the appropriate climate for growing tea. The reply that was forthcoming from Assam in the form of further samples of the cuttings, seeds, and finished products of the tea plant. This time Wallich was convinced and reported to Bentinck ‘that the Tea Shrub is, beyond all doubt, indigenous to Upper Assam….we have no hesitation in declaring this discovery…to be by far the most important and valuable that has ever been made on matters connected with the agricultural or commercial resources of the empire.’ Bentinck’s committee was set up as a sequel to the loss of monopoly over the tea trade by the East India Company in 1833. As an experimental basis, the first tea plantation was created in 1835 in erstwhile Lakhimpur District. But it was a failure. It was in 1839 that first company for growing and making of tea in India, The Assam Company, for growing and making the tea was set up in the countryIndia. Maniram Dewan[5] (1806-1858) was the first Indian Tea Planter. He founded two tea gardens during 1840’s and were confiscated by the British rulers’ government and auctioned to private tea companies after hanging him on the February 26, 1858 for rebellious acts. The tea gardens founded by Late M. Dewan were : 1. Cinnamara (1850, near Jorhat, Upper Assam) and Senglung (near Sonari, Sivasagar District, Assam). In 1859,  The Jorehaut Tea Company was formed.        

5 The first Tea Gardens opened out and planted in British India were those in the northern part of the valley of Assam, under the orders of the then Government of India and under the immediate supervision of late Generals Jenkins and Vetch, the former of whom was a Commissioner to the province. These experimental gardens formed of the natural growth of tea of the other trees found thereon and cleared of the other forest trees and jungles surrounding them, were sown, wherever vacancies required to be filled up, with the seed from the trees growing (1834-35). By 1839-40 the bulk of the government tea gardens were made over to “The Assam Company”.          

No other crop than Tea is as highly human-labor intensive, particularly in the sectors of establishment, maintenance and periodical harvesting. At that time, 34,345 miles2 of combined areas of the six districts of Assam had only employed 12,01,151 persons (1854). The population in ten years time (1866-67) rose to 17,50,000. A large importation of indentured labour into Assam, Cachar and Sylhet (1863) brought in till 1868 was slightly over a hundred thousand heads. This is a significant 6% of and over the local population of those times.

              The tea processed in the upper Assam Tea Estates needed transportation to Calcutta. The Brahmaputra River was found navigable over a thousand miles to the sea. So, way back in 1848, the East India Company provided to ply between Calcutta and Gauhati, and in 1860, the India General Steam Navigation Company (Estd.1844)[6] agreed to provide two vessels to sail at six weeks intervals between Calcutta and Assam Valley. From these modest beginnings grew the various steamer services of later years, including the fast mail boats running to a regular timetable. At this time, the river services were the only means of communication with the outside world.

 In 1881, the Assam Railways and Trading Company started the construction of a Railway line from Dibrugarh to Sadiya. In May 1882, the first time in the history of the province of Assam a meter gauge Locomotive passed between Dibrugarh steamerghat and Jaipur road. By 1884, the railway line was extended by a branch line from Doom Dooma to Makum. By 1909, that railway was extended to Saikhowa.

5          1 The Jorhat Provincial Railways laid the Jorhat – Nimati and the Jorhat – Mariani sections of the railway in 1883. In 1894, the Tezpur – Balipara light Railway was opened. In 1891 there were only 114 miles of railway in Assam. By 1902 – 03 the figure had risen to 715 miles and ten years later, the railway system in Assam extended over 870 miles. By 1911 – 12, railway network in Assam covered 871.5 miles. 

Figure 1. The Dehing Bridge of Wooden Construction.

             At the time of the Japanese advance northward into Burma in 1942, the military authorities decided that for operational purposes all railways in Assam should come under one management.  Accordingly, in April 1942 the Government of India assumed responsibility for the Company's railway, paying a fixed rental.  The Company's staff remained in charge locally.



After three years, during which increased facilities, including more than forty miles of new sidings, buiodings, plant, machinery, locomotives and rolling stock to convey the heavy military traffic hd been furnished at Government expense, it was perhaps only to be expected that Government would wish to incorporate this busy railway into the main railway system of India, the bulk of which was already State-owned.  A suitable figure having een agreed by both parties, the Dibru-Sadiya Railway dna Colliery Line were purchased by the Government in April 1945.

Following the sale, the Company's Dibrugarh office closed in 1946, sixty-five years after it was opened. 

 Picture Missing

Figure 2. From The Assam Bengal Railway and Trading Company (centenary Volume)

       The railway line was a necessity for the colonial government to run the administration, economy and extraction.  Almost concurrent were the saw-mill and thePplywood Industries. The Tea industry, established in an organized commercial and industrial scales, needed huge space of land, labor, cheaper transportation by Railways and forests to run the Railways and of course, the minerals. One development called Tea Sector caused impact in the forestry sector in a huge spatial sense as it provided timbers and minerals and space. The other long-term impacts were the dissention, and discontentment and dispute over the border issues of the neighboring North East Indian States of Assam and Nagaland. This is followed by demographic change, which is a sensitive issue, as numbers do matter in the system of democratic selection by vote in India.


The Descriptive Analysis of the Impacts:


Impacts have been on spatial-temporal scales and some of them are measurable. Some are not. There is a scope to translate the impacts on three modes: Short, Long and Permanent terms. Loss of Forest Cover and Biodiversity and the balances associated with are both long-term and permanent damages to the Landscapes

8       where the Tea Industries were set up in the Brahmaputra, Barak (Cachar) and the Surma Valleys (Sylhet or শ্ৰীহট্ট)

The losses due to the extractive depletion of minerals like the Coal coal and Petroleum petroleum reserves are permanent ones and irreplaceable. These losses  ones (Non-Renewable Resources) are measurable and do bear permanent impacts on the economy.

The first loss is mostly spatial. The tea -industry needed a lot of space and these came up at the cost of the forests existing at that time. The imported human labor also occupied living and later, agricultural spaces when the industry went into slumps. The Tea -Industry was initially a speculative one before gaining permanency. In terms of Landscape Ecology, it can be termed described as the Introduction of Disturbances and Discontinuity of Forested Landscapes.

              Visual Quality of the areas under Tea-Plantation underwent definite changes. 

The replacement of wild animal habitat and foraging patches in the landscape frequently brought in man-wildlife conflicts. A culture of Shikar amongst the Tea-Planters and the Managers thereof were thus born, and later proliferated enough amongst the locals to decimate the Javan and the Sumatran species[7] of Rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus and Rhinoceros sumatrae) to extinction. The Great Indian Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) was reduced to 19/20, which forced the authorities to save it for posterity.  The License under the Elephant Control Rules also shows deviation in use. In the juncture of Pre and Post Colonial Era, there is a record of hunting down 300+ elephants by one David Long Enghee, a licensee[8], in the forests of present day Karbi Anglong, formerly, the Mikir Hills District.


Various bounties the authorities declared for hunting the wild fauna underwent upward revisions. The worst sufferers were the long

9       ranging Mega-Herbivores like the herd living Asian Elephant,s residing living ion the both sides of the River Brahmaputra. Contiguous forests are required for continuous and uninterrupted long-range migrations for the survival of the this Mega-herbivore.

Liberalized policy of the Colonial Government allowed the tea sector to alienate, during 1880-81, about 2,83, 280Ha of land (2,832.80 km2). Though 8% of such land was under the Tea bushes, the figure rose to 2,046.82 km2 in the Surma and the Brahmaputra Valley by 1901 producing  72,381,251 pounds of processed tea.

 The presence of the Saw Mills and the Plywood factory were, in Assam, natural corollary to the Tea Estates and the Railway Lines. Since 1881, saw mills were established to supply Shooks or storage chests to the Tea industry reaching a total of 14 by 1901. The plywood, earlier imported for tea chests were later decided to be produced locally from the available species of trees by veneering.

When the Plywood Factory was being erected in 1922 the

Opportunity opportunity was taken to build the Wood Preservation Plant nearby.

For many years before the War the Assam Bengal Railway and Trading Company had enjoyed concessions and Forest leases from the Government of Assam permitting them to extract a given quantity of hardwood chiefly Hollong (Dipterocarpus macrocarpus) for the Timber timber mills. These leases were an extremely valuable asset in that they guaranteed a ready supply of timber.

 Their working was immensely eased by the fact that the ownership of the Dibru-Sadiya Railway facilitated the laying of metre gauge sidings right into the interior of the forests enabling timber trucks to be loaded in the forest and dispatched to the mills on the main line. The forest lease obtained from the; State of Assam to operate on areas for extraction of timber expired on the 16th of September  1970. Thereafter for supply of timber the Company had to depend on other private sources which were scanty like those from lease areas of the North East Frontier Administration, now Arunachal Pradesh.

10      “Deforestation was evidently happening even in the Nagaland district of Assam due to the demand of timber markets in Sylhet and East Bengal. After exhausting the un-classed State forests around Dimapur, the timber merchants who had been cutting trees there to supply markets in Sylhet and East Bengal were on the lookout for suitable areas. This in turn led to the reservation of Rangapahar forest in 1913. Thus, any well stockedwell-stocked forest, being generally of useful species was reserved with the intention of future exploitation. For the sake of convenience in the Naga Hills the three reserved forests namely, Desoi valley and Rangapahar reserved forest were under the control of D.F.O. Sibsagar and Intanki forest was under the control of D.F.O. Nowgong. In 1931, Deputy Commissioner Naga Hills, Mr. Martins, the Divisional Forest Officer (D.F.O), Sibsagar was allowed to inspect the forests in the Naga Hills which were protected by the executive order, with a view to advising what should be protected and what should be reserved or what should be deforested. It was also discussed as to how continuous water supply should be provided for the extension of terrace cultivation. The British forest policy, with both exploitation and conservation in view, had begun to give preferential treatment.The colonial power had reserved the forest tracks having valuable species of trees yet, deforested portion of reserved forest for the extension of railways. Dense evergreen forest of Diphu and Nambor reserves in the Naga Hills had to be deforested due to the requirement of strips of land for the Assam – Bengal Railway which passes through the reserves. For instance, two strips of land namely, 40 acres and 1189 acres of land which forms a portions of Diphu and Nambor reserve forests respectively under Barpathar Mauza in the Naga hills had to be disforested for the Assam – Bengal Railways in 1895. Each mile of railway construction required 860 sleepers and the average effective life of each sleeper was calculated between 12 to 14 years. Therefore, it is estimated that the sleeper requirement of 871.5 miles of railways in Assam would require approximately 3,48,600 number of sleepers in regular periodicity.”[9] The species targeted mainly were the Nahor and the Uriam (Bischofia javanica) trees. Along with the Sal (Shorea robusta, Fam. Diptocarpaceae) theses species became scarcer with the progress of the times.

 Nine From "Clearing the Forest: Colonialism, and Deaforestation in Nagaland. North East India by S Victor Babu

11        Interestingly, the similar species like the Gurjan (Dipterocarpus turbinatus, Fam. Dipterocarpaceae) and Nageswar  (Messua ferrea ) and Jarul ( Lagerstroemia speciosa) in the Forest Type of Assam Valley Tropical Evergreen Forest (b) along with Amari  and Jam ( Amoora spp and Eugenia spp) varieties. These underwent tremendous pressures of demand of trade in the East Bengal and also during the process of the setting up of the Assam Bengal Railway and the continuous maintenance by conversion into the railway sleepers. As the land was scarce, the setting up of the railway line was met with public resistance in many areas.        

             The harbinger of changes like the Assam–Bengal Railway became the root behind future arenas of distrust, discontentment and dispute in the areas of Boundary demarcation between the present day North-East Indian States of Nagaland and Assam.

 In the times of the Ahom kingdom, the historical landmarks like the ‘Dhodar Ali’, ‘Nagabund’ and ‘Ladoigarh’ were taken as the extent of traditional areas held by the various Naga tribe of the Naga Hills. Initially, the British colonial rulers recognized and respected the traditional boundaries as above. But as subjugation of the Nagas increased, using a ruse what is known as the ‘administrative convenience’, as the control over the ABR construction ‘could not be exercised from Kohima’, many Naga Traditional Areas were transferred out. The adjoining districts received these transferred areas in 1898, 1901, 1902, 1903 and 1923 in a gradual and phased manner.

In November 1925, the final boundary notification was published for the Naga Hills District.  Now, the Nagas demand that the boundary notification of 1925 cannot be accepted as they were not at all consulted from the beginning of the processes of the area transfers. The transferred areas are mostly Reserved Forests and bear Tea Gardens. Thereby, the  ‘Dispute’ has arisen.  This has led to a lot of unfortunate loss of lives and properties and taken toll of the peace.


Understanding the dynamics that the impact of the Tea Industry left us with the ‘Cup of Conflicts’ would be the easiest way to understand the world surrounding us: be it Social, Political or even Environmental. Because, the genesis lies there. 

[1]Deforestation of a portion of Inner Line Reserve in Cachar, F. J. Monahan,Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Assam. No.145 Forests, 1791, R, 1 June 1899, ASP, No.55-61, Revenue-A, July, 1899 (ASA)

[2]ASP No. 33-34, Revenue A, Revenue Department. Oct, 1913 (ASA)

[3]Google, AutoNavi 2014

[4]From: C. U. Aitchison. Ed. A Collection of Treaties, Engagements and Sanads: Relating to India and Neighbouring Countries. Vol. XII. Calcutta : Government of India Central Publication Branch, 1931, 230-233.

[5]Actual name was Maniram Dutta Barma, an Assamese nobleman. He was Dewan in Assam Company, resigned 1841.

[6]In this year, the first two Steamers of IGSNC, The Assam and The Naga were purchased by Assam Company.

[7]The last one of Sumatran Rhino was killed near Lunglei in 1945 in the Lushai Hills of that time. o

[8] Under the Undivided Nagaon Forest Division.

[9] From ‘Clearing the Forest: Colonialism and Deforestation in Nagaland, North East India, by S. Victor Babu.