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Organic Cultivation:
The Human Factor

By M.C. Muthanna
and Dr. Kanc Han Sanyal

In their quest for organic tea cultivation, M.C. Muthanna and Dr. Kanc Han Sanyal of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. Ltd. learned they also needed to mesh old philosophies with modern medicine in order to upgrade living conditions of the workers. Here is their story.

Today, all of us are in some way or another associated with organic cultivation - buyers, sellers, growers and conservationists. Whatever our professions and reasons, there is one common factor. This common factor is awareness - not only of the environment, but also of us, human beings. Not only are we conscious of the flora and fauna of our surroundings, but we also feel a deep anxiety for the future generations and their environment.

The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation moved into organics a decade ago, at a time when little was known about organic cultivation of tea and coffee. Wherever we have taken a step in the organic direction, there have been visible changes - both in medical terms and in social and environmental terms. As a result of going into organic cultivation, many of our achievements and gains have been from the human aspect.

Our organic group of estates, the Singampatti Group, lies at the southernmost tip of the Western Ghats, about 120 km. from Kanyakumari; 3239 ha. were leased to the company in 1929, out of which only 804 ha. were cultivated under tea. As requested by the World Wildlife Fund, 500 ha. were left untouched, serving as a corridor for the movement of the Lion Tailed Macaque, a species of monkey. A further 295 ha. have been set aside as a catchments area to supply water to the people living in the plains below us, who also benefit by getting unpolluted water. Through 1929 till today, we have left the remaining 65% of our land as virgin jungle, a tropical rainforest. We did not open up our land because - we realize in retrospect - that our decision makers, our managers, have always been conservationists in their own way. Descriptive names of our estates like Manjolai - “grove of wild mangoes,” Manimuttar - ”a river of pearls,” Oothu - ”springs of water” would make the most hardened, environmentally ignorant person want to keep it the way they are - just beautiful.

The company made a collective decision 13 years ago to have our medical department go organic. Though the concept was new, the human factor involving our large work force, which were handling dangerous pesticides almost every day, made the change over much easier and acceptable by all. We were surprised to find how easily our employees took to the task of organic cultivation. For our medical staff it took longer to accept the changes. They had to rethink and relearn all that they had been taught. Suddenly, we had the people telling us very kindly that, whatever was being done was already known - a part of our culture and community. Had they not always told us, to plant at certain times of the month and prune during the waning of the moon? Had they not always said that earthworms were necessary for good plant growth? Had they not told the doctors, time and again, that cow dung and urine spread and used like a polish around their houses kept away the dust and insects and helped their plants to grow? It was a part of their everyday lives - a part of their culture. This culture was what we had been trying to change to our definitions and norms. For years we had been battling with their practices, trying to give them better clinical facilities, better medicines, better medical advice - as we saw it - and suddenly here was a chance to close the lacunae and reach them as we had never before. There and then we decided that we would do things their way, with gentle nudges towards our goals.

The move into organic cultivation really opened our minds, and we began to see our surroundings with new eyes - to think of the environment as not just our surroundings but of ourselves as part of our environment. It was then that we realized that we should look even closer into the welfare and health of the community in which we live, and that no one could help us with this better than the wives of our management staff.

So where to begin? Why not at the level of the mothers and children? After all, they form 60% of our population.

At this point we already had the infrastructure for our work, because by law we had to fulfill certain statutory obligations. We already had a building and a designated crib attendant, who looked after the children. We supplied the food. But picture this: a clean, unused building, an uninterested attendant sitting and chewing betel nut, her sole responsibility to see that the children come to no bodily harm, the food cooked with monotonous regularity, dished out by this attendant who cares little about hygiene or nutrition. The child sitting there, waiting for time to pass to go home. Now this is not Mary’s child who is a malingerer, nor Rama’s child who is a troublemaker, nor Ahmed’s child who is a lazy worker. This is a child - as important to her parents in these days of small family norms as our child is to us. We had fulfilled our statutory obligation, but surely we had some moral obligation as well.

This is where the working wives came in - and almost overnight there was a change! They began by supervising the food given to the children. The attendant suddenly became animated - she and the mothers began giving suggestions; could the children be left to sleep in little cloth cradles instead of those sterile cots? They keep the little ones feeling so warm and secure. Why not, we said, and would they send the children for vaccination on time? They would.

Seeing the response from the families of our children - as we had started calling them - the interest of working wives soared, and one thing led to another. They began supervising the de-worming programs, monitoring the subsequent weight gain, talking to the mothers who came to feed their infants, giving them health education, and taking in bits of new health education themselves.

It was then that we from the medical profession began to listen to the wisdom passed down from our workers, a wisdom passed down from their forefathers - and to our great surprise, many of these remedies, based on naturally available substances, were found to be extremely effective. We found that babies were given castor oil and honey regularly. We explained to them that it was not necessary but, yes, honey does soothe the bronchial tree. Our rates of respiratory aspiration pneumonia came down immediately, without medication!

The young expectant mother when, in the past, asked by the disapproving medical officer about her diet, would instantly lie and say that she was eating egg, milk, and chicken. Now, when she would tell us that her mother-in-law insists that she have a mixture of jaggery, garlic, and gingely oil (rich in iron, carbohydrates and anti-oxidants), we approved. Our main problem of anemia in women was solving itself. Again without medication!

Of course, it is not always smooth sailing - we still have our problems. The employees see the benefits of organic cultivation, our interest in our habitat, our response to their culture. They, too, feel a part of the changes, which are taking place all over the world. They identify with our commitments, and know it is truly that - a commitment, and not just a transitory interest.

They have realized, too, the difficulties the management has faced in its decision to grow a perennial crop in its natural environment. Tea and coffee, as you know, deal with a large number of workers, unlike other crops. So you must understand the magnitude of the numbers we are dealing with. You will, then, also understand our commitment to give our employees a clean working environment. We have moved ahead, ecologically, by at least 10 years, by taking a conscious decision to see that our workers’ life span and quality of life are not diluted by indiscriminate use of chemicals.

We have skeptics who ask us for statistics to prove how we have helped tea production - how we have improved the bottom line. Some say we are being soft, some we are being sentimental. But one cannot stop progress, as one cannot halt evolution or hinder awareness. One cannot think as one did 20 years ago, just as one cannot live as one did 20 years ago. One can, however, guide the change in the right direction, as we are trying to do.

It is easy to give statistics on production, profits, and losses but we cannot give you statistics to indicate that we have improved the quality of life. We can only show you a few figures to indicate our direction in medical terms. But these are dry, prosaic figures - and they will never be able to describe the actual changes we are experiencing. 7

M.C. Muthanna was the executive director of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. until his death. Dr. Kanc Han Sanyal is the estate’s female medical officer. E-mail: qtrade.international@prodigy.net

A Note on the Late M.C. Muthanna

M.C. Muthanna, co-author of this article, joined Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation as a plantation executive and worked in the company for 45 years, rising to become the executive director. BBTC is a 136-year-old company. He was still working there until his sad demise on July 8, 2000. Known as Ricky to his friends and colleagues, Muthanna was a disciplinarian, extremely knowledgeable, and a sportsman who was a thorough sport. He was considered a Guru in South Indian Planting circles and he was among the pioneers to start organic and biodynamic cultivation of tea and coffee in India, working hard to preserve the “Singhampathi” rain forest - home to many rare animals and birds - from the ever-expanding population in India.

The Industry and Organic world feels a great loss at the passing of such an admirable man.


Tea & Coffee - December/January 2002
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