Until the first quarter of the 20th century, the relationship between a British planter and his Indian counterpart was similar to that of a master and his subordinate. There were exceptions of course, but for the most part, Assamese planters worked for decades on the fringes of the tea industry.
Once India attained independence, the sahibs began to treat their planters with some amount of dignity, but still not as equals. Even after 1947, the Europeans retained their monopoly over the tea industry. It wasn’t until two decades later that Indians assumed the reins from European planters.
Cinnamara Tea Estate set a benchmark in the Indian tea industry
There was, however, one native tea planter — an intrepid soul called Maniram Dewan. In fact, it is Dewan who is credited with being the very first Indian to establish a tea plantation—Cinnamara Tea Estate—as early as 1840. Unfortunately for Dewan, he was executed by the British East India Company for his role in the Revolt of 1857 and not too long after, his estate was taken over by the Jorehaut Tea Company.
Cinnamara became the Jorehaut Tea Company’s flagship property and was well known for producing high quality tea. It was recognised as a leading plantation among all of Assam’s tea producing regions. One particular stalwart of the Jorhaut Tea Company was Jack Simpson. Both Cinnamara Tea Estate and Simpson would go on to turn the tide in favour of one Assamese tea planter family — the Khangiya Barooahs of Thengal.
An Assamese tea baron
Bisturam Barooah was among the first Indian planters and their family owned several estates. His son, Siva Prasad Barooah, succeeded him following an initial training period as an assistant manager at Cinnamara Tea Estate. But it was Siva Prasad’s son, Hemendra Prasad Barooah, who would take the family business to new highs.
Hemendra Prasad Barooah
Hemen Barooah was Northeast India’s first Harvard University graduate. His western education enabled him to build strong relations with the Europeans which, in turn, helped him change the fate of his gardens. In fact, Jack Simpson—who happened to be the manager of Cinnamara at the time—was one of his closest friends. Simpson showed him the tea manufacture process in detail and even revealed the nuances of crafting fine teas. These insights helped Barooah to modernise the factories in his own estates.
Barooah’s role in setting up the Guwahati tea auction centre
Although Assam tea earned worldwide recognition, industry control was exercised from Calcutta. Despite producing over 50 percent of the country’s tea, Assam’s tea planters were dependent on the Calcutta network of buyers, sellers, brokers, bankers and tea associations. This made it often difficult for Assam’s planters to approach an agency for selling tea at a fair price.
The idea for a tea auction centre in Guwahati was first proposed by another tea planter and former Assam Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha. He’d asked his then finance minister, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, to constitute a committee in 1961. However, following the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, work came to a standstill and so a new committee was formed in 1968 by then Finance Minister K. P. S. Tripathi.
Hemen Barooah was also actively involved in the setting up of the Guwahati tea auction centre. In March 1970, John Brock, Director of Brooke Bond, held a meeting with Barooah at Brooke House in Calcutta. He told Barooah that Brooke Bond would extend its support for a tea auction centre in Guwahati. The director of the world’s largest tea buying firm was also frustrated with the barriers that West Bengal was then beginning to pose. At the time, increasing labour strikes and trade unionism had come to be synonymous with then Communist ruled West Bengal.
Despite all hurdles, the Guwahati tea auction centre was finally set up on 25 September 1970. Over the course of three decades, it has emerged as the world’s second largest CTC tea auction market.
A doyen of eastern India
Hemen Barooah became a torch bearer for the Indian tea industry during his times and earned many an accolade. His firm, Barooah and Associates Group of Companies, produces nearly 7 million kgs of made tea per year. The company also diversified into tea tourism, tea broking and packaging.
A philanthropist and an art connoisseur, Barooah was one of India’s foremost art collectors. He also produced Kalpani Lajmi’s first Hindi film ‘Ek Pal’. He was described by Dr. Bhupen Hazarika as a “perfect synthesis of eastern orientation and western education.” The Government of India honoured Hemen Barooah with the Padmashri—the fourth highest civilian award—for his outstanding contributions to trade and commerce in India, before his passing in 2013.