Up Close with Manju Baruah – Assam’s first woman Tea Garden Manager
For the world at large, Assam has long been known as the land of tea and Assamese tea is regarded to be the finest amongst tea connoisseurs of the world. However, the tea garden has for long been a male-dominated industry and in this age of women empowerment, the lack of senior women officers in the tea garden structure talks volumes about this hard hitting fact. But not anymore. In August earlier this year, Nazira-born Manju Baruah scripted history of sorts when she was promoted as the garden manager of Apeejay Tea’s HIlika Tea Estate in Tinsukia. An employee with Apeejay Tea since 2000, Manju Baruah has become the first woman tea garden manager in the 200 year old history of Assam Tea.
Manju Baruah had first joined as a Trainee Welfare officer in Apeejay Tea's Hokonguri tea Estate near Dibrugarh. That was the beginning of a new era because Apeejay Tea had taken a unique decision to hire women to the posts of Welfare Officers and Manju was part of the first batch of women Welfare Officers. Over the years, she has grown through the ranks, worked in many Apeejay gardens at many different levels and achieved the position of a manager in a tea garden – a feat that no woman has ever achieved in the State’s tea industry.
Talking about Manju’s promotion, Karan Paul, Chairman, Apeejay Surrendra Group and Apeejay Tea, said, “Manju is a committed and sincere professional. She has shown through her performance that she can handle the demands of a garden manager successfully. This achievement is absolutely her own but I will be happy if this new position makes her a role model, encouraging and inspiring other talented and qualified women professionals, to join the tea industry at leaderships positions.” The melange team recently spoke with Manju Barua to know about her achievement. Following are excerpts.
At the outset, we would like to congratulate you for becoming the first women manager of a tea garden in Assam. Your promotion is a historic milestone in the tea industry of Assam. How do you feel at the honour?
Ans: I am highly honoured to receive this honour. When our chairman Mr Karan Paul called me to convey the news, I was so astonished that I ended up congratulating him for my promotion instead of thanking him!!! I remember that he laughed heartily at my slip of tongue and told me that it was my achievement and then charted the course of what he expects out of me! The way Karan Sir spoke about my work while informing me of my promotion, I felt validated that I had worked honestly and sincerely. Even if I did not realise that something better was on the anvil, someone was watching my sincerity and it is my hard work and his vision that has brought me to this position as the First woman Garden Manager in the tea industry in Assam. I joined Apeejay Tea's Hilika Tea Estate near Tinsukia as the manager on the 1st of August this year after wrapping up my responsibilities in another one of our Estates in Tezpur. Apeejay Tea has 17 estates in Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Charaideo, Udalguri and Sonitpur District of Assam and I worked in many of our gardens at various levels.
What are your views on the status of women in the tea industry today?
Ans: A woman at the top certainly is a disruption of the traditional management structures in tea gardens. But it's a disruption of a good kind. Tea industry is labour intensive and if you look closely, women workers are more in numbers than men. So sometimes I feel it is an equal challenge for both men and women at the top.
Do you feel that the gender stereotype is prevalent in tea gardens as well?
Ans: No, I feel that talent is gender neutral but yes, the approach to management has to change. I feel that If motive and ethics are right and you are doing full justice to your job, it doesn’t matter what gender is at the top of the garden management structure. Personally too, I always believe that there is nothing that a woman can’t do what a man can do. Along with challenges, there are advantages and opportunities also for a women manager while dealing with both men and women workers. The tea industry is definitely dominated by men and men do have some added advantages over female managers but I have never asked for any excuse as a lady at any point.
While you are out in the field, how do the workers generally address you?
Ans: I am often called as the 'Bada Madam'. It is the alternative to 'Bada Saheb' which is the legendary terminology of a boss in the tea industry. Sometimes everyone calls me 'Sir' and I don’t really mind.
What does it take to be a good Tea Garden manager?
Ans: I feel that as a manager, first of all you have to be a good observer, very bold and fair to all. But the most important quality is that you have to be both mentally and physically active. The tea industry is an “outdoors” job and all our works are scattered in thousands of acres or more. So if you cannot visit every operation physically and make daily rounds in every nook and corner of the garden, then the top job just isn’t possible for you - and that’s irrespective of gender!
Please tell us about your childhood and how did you decide to enter the tea industry?
Ans: My childhood dream was to be an IPS officer and as a teenager, I imagined myself as being a DSP in Assam Police! I did not plan to be a tea planter but entered the tea industry when my father retired in 1993. I needed a job and I was very enthusiastic to become self reliant. I saw an advertisement for a Tea Welfare Officer of Apeejay Tea and applied for the same. Once I bagged the job, the involvement with so many workers, spending time with them and the way I was mentored towards welfare work in Apeejay tea made me realise that it was calling and I stayed in the profession
I feel this kind of job gives one a great opportunity to work with responsibility to take care of workers and their families. No other job gives one the scope to work with and for the welfare of so many people and help them improve their skills. So this job is not a job for me, it is more of a responsibility to my people. I stayed in this profession and I have grown to the position where perhaps no woman has ever been in the Assam Tea Industry – the first woman garden manager
Please tell us a bit about your personal life.
Ans: I am married with one daughter. My husband works in a diametrically opposite industry i.e. the telecom industry! He works in the nearby city and comes home as often as he can, besides obviously on weekends. Our manager’s bungalow support system is a mix of men and women. I am an avid biker and use an Activa or a Gypsy to visit the tea gardens. To some extent, I have compromised with family life. I take pride in my own professional growth and I want to be self dependent. In this way you can say I am bit selfish. But at the same time, I was always very much concerned about my daughter because children demand time from their parents. So I hardly go to clubs or any other social outings as I prefer to spend the evening time with my daughter. My daughter does miss having friends at home which she would have otherwise had in a normal city or town life, and that is why I have to be all the more attentive to her needs. Perhaps when she finishes middle school, I will encourage her to go to residential school so that she can spend more time with her own age group.
How did you evolve through the ranks in the tea industry? Please give us an overview of your career?
Ans: I am an MBA degree holder and first joined as a Trainee Welfare officer in Apeejay Tea's Hokonguri tea Estate near Dibrugarh. This was the era when Apeejay Tea had taken a unique decision to hire women to the Welfare Officers posts and I was part of the first batch of women WOs. Apeejay Tea was my first job. Some of the Apeejay Tea managers I worked with were legendary veterans of the tea industry who helped me grow and encouraged a junior’s self-driven proactive initiatives.
One of my favorite past veteran Apeejay Tea managers, now retired, was Mr P K Nanda from whom I learnt Garden administration and another of my favourite is current MIC Mr Binod Rajbonshi based in Tezpur, who I was reporting to when I was transferred with a promotion earlier this year to Apeejay Tea’s Hilika Tea Estate, I learnt from his vast knowledge and his ability to deal with everything and different kinds of people. From Mr. Mr Ujjwal Saikia, manager of Apeejay Tea’s Sessa Tea Estate I learnt how to work cost effectively, how to save and why every drop can and should be conserved so that the tea garden is profitable and everyone's employment is safe.
One has to work on the ground and one has to be honest. I visit every ward and see the quality of work. Standard of work depends on our acceptance. If we accept a work, the standard of that work, is fixed there but if we do not accept, then our struggle starts here for betterment. I have very high standards for the work I do and work I accept and I also know that I have to be with my people for hours on the ground to achieve and as a result it brings me closer to the workers and all the people I work on our objectives.
I always do continuous self-analysis for a better tomorrow. For example, all our 17 gardens have just about finished a 2018 Season of Apeejay Tea’s unique bi-monthly Best Plucker Awards, part of the new reward and recognition initiatives started by the Chairman but I am already thinking that in the 2019 season, I will suggest to HR that a new award category be given for ‘a Group of Pluckers’ be created alongwith the current Individual category because Tea making is the ultimate example of team work!
Do you feel that tea production demands group efforts?
Ans: The Assam tea industry needs committed people like me and my Apeejay colleagues who are doing everything possible to retain the glory of our heritage drink despite new challenges every day. The industry needs people who love tea and who love the work which leads to the creation of the perfect cup of Assam Chai. There is need for people who appreciate that the perfect Assam Chai is made by coming together of thousands of people pitching in with their hard work and skills. As an Apeejay Tea Garden manager, I look at the ability to work in a team as an attribute. Women especially have to be sincere and strong and have to make peace with some sacrifices in family life.
In our line of work, thousands of workers are involved and each and every individual must go about their work with sincerity and diligence otherwise it gets tough to win. Thus, this kind of calibre and quality is required – be it a man or woman. I have set high standards of work quality for myself and gender is irrelevant here.