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Diseased Plantations: Law and the political economy of health in Assam, 1860–1920

  • ARNAB DEY (a1)


This article argues that ideas of health and disease in the Assam tea plantations of northeastern India exceeded instrumental logics of bodily disorder, medical ‘objectivity’, and preventive cure. It looks at cholera, kala-azar (or black-fever), and malaria—the three main killers in these estates—to show that imperatives of private capital and law conditioned and constrained parameters of well-being, mortality, and morbidity in these plantations. It therefore suggests that epidemiological theories and praxis emerged from a simultaneous—but expedient—reading of three versions of the labour body: the pathological, the productive, and the legal. The overlaps between commerce, law, and pathogens provide for a unique, if not exceptional, social history of health in colonial India.



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1 See Report of the Assam Labour Enquiry Committee, 1906 (Calcutta: Superintendent of Government Printing, 1906), p. 123.

2 Reported by Clarke, Dr J. J., Sanitary Commissioner, Assam, in Annual Sanitary Report of the Province of Assam for the Year 1882 (Shillong: Assam Secretariat Printing Office, 1883), p. 34.

3 Compiled from Report on Labour Immigration into Assam for these years (Shillong: Assam Secretariat Press), Assam State Archives (hereafter ASA), Guwahati, India; admittedly, these figures are conservative and belie statistical accuracy. See the third and fourth sections of this article for details.

4 Studies of the Assam tea plantations, especially in the tradition of Marxist labour history, include Das, Rajani Kanta, Plantation Labour in India (Calcutta: Prabasi Press, 1931); Das Gupta, Ranajit, Labour and Working Class in Eastern India: Studies in Colonial History (Calcutta and New Delhi: K. P. Bagchi & Company, 1994); Bhowmik, Sharit, Class Formation in the Plantation System (New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1981); Bose, Sanat, Capital and Labour in the Indian Tea Industry (Bombay: All India Trade Union Congress, 1954); Siddique, Muhammad Abu B., Evolution of Land Grants and Labour Policy of Government: The Growth of the Tea Industry in Assam 1834–1940 (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1990); Jha, J. C., Aspects of Indentured Inland Emigration to North-East India 1859–1918 (New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company, 1996); Behal, Rana P. and Mohapatra, Prabhu P., ‘Tea and Money Versus Human Life: The Rise and Fall of the Indenture System in the Assam Tea Plantations 1840–1908’, Journal of Peasant Studies 19 (3) 1992, pp. 142172; Behal, Rana Pratap, ‘Forms of Labour Protests in the Assam Valley Tea Plantations, 1900–1947’, Occasional Papers on History and Society (New Delhi: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 1997); Behal, R. P., ‘Power Structure, Discipline and Labour in Assam Tea Plantations Under Colonial Rule’, International Review of Social History, Special Supplement, 51, 2006, pp. 143172, and Sen, Samita, ‘Commercial Recruiting and Informal Intermediation: Debate over the Sardari System in Assam Tea Plantations, 1860–1900’, Modern Asian Studies 44 (1) 2010, pp. 328; also see Sharma, Jayeeta, Empire's Garden: Assam and the Making of India (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), especially Part I; Bodhisatwa Kar, ‘Framing Assam: Plantation Capital, Metropolitan Knowledge and a Regime of Identities, 1790s–1930s’, PhD thesis, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 2007; Guha, Amalendu, Planter Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam, 1826–1947 (New Delhi: ICHR, 1977), Griffiths, Sir Percival, The History of the Indian Tea Industry (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1967), and Antrobus, H. A., A History of the Assam Company 1839–1953 (Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable Ltd., 1957).

5 See Shlomowitz, Ralph and Brennan, Lance, ‘Mortality and Migrant Labour in Assam, 1865–1921’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review 27 (1) 1990, pp. 85110.

6 Dutta, Achintya Kumar, ‘Medical Research and Control of Disease: Kala-azar in British India’, in Pati, Biswamoy and Harrison, Mark (eds), The Social History of Health and Medicine in Colonial India (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009).

7 Behal and Mohapatra, ‘Tea and Money Versus Human Life’.

8 See Harrison, Mark, Public Health in British India: Anglo-Indian Preventive Medicine, 1859–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); also Harrison, M., ‘A Question of Locality: The Identity of Cholera in British India, 1860-1890’, in Arnold, David (ed.), Warm Climates and Western Medicine: The Emergence of Tropical Medicine, 1500–1900 (Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V., 1996).

9 See Arnold, David, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth Century India (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1993).

10 See Polu, Sandhya L., Infectious Disease in India, 1892–1940: Policy-Making and the Perception of Risk (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

11 See Arnold (ed.), Warm Climates and Western Medicine.

12 See Pati and Harrison (eds), The Social History of Health and Medicine.

13 See Bhattacharya, Nandini, Contagion and Enclaves: Tropical Medicine in Colonial India (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012).

14 See Arnold, Colonizing the Body, p. 10.

15 Ibid., p. 96.

16 Dreitzel, Hans Peter (ed.), The Social Organization of Health, Recent Sociology No. 3 (New York and London: Macmillan, 1971).

17 For an early exposition of the theory (and definition) of the political economy of health, see Kelman, Sander, ‘Introduction to the Theme: The Political Economy of Health’ and ‘The Social Nature of the Definition Problem in Health’, International Journal of Health Services 5 (4) 1975, pp. 535538 and 625–642, respectively; also see, Navarro, Vicente, Medicine Under Capitalism (New York: Croom Helm Ltd., 1976), Baer, Hans A., ‘On the Political Economy of Health’, Medical Anthropology Newsletter 14 (1) November 1982, pp. 12, 13–17, Waitzkin, Howard, ‘The Social Origins of Illness: A Neglected History’, International Journal of Health Services 11 (1) 1981, pp. 77105, Singer, Merrill, ‘Developing a Critical Perspective in Medical Anthropology’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17 (5) 1986, pp. 128129; for more recent studies, see Waitzkin, Howard, Medicine and Public Health at the End of Empire (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011), Navarro, Vicente (ed.), Neoliberalism, Globalization and Inequalities: Consequences for Health and Quality of Life (Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishers, 2007), and Bambra, Clare, Work, Worklessness, and the Political Economy of Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

18 For the ‘Marxists’, of course, Engels’ 1845 treatise, The Condition of the Working Class in England remains the classic statement on the correlation between capitalist expansion and poor health; see Engels, Friedrich, The Condition of the Working Class in England, (trans) Henderson, W. O. and Chaloner, W. H. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, rpt. 1958).

19 These distinctions are used and elaborated in Morgan, Lynn M., ‘Dependency Theory in the Political Economy of Health: An Anthropological Critique’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series 1 (2) June 1987, pp. 131154.

20 See Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Vols 1, 2 and 3 (New York: Vintage, 1980), and Foucault, M., ‘Society Must be Defended’: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976, (trans.) David Macey (New York: Picador, rpt. 2003), especially Lectures 1 and 11.

21 My use of the ‘orthodox Marxist’ approach to the political economy of health comes with several riders. For one, I argue that there was no ‘predictable logic’ to the forces and relation of production in the Assam estates, nor did it follow specific rules. As shown, these were contingent on the structure of recruitment, notions of authority and power, and the stipulations of law. I also don't consider medical knowledge in these plantations as part of an elaborate ‘ideological framework’. Of course, capitalism as an economic system was never the same everywhere.

22 See Kelman, ‘The Social Nature of the Definition Problem in Health’, especially pp. 628–634.

23 Kelman, ‘Introduction to the Theme’, p. 537; also, Parsons, Talcott, ‘Definitions of Health and Illness in the Light of American Values and Social Structure’, in Jaco, E. Gartly (ed.), Patients, Physicians, and Illness: A Sourcebook in Behavioral Science and Health, third edition (New York: The Free Press, 1979), pp. 120144.

24 Parsons, ‘Definitions of Health and Illness’, p. 132; also, Kelman, ‘The Social Nature of the Definition Problem in Health’, pp. 629–634; Baer, ‘On the Political Economy of Health’, p. 14.

25 Kelman, ‘The Social Nature of the Definition Problem in Health’, p. 629.

26 Ibid., p. 630.

27 See Husserl, Edmund, The Idea of Phenomenology, (trans) William Alston and George Nakhnikian (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964); Sartre, Jean-Paul, Basic Writings, (ed.) Priest, Stephen (London: Routledge, 2001), especially Chapter 3.

28 To be sure, ‘experiential’ health in terms of Assam labourers is almost impossible to grasp and narrate—even conceptually—for they only appear in archives and records as transcribed and represented for.

29 By ‘Act-Labour’ I mean those who signed contracts under the prevailing labour laws; see the fourth section of this article for an elaboration of this point.

30 The relationship between ethnology and labour suitability in colonial mines, factories, and plantations in India have been a recurring, and well-studied, historical debate; see Ghosh, Kaushik, ‘A Market for Aboriginality: Primitivism and Race Classification in the Indentured Labour Market of Colonial India’, in Bhadra, Gautam, Prakash, Gyan, and Tharu, Susie (eds), Subaltern Studies X: Writings on South Asian History and Society (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 848; also see, Sharma, Jayeeta, ‘“Lazy” Natives, Coolie Labour, and the Assam Tea Industry’, Modern Asian Studies 43 (6) 2009, pp. 12871324.

31 See Assam Secretariat Proceedings, General Department, Home A, September 1901, No. 58–66, ASA.

32 Ibid., p. 3.

33 Ibid., p. 4. The executive engineer goes on to suggest: ‘this cholera would not have been contracted on this railway, and one might deign to presume that the people bringing them into the district in such a condition should bear any expenditure incurred on their account’: see letter no. 251E dated 4 January 1900.

34 See Arnold, ‘Cholera: Disease as Disorder’, in his Colonizing the Body, pp. 159–199; and Harrison, ‘A Question of Locality’. See also Harrison, Public Health in British India.

35 See Harrison, Public Health in British India, especially pp. 135–146.

36 Ibid., p. 103.

37 Arnold, Colonizing the Body, p. 195.

38 Ibid.

39 Chakrabarti, Pratik, ‘Curing Cholera: Pathogens, Places and Poverty in South Asia’, International Journal of South Asian Studies 3 (December) 2010, pp. 153–68.

40 See Haffkine, W. M., Protective Inoculation Against Cholera (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1913), especially Part II.

41 Haffkine, W. M., Anti-Cholera Inoculation: Report to the Government of India (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1895), pp. 4950.

42 For further elaboration on the ‘reservoir’ theory, see Haffkine, Anti-Cholera Inoculation, and Chakrabarti, ‘Curing Cholera’, especially pp. 164–65.

43 Chakrabarti, ‘Curing Cholera’, p. 156.

44 See note by Surgeon-General A. C. C. De Renzy, ‘Cholera Among the Assam Tea Coolies’, The Lancet, 11 April 1891, p. 823.

45 Shlomowitz and Brennan, ‘Mortality and Migrant Labour in Assam, 1865–1921’, p. 105.

46 Arnold, Colonizing the Body, p. 159.

47 See Annual Sanitary Report of the Province of Assam (hereafter ASR) for the Year 1877 (Shillong: The Assam Secretariat Press, 1878), pp. 20–21.

48 De Renzy, ‘Cholera Among the Assam Tea Coolies’, p. 823.

49 See ASR 1878, especially section IV and VII.

50 See note by Surgeon-General A. C. C. De Renzy, ‘The Prevention of Cholera’, The Lancet, 9 August 1884, pp. 227–228. By ‘experiment’, DeRenzy refers to changes in water-supply provisions aboard steamers, at labour depots (especially) Dhubri), and at encampment sites en route. He quotes figures both ‘previous to the change’ and ‘subsequent to the change’ to prove falling mortality rates. For instance, as per his note, cholera death as a percentage of labour population prior to these changes in 1878 stood at 2.70 whereas for 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882 and 1883 it remained close to 0.81, 0.42, 0.88, 0.65 and 0.65 per cent respectively; ibid., p. 227.

51 See Harrison, ‘A Question of Locality’, pp. 143–144, for an elaboration of this point.

52 See ‘Unhealthy Conditions of Ledo, Tikak, Namdang, and Margherita’, File No. 544/5030-Emigration, District Record Room, Office of the Collector and Deputy Commissioner, Dibrugarh, Assam.

53 See Letter No. 214G, dated 10 February 1894 addressed to R. S. Greenshields, Esq., Deputy Commissioner of Lakhimpur, ibid. For a general history of the ARTC, see Gawthrop, W. R. (comp.), The Story of the Assam Railways and Trading Company Limited, 1881–1951 (London: Harley Pub. Co. for the Assam Railways and Trading Company, 1951); also see Saikia, Arupjyoti, ‘Imperialism, Geology and Petroleum: History of Oil in Colonial Assam’, Economic and Political Weekly XLVI (12) 19 March 2011, pp. 4855.

54 See letter dated 19 May 1883, ASR 1882, p. 35, emphasis mine.

55 Question No. 97 to DrMoncrieff Joly, J., MB, Medical Officer, Pabhojan Tea Company, Doom-Dooma Tea Company, Tara Tea Company, in Evidence Recorded by the Assam Labour Enquiry Committee, 1921–22 (Shillong: Assam Secretariat Press, 1922), p. 121, ASA.

56 While figures for kala-azar mortality usually appeared under the aggregate category, ‘fevers’ before 1891, a breakdown shows 9,937 deaths in 1891, 10,247 deaths in 1893, and 13,164 deaths for 1894 due the disease alone; see the respective ASRs for these years for an assessment.

57 See Rogers, Leonard, Report of an Investigation of the Epidemic of Malarial Fever in Assam or Kala-azar (Shillong: Assam Secretariat Printing Office, 1897), p. 132, quoted in Dutta, ‘Medical Research and Control of Disease’, especially pp. 96–99; see also, Rogers, L., Fevers in the Tropics, their clinical and microscopical differentiation, including the Milroy lectures on kala-azar (London: Oxford University Press, 1908).

58 Quoted in Rogers, L., ‘On the Epidemic Malarial Fever of Assam or Kala-Azar’, Medico-Chirurgical Transactions 81 (1) 1898, pp. 241258.

59 Rogers argued that in return for an investment of Rs 20,000 for five years, the CSTM would be able to provide better answers for the many diseases affecting labour in the plantations, factories, and mines, ‘thereby saving many more rupees in inefficient and lost labour’: in Power, Helen, ‘The Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine: Institutionalizing Medical Research in the Periphery’, Medical History 40, 1996, pp. 197214.

60 See Cook, G. C., ‘Leonard Rogers KCSI FRCP FRS (1868–1962) and the founding of the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 60, 2006, pp. 171181.

61 See Giles, G. M., A Report of An Investigation Into the Causes of the Diseases Known in Assam as Kala-Azar and Beri-Beri (Shillong: Assam Secretariat Press, 1890), especially section XI. Giles also added to the medical bewilderment by introducing ‘beri-beri’ to the list. On beri-beri, and its medical history in India, see David Arnold, ‘British India and the “Beri-Beri” Problem, 1798–1942’, Medical History 54, 2010, pp. 295–314.

62 See Rogers, ‘On the Epidemic Malarial Fever of Assam or Kala-Azar’.

63 Captain Christophers, S. R. and Bentley, C. A., ‘Blackwater Fever’, in Scientific Memoirs by Officers of the Medical and Sanitary Departments of the Government of India, New Series, No. 35 (Simla: Government Monotype Press, 1908), especially pp. 40–47.

64 Ironically, they were to later ‘grudgingly’ acknowledge that uncontrolled and irregular quinization often exacerbated incidence of kala-azar and the advanced stage of malaria known as haemoglobinuria; see Harrison, Public Health in British India, pp. 162–163.

65 See the next section of this article for a discussion of the classificatory logic behind ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ tea gardens in Assam.

66 See Giles, A Report of An Investigation, p. 155; also see ‘Surgeon Giles's Report on Anemia of Coolies’, Assam Secretariat Proceedings, Home-A, No. 1-8, July 1890, ASA, especially pp. 2–4.

67 Ibid., p. 156.

68 See Young, Lieut-Colonel T. C. McCombie, ‘Fourteen Years’ Experience with Kala-Azar Work in Assam’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 18 (3), 19 June 1924, pp. 8186.

69 See Rogers, Leonard, ‘The Epidemic Malarial Fever of Assam, or Kala-Azar, Successfully Eradicated from Tea Garden Lines’, British Medical Journal 2(1969), 24 September 1898, pp. 891892, and Price, J. Dodds and Rogers, Leonard, ‘The Uniform Success of Segregation Measures in Eradicating Kala-Azar from Assam Tea Gardens: Its Bearing on the Probable Mode of Infection’, British Medical Journal 1 (2771), 7 February 1914, pp. 285289.

70 McCombie Young, ‘Fourteen Years’ Experience with Kala-Azar Work in Assam’, p. 85.

71 Rogers first introduced the tartar emetic as a treatment in 1915, while Brahmachari of the Bengal Medical Service came up with urea stibamine in 1921; see Dutta, ‘Medical Research and Control of Disease’, pp. 100–102, for a discussion of these discoveries and their impact.

72 McCombie Young, ‘Fourteen Years’ Experience with Kala-Azar Work in Assam’, p. 87.

73 Quoted in Strickland, C. and Chowdhury, K. L., Abridged Report on Malaria in the Assam Tea Gardens: With Pictures, Tables and Charts (Calcutta: Indian Tea Association, 1929), p. 2.

74 The recent historical literature on malaria in India is vast: see Michael Worboys, ‘Germs, Malaria, and the Invention of Mansonian Tropical Medicine: From “Disease in the Tropics” to “Tropical Diseases”’, in Arnold (ed.), Warm Climates and Western Medicine; Bhattacharya, Nandini, ‘The Logic of Location: Malaria Research in Colonial India, Darjeeling, and Duars, 1900–30’, Medical History 55, 2011, pp. 183202, Samanta, Arabinda, Malarial Fever in Colonial Bengal: Social History of an Epidemic, 1820–1939 (Kolkata: Firma KLM, 2002); Klein, Ira, ‘Development and Death: Reinterpreting Malaria, Economics, and Ecology in British India’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review 38, 2001, pp. 147179; Polu, Infectious Disease in India, especially Chapter 3; and Whitcombe, Elizabeth, ‘The Environmental Costs of Irrigation in British India: Waterlogging, Salinity, Malaria’, in Arnold, David and Guha, Ramachandra (eds), Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997).

75 See Strickland, C., ‘The Mosquito Factor in the Malaria of Assam Tea Gardens’, reprinted from The Indian Medical Gazette LX (11), November 1925, p. 2.

76 Ibid., p. 25.

77 Ibid.

78 See footnote 4 for a list of works on this question.

79 In fact, Behal and Mohapatra argue that, despite a mortality rate of 6.4 per cent in Act-labourers in 1889, only ‘five per cent of total working days in Assam were granted as leave of absence due to illness’. They also suggest that the penal contract system ‘militated against a normal rate of reproduction by the labour force . . . averaging only 86 per 1000, compared with an average of 127 births per 1000 women in the non tea garden population of Assam’ during the period 1880–1901. See Behal and Mohapatra, ‘Tea and Money Versus Human Life’, p. 160.

80 The two labour laws referred to here are the Act I of 1882, and the Workmen's Breach of Contract Act, XIII of 1859; see the next section for details.

81 The idea of tea-labour-turned-part-time-agriculturalist was not just theoretical. For instance, in 1888, out of the 4,464 labourers whose contracts expired in the district of Lakhimpur in Assam, 788 settled down as cultivators, while in Nowgong, the total acreage of land cultivated by ex-garden labourers was 1,224. It was also reported that in Sylhet that ‘nearly [every coolie] has a cow, and the managers encourage the purchase of cattle as a means of attracting the coolies to the garden; some coolies own bullocks which they hire to the garden and to the villagers, and advance money to cultivators; that about 999.65 acres of land were granted to coolies up to the 31st December 1888, and that most of them who hold land continue to do garden work’: see Report on Labour Immigration into Assam for the Year 1888 (Shillong: Assam Secretariat Press, 1889), especially Chapter I. This practice was reiterated in the unpublished 1870 journal of the Scottish surgeon-planter David Foulis, albeit with a liberal dose of idyllic flourish: ‘here and there where the coolies is an object of interest and care to the planter we find extensive vegetable garden from which [they] can have the chance of obtaining wholesome additions to their scanty fare . . . every hut ought to have its fruit tree in front, guava, jack or papaya, under the shade of which the tired kodally walla (or spade-worker) may smoke his hookah in the evening’, in The Tea Assistant in Cachar, MS 9659, National Library of Scotland Manuscript Collection, p. 11; also, Crawford, T. C., Handbook of Castes and Tribes Employed on Tea Estates of North-East India (Calcutta: Indian Tea Association, 1924); Strickland's critique has to be read within the context of these, and similar, arguments.

82 Shlomowitz and Brennan, ‘Mortality and Migrant Labour in Assam’, p. 105.

83 Ramsay, G. C., ‘The Factors Which Determine the Varying Degrees of Malarial Incidence in Assam Tea Estates and the Fundamental Principles Governing Mosquito Control of Malaria in Assam’, Transactions of The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene XXIII (5), March 1930, pp. 511–518; see also his Obituary in the British Medical Journal 1(5135), 6 June 1959, p. 1478.

84 See Strickland and Chowdhury, Abridged Report on Malaria, pp. 101–102.

85 See Watson, Sir Malcolm, ‘Observations on Malaria Control, With Special Reference to the Assam Tea Gardens, and Some Remarks on Mian Mir, Lahore Cantonment’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene XVIII (4), 23 October 1924, pp. 147154; on the Mian Mir experiment, see also Bhattacharya, ‘The Logic of Location’.

86 See Assam Secretariat Proceedings, Rev-B, No. 275/298, October 1891, p. 5, ASA.

87 Also see, Varma, Nitin, ‘Coolie Acts and the Acting Coolies: Coolie, Planter and State in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Colonial Tea Plantations of Assam’, Social Scientist 33 (5/6), May–June 2005, pp. 4972; and N. Varma, ‘Producing Tea Coolies? Work, Life and Protest in the Colonial Tea Plantations of Assam, 1830s–1920s’, DPhil thesis, Humboldt University, Berlin, 2011.

88 By one estimate, out of the 85,000 labourers brought into Assam between 1863 and 1866, 35,000 were reported to have either died or deserted. Quoted in Behal and Mohapatra, ‘Tea and Money Versus Human Life’, p. 147.

89 See Shlomowitz and Brennan, ‘Mortality and Migrant Labour in Assam, 1865–1921’, pp. 92–94.

90 Behal and Mohapatra, ‘Tea and Money Versus Human Life’, p. 147.

91 See Ganguly, Dwarkanath, Slavery in British Dominion, (ed.) Kunda, Siris Kumar (Calcutta: Jijnasa Publications, 1972); Cotton, J. H. S. Sir, Indian and Home Memories (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1911); Mrs Emma Williams, ‘Letter regarding abuses on the tea plantations of Assam’, IOR/L/PJ/6/749, 24 March 1906, British Library, London (hereafter BL); Report from Aborigines Protection Society on ‘Treatment of tea labourers in Assam’, IOR/L/PJ/6/193, 17 January 1887, BL; Revered C. Dowding, ‘Letters and pamphlets on the illegal arrest of run-away tea-garden coolies in Assam’, IOR/L/PJ/6/832, 22 October 1907, BL, and the numerous House of Commons Parliamentary papers on the topic, BL.

92 See Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Enquire into the State and Prospects of Tea Cultivation in Assam, Cachar and Sylhet (Calcutta: Calcutta Central Press Company Ltd., 1868).

93 Ibid., p. 47.

94 Ibid., pp. 35–36.

95 Quoted in ibid., p. 41.

96 Ibid., p. 42.

97 Ibid., pp. 76–77.

98 An overreaching Protector could also induce a crisis of authority among planters. In one such instance, Mr A. P. Sandeman, planter in the Dibrugarh district of upper Assam, noted in his testimony of 1 January 1868 that the presiding Protector, Mr Marshall, had substantially eroded his standing among labourers by assuming the role of de-facto manager. To make matters worse, ‘in the case of pregnancy’, Mr Marshall ‘ruled that a woman should have leave for both one month before and one month after her confinement at full pay of Rs. 4 a month’; a similar complaint was made by Mr J. M. Wood, manager of the Nagagooli Plantation of the Upper Assam Tea Company in his letter dated 3 January 1868. Both quoted in Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Enquire into the State and Prospects of Tea Cultivation in Assam, Cachar and Sylhet, p. xxxiii and p. xl respectively.

99 See Bengal Government Papers, Emigration, File No. 303/5999, p. 11, July 1869, ASA.

100 See ‘The Assam Labour and Emigration Act I of 1882’, in The Assam Code: Containing the Bengal Regulations, Local Acts of the Governor General in Council, Regulations Made Under the Government of India Act, 1870, and Acts of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal in Council, in force in Assam, and Lists of the Enactments which have been notified for Scheduled Districts in Assam under the Scheduled Districts Act (Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing, 1897), pp. 173–174.

101 See Rules Under the Inland Emigration Act I of 1882 (Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Press, 1884), especially Chapters I, II and IV.

102 There is no historical clarity on how this number was arrived at in the first place. Das argues: ‘these figures were more or less arbitrary, but they were fixed with a view to excluding gardens with a small force of workers from too easily falling into this category and at the same time to including those gardens where death-rates had been large enough to justify such declaration’; see Das, Plantation Labour in India, p. 105.

103 See Assam Secretariat Proceedings, Revenue-A, ‘Mortality on tea gardens in Assam’, No. 55/73, May 1898, ASA.

104 See Assam Secretariat Proceedings, Revenue-B, No. 275/298, October 1891, ASA.

105 See ibid., No. 462/483, December 1893, ASA.

106 See ‘Report by J. Mullane, MD, Surgeon-Major and Civil Surgeon’, dated 16 April 1893 in ibid., ASA.

107 Quoted in Behal and Mohapatra, ‘Tea and Money Versus Human Life’, pp. 159–160.

108 See Secretary to the Indian Association to the Secretary to the Government of India, 12 April 1888, IOR/L/PJ/6/257, Asian and African Studies, BL.

109 See The Indian Planters’ Gazette and Sporting News, 6 July 1886, p. 1.

110 See Assam Secretariat Proceedings, Emigration-A, File No. 229/4189R, September 1896, pp. 12–14, ASA.

111 The Indian Planters’ Gazette and Sporting News, 12 January 1886, p. 26.

112 Ibid., 6 July 1886, p. 2.

113 See Act I of 1889, Passed by the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal in Council, 7 May 1889, p. 4, IOR/L/PJ/6/257, Asian and African Studies, BL.

114 See The Assam Labour and Emigration Act, VI of 1901, especially Chapters II, III and IV, in Wigley, F. G., The Eastern Bengal and Assam Code: Containing the Regulations and Local Acts in Force in the Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, Vol. I (Calcutta: Superintendent of Government Printing, 1907), pp. 527594.

115 Report of the Assam Labour Enquiry Committee, 1906 (Calcutta: Superintendent of Government Printing, 1907), pp. 71–97.

116 I borrow this phrase from Richard Drayton; see his Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 80.

117 See Rosenberg, Charles E., ‘Framing Disease: Illness, Society, and History’, in Rosenberg, Charles and Golden, Janet (eds), Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), p. xiii.

118 To be sure, there is a strain of medico-historical discourse that associated Assam (and its tea estates) with its own disease identity, and ‘primitive’ pathologies. Kala-azar was variably referred to as ‘Assam fever’, a ‘disease of the plantations’, or ‘coolie fever’ in colonial accounts and medical reports, its etiology traced to ‘backward’ norms of hygiene and bodily behaviour; see Kar, Bodhisattva, ‘The Assam Fever: Identities of a Disease and Diseases of an Identity’, in Bhattacharya, Debraj (ed.), Of Matters Modern: The Experience of Modernity in Colonial and Post-colonial South Asia (Calcutta: Seagull, 2008), pp. 78125; for a parallel discussion on the historical ecology of malaria, hookworm, and pellagra in the American South, see Savitt, Todd L. and Young, James Harvey (eds), Disease and Distinctiveness in the American South (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1988); also see, Numbers, Ronald L. and Savitt, Todd L. (eds), Science and Medicine in the Old South (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).

119 To be sure, the contradictions inherent in these labour laws were part of its overall character, and extend beyond these bodily, indeed medical, ramifications. As discussed briefly in the beginning of the fourth section of this article, Act I of 1882, in trying to deregulate recruitment, only occasioned abuses in its name. In highlighting the incommensurability of ‘protection’ and ‘productivity’, this article has examined only one subset of the labour law paradox—namely, in terms of health and morbidity.

120 This phrase was used by Nathan Brown, the American Baptist missionary on his travels to upper Assam in 1836, quoted in Barpujari, H. K. (ed.), The American Missionaries and North-East India, 1836–1900 (Guwahati: Spectrum, 1986), pp. 78.

*I wish to thank Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty for his comments on an early version of this article. Thanks are also due to Prakash Kumar and Fa-ti Fan for providing detailed, and very helpful, suggestions on subsequent drafts. The research for this article would not have been possible without the support of the South Asia Program (SAP), Cornell University. I want to thank its office staff and director Anne Blackburn for their support. The participants of SAP's Colloquium series where this work was first presented, especially Durba Ghosh, Anne Blackburn, Kasia Paprocki, and Rishad Choudhury provided valuable feedback. I owe the archivists at the Assam State Archives, Guwahati, and the British Library, London, my sincere gratitude for their professional and timely help. Institutional support for this project was provided by the Office of the Dean, Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, SUNY Binghamton.


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