In my tea planting days, one of the things that I was very proud of was my knowledge of and relationship with my workers. I knew them all by sight, most by name and of many, I knew their family connections as well. They, in turn, treated me more like a tribal chief cum family elder rather than the Manager of the estate. This meant a pressure on my time because people would come to me with marriage issues, domestic violence complaints, children not doing well in school and needing some talking to and so on. But it was worth it because of the relationships that I was able to build. To do this successfully you need to be genuinely interested in people and want to help them. Acting can’t be sustained and people see through the sham. But if you are really interested and want to to help, they respond far more than you may have expected. That is so heartwarming and beautiful, that I can’t even begin to describe it. Domestic violence was a serious matter and quite common because in the plantations with no extracurricular activity, the men would get drunk and beat up their wives. To make matters worse, the women were the main wage earners and did a full day’s work, carried firewood back to the lines to cook, cooked the evening meal, and then had to put up with abuse. So, they would come to me to sort their husbands out. This I did with great gusto including sometimes with the application of the boot to the posterior. Strangely enough, that built my own rating within the community.
I introduced the practice of monthly Muster Meetings where I would talk to my workers. Managers usually spoke to workers only indirectly either through their supervisors or union leaders. I realized very early that this distance reduced my own ability to influence them and made me dependent on others. This practice paid rich dividends indeed. I would talk about estate production and the need to enhance it because we wanted to create new records. It was at that time that I hit upon the idea of putting up boards in the fields on which daily production figures would be written. These became hugely popular. Then I had another brainwave and started posting production figures of our neighboring estates – Murugalli and Sheikalmudi, our competitors – so that my tea pluckers, ninety-nine percent women, could see how they were faring compared to the tea pluckers on the neighboring estate. In a place that is starved for conversation, these production boards became an instant hit. The pluckers would go to the field, read the figures and have animated discussions about them.
One day, two days before the end of the month, a delegation of pluckers came to me and said, ‘Dorai, we are short of x-kilos of leaf to beat Murugalli. So, if you permit, we want to go to the field early without coming to the muster, which will save us time and walking, and pluck until sunset so that we can make up this shortfall.’ Now tell me which production manager has a problem if his workers want to work more? Neither did I. This was a good thing for them also as they were on a production incentive scheme and so if they plucked more, they got more money. It was a lovely win-win situation. And lo and behold, we beat our competition once again. I had those production boards as long as I was the Manager of Lower Sheikalmudi and don’t know what happened thereafter. But when I returned to the estate twenty years later, the pluckers met me and recalled those boards and how we used to be so excited about our targets. The women had grown old, many children of my time were now mothers, but all remembered me and left their work to come down the hillside to the road to greet me by touching my feet in the traditional Tamil greeting. They recalled incidents of what I had said or done which I had long forgotten, but which they still remembered. One young man came up to me and asked, ‘Dorai do you remember me?’ I didn’t and apologized. ‘No need to apologize Dorai. I was a little boy and you used to give me a ride to the school on your bike every day,’ he said. In a society that was as socially stratified as the tea plantations were, this was a big thing and something that not only the one who got the ride appreciated, but also his entire community. By inviting him to sit behind me, holding on to my waist, I had elevated the whole society to a level of equality which they appreciated and remembered. I am always amazed at how little it takes to win hearts and yet how little we care about doing it.
Another thing that we were very proud of was plucking standards. How that happened is another story in motivation. When I inherited the estate, plucking standards were very poor. The standard methods of supervisors yelling at workers and managers taking disciplinary action did nothing to change the situation. I decided to do things differently. I spoke to the Director of the Tea Research Institute (TRI) and suggested that they run a plucking experiment in some of our fields. He readily agreed. Then I selected my best pluckers – we made a big event of it so that everyone was aware of what was going on – and made them into one team, called gang, and gave them those fields. Naturally they plucked them beautifully. Then as production went up, thanks to the good plucking, they also made more money with higher incentives. That became another talking point and very quickly plucking standards everywhere in the estate started to improve and we became the talk of the town. I then decided to have a competition between gangs and gave small prizes and took photos of the pluckers with the General Manager (Mr. K. Ahmedullah) and TRI Director (Mr. Chandramowli), ensuring that the workers got the maximum limelight. The TRI Director was so happy with the results that he asked permission to bring executives from other companies to see our plucking. Our workers were delighted and were very proud of their work and this made a huge difference to their morale. There is nothing like genuine appreciation especially when it comes from independent quarters to make people feel good about themselves and be highly motivated.
There are two critical incidents that I recall from my days in Lower Sheikalmudi. One was when I discovered how much knowledge is available, free of cost to the one who is willing to listen. It is amazing how many organizations spend a fortune on consultants without realizing what their own people already know. In today’s world even in organizations in the so-called knowledge industry, very few, if any, organizations record their on-the-job learning in a searchable database. People learn things on a daily basis and this knowledge could eliminate double work if it was shared with others. People have personal networks that can be very useful to the organization, but the organization has no clue about who knows whom and what their employees can influence or help them to achieve. In all the years since that fateful day about which I am about to tell you, I have consulted with organizations across the world, and the message that I always give is, ‘Talk to your people. You have no idea what they know and what they will tell you if you only speak to them.’
When I took over Lower Sheikalmudi as the Manager, one of the things that I concentrated on was to make the land more productive. I took a three-pronged approach. We dug trenches in the swamps to drain the water and planted cardamom on the ridges between the trenches and planted pepper on the shade trees – Grevillea Robusta (Silver Oak). We filled in (planted tea) all vacant patches and tea field boundaries. And we reclaimed all big vegetable gardens which had become more commercial than personal and had encroached into our tea fields. The vegetable gardens alone accounted for more than a hundred acres of land. More about that later. The incident I want to mention here had to do with an infilling area in the LSM Upper Division. This was a large bare hilltop which was about ten acres in extent, which we planted up with clonal cuttings. Since the area was completely bare and open, I was very concerned about the survival of the cuttings as we were going into the dry weather.
There was no water on site to irrigate the plants. If we dug a well in the swamp at the bottom of the hill, we would have to install a diesel pump because there was no electricity there, then put in a pipeline and build a tank on top of the hill. Only then would we be able to irrigate this plot. An expensive proposition to say the least. We were taking all other moisture conservation measures; mulching the plants, digging lock and spill trenches and filling them with coconut husk to retain whatever moisture that occasional rain and daily dew fall would yield. But I knew that these would not be enough when the summer set in and we would probably have heavy casualties if we couldn’t irrigate the plants. One day I was standing on the hilltop with Mr. Govindraj, my Field Officer, and we were talking about the problems of irrigation and how important it was for the successful survival of these plants. There were a few workers around us, digging trenches. As we were speaking, one of them, Shashi, said to me, ‘Dorai, if you permit me, I can bring water here to this hilltop.’ Mr. Govindraj’s instant reflex reaction was, ‘Hey! Keep quiet and do your work. Don’t interrupt the Manager when he is speaking.’ Such were those days.
I immediately stopped Govindraj and said to Shashi, ‘Tell me how you will do it and what do you want from me?’
Shashi said, ‘Dorai, I want two helpers for two days, permission to cut bamboo in our reserve forest, and two or three empty diesel barrels (they have a capacity of two-hundred liters). Give me this and I will get water here from that stream over there,’ and he pointed to the stream in the ravine near the forest boundary. The stream was at least three kilometers away as the crow flies in a small ravine abutting the forest. If the crow walked it was much further. I was very intrigued. He wouldn’t explain any more when I asked him. I instructed Govindraj to give him what he asked as I wanted to see what he would do.
About a week later he came to meet me in the Muster and asked me to go to see what he had made. I was astounded to see what he had done. He had cut mature bamboo and punched through the nodal septa to create a pipe. Then he had rigged up a siphon system using the diesel barrels to lift the water from one level to another and had water from the stream flowing out of the end of the bamboo pipe into a small tank in the middle of the tea infilling area. It was a system that cost next to nothing to build, needed neither power nor manual attention to run, and was made by a man whose job was manual labor. So in effect we had a hydraulic engineer in our midst who had never gone to college, could barely read and write, usually dug holes in the ground or did other such unedifying jobs, and his knowledge was hidden because nobody bothered to ask him. If I had also followed suit and allowed my Field Officer to shut him up, we would have unnecessarily spent a fortune to do something that one of our own workers did for us, free of cost. I invited our General Manager, Mr. K. Ahmedullah, to visit the estate and see what he had done, and we took photographs and gave him a gift. Everyone all around was delighted but none so much as myself for the life lesson I learnt.
I later promoted Shashi to Supervisor and put him in charge of our tea nursery as he was very smart and had a lot of good ideas. I used to listen to him carefully and we did many an interesting thing as a result of his ideas. People close to the job know the most about it, if only managers will listen. And it’s all free. He did a brilliant job with the nursery and several years later after I had left, I understand that he was promoted to the Staff grade. As they say, ‘you can’t keep a good man down.’
The second incident is less pleasant, but I mention it because it illustrates the importance of remaining cool and calm in a crisis situation.
Our Upper Division (UD) Muster was at one end of the football ground at the other end of which was the Kaliamma (Kali) temple. This temple was inactive all year round except on the occasion of its annual festival. For the festival however there would be a lot of preparation. A pandal (tent) would be erected before the temple, special pooja would be performed, sweets distributed, and in the night, there would be a dance and music program. The dancers came up from Coimbatore and did one of the most suggestive dances that I have ever seen, much to the delight of the local population. The Manager was expected to start off the proceedings, which remained reasonably decorous as long as he was there, and then they really let their hair down. We normally stayed for a few minutes and left, much to the satisfaction of our hosts who didn’t want us to remain too long to spoil their fun. The dancing and music went on all night because those who paid for it wanted to maximize benefit.
That day when I went to the Muster with the cash for the payment, it was still a couple of weeks to the festival (Kali Pooja). I set out the cash and started the payment. Most tea estate workers were women. They would come into the room, greet the Manager with folded hands, take the money, greet again and leave. No matter how much you told them to count the money, they wouldn’t as they considered it a mark of disrespect to count in your presence. Sometimes when they counted outside the Muster and came up short, they would come back and tell you, ‘Dorai, please count this.’ They still wouldn’t tell you that it was short. Then when you counted and found the shortage, you were expected to make it up. Nobody ever questioned the possibility of one of them pocketing a currency note and then claiming not to have received it. It was a mark of honor on both sides that we trusted one another implicitly. On a side note, one day I was short of Rs. 200 in a payment. For someone whose salary at the time was Rs. 1100, that was a heavy sum to make up. Next morning one of the men came into the Muster and said, ‘Dorai, I can’t tell you a lie. I received Rs. 200 extra. But I had a good drink and a good meal last night and finished the money. I am sorry for this Dorai, but I blessed you.’ Though I’m sure being ‘blessed’ by a drunk man doesn’t count for much, what could I do other than laugh and curse him roundly, but fondly. Everyone laughed and considered it a great joke and that was that.
To come back to our story, as I was making the payments, one of the women returned and complained, ‘Dorai, they are forcing us to donate money for the temple festival. I don’t have spare cash this month, but they are forcing us.’ I called the Temple Committee members who we normally permitted to solicit donations on payday and told them, ‘Don’t force anyone. If they want to donate, they will. If not, let them go. Don’t force them to pay as that is against the law.’ They promised not to force anyone and went away. I completed the payment and tallied my cash and was wrapping up to leave when there was a commotion outside the Muster and raised voices. I looked up from my desk wondering what the noise was. Normally when the Manager was in the Muster people didn’t raise voices or make any noise out of respect. But this was payday and some people tended to get drunk and I thought that was what it was. But suddenly someone pushed past the Assistant Field Officer who was at the door and barged into the room and started yelling at me, ‘You made us lose money. You told them not to donate to the temple. I heard you with my own ears,’ the man carried on in this vein. So here I was, a Muslim, falsely being accused of having prevented Hindus donating to their temple fund thereby creating a loss for the committee. There was suddenly tension in the room. I realized that the situation could become ugly. The room was now crowded with others of the committee, some of whom looked decidedly drunk. My staff moved away from me and left me alone. That is the nature of leadership and that is why one must learn to like being alone.
I stood up, put both my hands on the table and leaning forward shouted at them in my parade ground voice, ‘Shut up! Stop shouting and speak properly. You heard me telling people not to donate? You are lying. I told you not to force people and to take whatever they gave happily. But you want to tell lies. Let us ask God. God is hearing and seeing us, right? Let God decide who is lying. If I am lying, then let Him kill me as I stand here. And if you are lying, let Him kill you.’
I grabbed the wrist of my accuser and said, ‘Let us go. Let us ask and see who comes out of this alive.’
The man looked into my eyes; a look of horror came on his face; he jerked his wrist from my grip and rushed out of the room. The critical instance was past and there was confusion among my opponents. I took off my wristwatch and said, ‘You said I caused you a loss. Take this watch to make up your loss.’ Saying that I literally flung the watch into the crowd. Then I picked up my bag and said, ‘Alright, if anyone has the guts to touch me, let him come forward. The first person who touches me will die. You want to try it, go on.’ And saying that I stepped out and walked straight at the wall of humanity which was blocking my way to the door. As I neared them, they moved and parted and made a way for me. Nobody touched me and I walked out to where my motorcycle was parked, mounted it, and rode off. Only then did I realize why I was short of breath. I had stopped breathing. Next morning when I went to the Muster there was a delegation of the Works Committee and Temple Committee waiting to see me. I ignored them all and completed my work. Then Govindraj told me, ‘Sir they are very sorry and want to apologize to you. Please see them. They are genuinely sorry.’ I agreed and they came and touched my feet and apologized and said, ‘Dorai got angry with us. We are very sorry. We didn’t mean anything bad.’ Then they presented me my watch intact and said, ‘Dorai gave this to us in anger. Please take it back. We only want your good wishes.’
This incident was a big lesson for me in having presence of mind, saying the right thing, and not showing any fear at all, no matter whether you feel it or not. The reality of the situation was that no matter what they said and did the following morning, if I had shown any fear or if I had not taken them on head-on, it is entirely likely that I could have been killed. They would have regretted it the next morning but that wouldn’t have brought me back to life. It is when I reflect on these incidents in my life that I realize that I was being protected and guided at these times so that instinctively I knew what to say and how to act. There is no training and preparation for such events but when they happen and you are extracted unharmed, you realize that you are not alone. I was and am most grateful.