I’ve recently visited Darjeeling, India with a group of graduate students studying sustainability at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). Darjeeling is an old hill station built in the Himalayan mountains by British colonizers wanting to escape India’s summer heat. The British also imported and planted Chinese tea on the steep hillsides, which remain blanketed in plantations of world-famous Darjeeling tea.  

Not-so-fair trade for plantation-grown tea  Harvesting and processing the tea exploits workers (surprise!), especially women (double surprise!), some of whom have been living in plantation-provided housing for many generations. Workers may earn as little as one dollar a day, live in houses provided by their employers, receive an allowance for food and certain household necessities, and live in conditions that seem consistent with aspects of colonial-era exploitation. The flavor of big money buying political protection from social justice issues sours, for me, the tea’s taste: several dozen large plantations produce all Darjeeling tea.

Perplexingly, the plantation tea is certified as “Fair Trade”—a certification that, I thought, signaled social justice. Apparently, the tea lobby was powerful enough to create a special category for large-scale industrial grown/produced foods. Fair Trade, it seems, has very different social justice standards for workers of plantations than workers of small farms.

Darjeeling mineral spring
(photo by Kasey Fioramonti, Virginia Tech’s Online MNR student)

Certification, a strategy often used to promote sustainability, is having some impact here on environmental, if not social, conditions. Most plantations went organic not long after Germany returned a shipment of tea because it contained levels of pesticides deemed unsafe. Community organizing and farmer cooperatives are other strategies commonly used to promote sustainability. We met community leaders and farmers at Mineral Springs Tea Plantation, a group of hamlets/communities outside of Darjeeling. There, they grow organic tea along with vegetables and other crops using an integrative agriculture called “permaculture.” Their strategy mixes and rotates crops co-mingled horizontally and vertically, including fruit trees, tea bushes, coriander, cauliflower, and ginger. The dense, lush, diverse farms stand in stark contrast to the plantations’ vast acreages of monoculture exposed to full sun. And, as far as I can tell, the labor practices seem fairer.

Residents step up: organic architecture and DIY water infrastructure  Despite Darjeeling being synonymous with tea, and compelling stories of social justice and community organizing, I’ve been more moved by the charismatic, brightly colored, high-density, low-rise neighborhoods nestled into the steep slopes of the Himalayan foothills. The houses are eclectic, to say the least: each one unique, clinging to the slope and looking out onto the deep valley below. Neighborhoods are more vertical than horizontal, and a maze of uneven steps and walkways connect them. They exemplify organic architecture.

The water infrastructure within these neighborhoods impressed me. The municipal governance must be too weak and too overwhelmed by growth to manage the basic necessities of fresh water and sewage. Municipal water runs only a few hours a week, so the city is draped by gravity-fed plastic pipes that middle-income homeowners connect to water springs located somewhere uphill. The wealthiest families have additional and larger pipes, connecting their homes to ports serviced by private businesses that truck in water on a regular basis, for a fee. The poorest families have no pipes; children fetch the household’s water from springs before going to school. It’s a city with more water tanks per building than people per building: water and water storage dominate everything. 

pipes and wires

Sewage: Out of sight, out of mind, and into the waterways  Raw sewage is juxtaposed amidst this maze of pipes, stairs, shrines, and stunning architecture. Neighbors coordinate among themselves so that most homes connect their toilets to pipes that move the sewage downhill, but some pipes leak or terminate uphill of other neighborhoods, flowing into open steep, narrow, concrete channels designed to move heavy monsoon rains out of harm’s way. All pipes eventually end, so all sewage eventually flows untreated into the creeks and rivers, which in turn irrigate the terraced farms that grow fresh food for town markets. When the monsoons come, everything gets cleaned out and washed away—out of sight and out of mind, a fresh start each year! But it all goes somewhere.

Gangtok, Sikkim: better governance, better water  We drove north, further into the Himalayas, to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, India’s northernmost state that borders Nepal, China, and Bhutan. It clearly has a different level of governance efficacy and funding. I didn’t tour its infrastructure as thoroughly as I did in Darjeeling, but what I saw suggests a strikingly different water/sewage system.

Pipes connecting homes to springs are still used, but less so because the municipal water system is more effective. Neighborhoods and waterways nestled into the steep hills are much less polluted, at least by plastic. And sewage pipes lead to a centrally located sewage treatment plant, at least for the main city.

Witnessing the water, sewage, and fairness challenges described above re-affirms to me the importance of good governance: some issues can’t be solved by individual responsibility or reducing governance to the smallest local level. Some issues are collective problems that require coordinating actions across a city, region, nation, and sometimes, as in the case of climate change, the globe.

Back home in the U.S., I am constantly amazed by people who decry “government” as the problem. What these people fail to notice or to remember is that good government, or rather good governance, ensures their relatively high living standards. They don’t seem to know why they’ve got things so good. Perhaps they should travel more?


Bruce Hull

Dr. Hull is a Senior Fellow at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Arlington and a professor at VT’s College of Natural Resources and Environment in Blacksburg.  He writes and teaches about leadership for sustainable development and how to have influence in the cross-sector space where government, business, and civil society intersect. He advises organizations, communities, and professionals responding to the Anthropocene. He has authored and edited numerous publications, including two books, Infinite Nature and Restoring Nature. Currently, he serves as president of the Board of Directors of Climate Solutions University and on the advisory council for Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center.