Tea as Hero Crop? EmbodiedAlgorithms and Industrial Reform inIndia
Watson Institute for International and Public Affair, Brown University, USA
In India, an industrial reform movement called ‘Tea 2030’ is underway. Tea 2030 is drivenby concern about two numbers: teaprices, determined by expert tasters in auction houses,andlabor costs, calculated on tea plantations. According to reformers, prices are too lowand labor costs are too high. If this problem could be corrected, reformers claim, tea couldchange, too, from an oppressive legacy of the British colonial era to a ‘hero crop.’ A herocrop would deliver development benefits in addition to income, improving the lives offarmers and undoing the injustices of a colonial past. The hero crop narrative,however, elides a longstanding, embodied set of relationships between tea and numbersin India. Ethnographic and archival material from tea plantations and tea auctions inNortheast India shows how prices and labor costs emerge as part of colonially rootedevaluative practices. Prices are the outcome of a sensory and linguistic process inwhichbodies value, while labor costs are the outcome of legal and technical processesthatvalue bodies. These evaluative processes are embodied algorithms. Tea 2030’sproposed restructuring of embodied algorithms for prices and labor costs may,however, do more harm than good.
KEYWORDS:labor, resource materialities, value, development