His presence is evocative of classical music, fine wine, a sip of hot oolong tea, the best things in life, smell of fresh earth, elegance that comes from generations of sophistication and a bravado that comes from the wildness of spirit. After having spent a day in the company of Rajah Banerjee, the de facto King of Darjeeling, I remain bemused with the strength of his spirit, the sharpness of his wit and intelligence and the obvious wealth of experience that he carries. There used to be many kings and princes abound in India even a century back. After the British left India in 1947, the government has slowly and steadily stripped the royalty of the royal grandeur, taking away their lands and turning them into public properties, hotels and museums. While most royal families have faded away and live in reflected glory, some, like ethereal music, remain just beyond our reach, elusive yet one amongst us.
Rajah Banerjee is not his real name. He was born Swaraj Banerjee. The local people call him Rajah, which in local dialects means King. The mantle was not hereditary, it was thrust upon him by the poor people of Darjeeling who have for many centuries toiled away in the harsh hilly terrain, raising some of the best teas in the world without any of the proceeds coming their way or any change in their lives. Tea estates come and go, teas change flavor, the top soil gets eroded, generations pass by, these people remain among one of the most marginalized people in India.
GC Banerjee conceived of the idea of a tea estate back in 1859, the first tea estate in the world. From a jungle on the slopes of the lower Himalayas, where tigers, leopards and panthers roamed free, rose the first tea estate in the world. Even the British influence and embargoes could not suppress the quality that Makaibari Tea Estate stood for. With the passing of GC Banerjee, the estate fell into poor times, mismanaged by his brilliant yet esoteric son. The streets of Kolkata still speak lores of how European women would line up in the houses of Elgin Road, all maintained by him. As the women grew in number, the treasury ran empty and the fabled tea estate that the British could not stop, was finally broken into two competing businesses — Happy Valley Tea Estate and Makaibari Tea Estate. Makaibari would see worse days before Rajah Banerjee climbed to the helm.
While Happy Valley Tea Estate reigned supreme, Rajah Banerjee was having a wild youth of his own. His love for horses was legendary and he maintained a stable of thoroughbreds, going for long rides in the nights in the jungle. He had inherited his father’s wild side as well as his brilliance. He was thrown out of college for shooting the kneecap of a senior who was trying to bully him. Oxford educated, internationally acclaimed as a student leader, Rajah came back to Makaibari to effect change of the kind India had never seen. Stakeholder led inclusive growth was something that not even Ricardo Semlar had thought of at that time. Rajah Banerjee fearlessly went ahead with the first stakeholder driven management system in the world.
The Gorkhas of Darjeeling are a proud race, warriors by nature. India’s legendary Field Marshall Cariappa is famous for having said, “If a man says he is not afraid of death, he is either lying or he is a Gorkha”. Having worked with Gorkhas in Armed Forces myself, I can vouch for the fact. However, these brave souls make for poor planters and farmers. They would rather starve to death than pick up a shovel. It is here that the barely spoken about resilience of the Gorkha women come to the fore. They tend to the work, rear children, carry the loads on their backs while the men sit and wait for a change in fortunes. It is these women who revere Rajah for bringing the profits back to them and letting them decide their future.
One of the driving tenets of Rajah’s strategy was his love for the people of Darjeeling. He would not let them starve and profit of their backs. He says that India’s true wealth lies not in its stock exchange, rather in the women. “If you can empower the 400 million impoverished women of India, you would increase India’s GNP more than ten times.” Throughout his life three aspects dominate his management style. Inclusion of stakeholders, empowerment of women and his love for nature. One of the first proponents of sustainability in India, Rajah broke new ground, literally, through conservation and protection of nature in the tea estates of Darjeeling. Imbibed with the principles of bio-dynamics as proposed by the German philosopher Rudolf Steiner, Rajah is a strong believer in giving more back to nature than what we take. He pioneered permaculture, recycling tea waste, plated thousands of trees to retain the top soil.
Darjeeling is not naturally blessed with great top soil, although it does have one of the most unique climactic conditions possible. Within three hours of driving you will pass three unique climactic zones where temperatures plunge suddenly and hills rise sharply. However, the precious top soil which is ever so needed to grow the teas get eroded even as we cut down trees and in a couple of generations the land only produces poor quality tea, if any. Makaibari teas are not just the best in India, they are best in the world in terms of flavor, taste and antioxidant content. Rajah Banerjee has long been approached by various global agricultural organisations to share how he converted one of the most difficult terrains into tea with antioxidant content which is unheard of anywhere else. He refuses to share his secrets, while he tells me with a mischievous smile, “They wouldn’t understand. I do not believe in flavoring balance sheets. I believe in protecting the whole ecosystem and growing the flavor with it. If you do not have a long term vision, if you do not know where your world will be 10 years, 50 years from now, you will end up harming your ecosystem. Be one with the ecosystem your business is in, let everyone grow with you.” In short, he has lived the Japanese principles of kierestsu all his life.
As he hands over the reigns of his loved Makaibari to next generation tea estate owners, he realizes that his work will fadeaway as his shadow fades away from the region. His principles will give way to the aggressive profiteering principles of modern management, nature, people will give way to balance sheets. He does not mid it so much as he explores newer territories. He is now looking to pass on his knowledge to the governments of Sikkim and Assam, hoping someone out there will think of business as a part of the ecosystem it evolves from. Having almost won a Nobel Prize, he knows his books will speak for him after he is gone and someone someday will carry the torch forward. “Think of our world as a single plan and you will know your purpose.”