When the establishment of tea gardens in Assam proliferated very rapidly towards the end of nineteeth century, the demand for labourers increased and this resulted in continuos immigration of labour in large numbers to Assam.The garden management had to pay the labourers their wages either on monthly or weekly or even daily basis in cash which led to great demand of small coins. The treasuries were unable to supply the adequate amount of coins like pie, pice and annas produced by the East India Company to the gardens.There were several other reasons for the scarcity of coins. At that time the banks and controlling offices of India were situated in Calcutta (Kolkata) and sending the remittance from Calcutta mint to remote areas was very difficult. The facilities for internal remittance were virtually non-existence.The difficult terrain and absence of proper road communication were the hindrance for transpoting the coins to Assam tea gardens.The Government treasurer in Assam also could not supply sufficient quantity of coins required. Moreover, the transport of the coins had to make by government steamer only from Calcutta to Gauhati (Guwahati) and therafter, own arrangement was required. Transit by country boat or steamer was risky and required precautions. Therefore, the planters made their own arrangement by introducing various types of tokens for payment to the labours employed in their gardens.
In around 1870, the tea gardens decided to introduce their own coins dominations to suit their requirements.This resulted in introduction of parallel currency in greater Assam tea gardens in the form of coupon or token in place of legal tender coins.
Type of tokens
The tokens used were denominated to suit the task rate.While some tokens had face value,others showed a task, expressed as full,half or quarter. Besdides the above, some tokens were of various shapes, the representative value of which was known to the illiterate labourers and the shops in the respective garden areas.The geographical boundary of hese tokens was restricted to their place of circulation. Hence the tea garden labourers were forced to spend their money to the approved traders or bankers of the garden, to by their daily requirements.
The tokens were made of various alloys and metals like brass, zinc,copper and tin and different gardens were seen to use different metals.Besides the metallic tokens, coloured press board ,duly printed with the name of the gardens were also in circulation.These pressed board tokens were of various demonations such as 1 anna, 2 annas,4 annas and 8 annas.
Shape and Size
Most of the metallic tokens were round in shape. Also octagonal, moonshaped and semi circular tokens also used.Many of such tokens had a hole in the centre-circular, triangular or heart shaped.The edgaes of the tokens were either plain or grained.The diameter of the coins normally varies from 20 mm to 31 mm.
Script and Legends
In most of the tokens Roman script was used.The pressboard tokens of Assam Company Ltd. Were printed in Assamese.In Cachar and Sylhet, the name of many gardes were inscribed in English as well as Bengali. In many of the tokens, legends in English, mentioning the name of the garden and value was common and it was mentioned only on one side of the tokens.In some of the tokens had no value mention thereon, in which case the represenatative value was understood by the users perhaps by their size and shape.
A number of tokens were minted by the R.Heaton & Sons (later The Mint Birmingham Ltd.) a private mint in Birmingham, UK. Some tokens were also minted at Calcutta.
The introduction of tokens in Assam tea gardens had its own advantages and disadvantages.For the employer time was saved and the problem of mobilizing small coins, that too by paying batta to the indigenous banker was over. For most of the important kind of work, the indigenous bankers were financing the tea gardens and for that they charged three annas per cent as batta.The system was also helpful for the labourers because they were able to know how much they have earned for a given piece of work, as they get a cash equivalent at once.
This system,on the other hand,virtually monopolized the internal trade to a few, and favoured them with enormous profits.This facilitated the traders and bankers who came from other provinces in the absence of local entrepreneurs to render exploitative services of trading and banking.
The system of using token in transaction in early periods in Assam tea gardens is now a forgooten story. For about a hundred years, these tokens were mute witness of huge transaction that had taken place as a systematic monetary role in Assam only, and not in any other part of the country, barring a few small pockets in South India coffee belt.