The role of ‘swarm intelligence’ in school dropouts among tribal students in the tea estates of West Bengal, India

by Debarshi Roy | on 1 September 2021

Post-independence in 1951, the Plantations Labour Act was promulgated in India, consequently the conditions of the tea garden workers improved marginally. However, the present tea industry in India still continues to follow certain practices of the erstwhile colonial model. An overwhelmingly large part of the labour force still resides in labour colonies for generations without any land rights and work for meagre wages in the plantations. The houses where they have been living for generations are still owned by the plantations. The workers are dependent on the plantation management for their daily living including the rudimentary healthcare facilities that the management provide. The resultant predicament ensures that the workers are still forced to work in the plantations for generations as quasi-bonded labourers for the fear of losing their homes and the meagre facilities that the plantation jobs provide. Since they have been uprooted from their native lands many generations ago, they have little to look forward to there; consequently, the fear of losing everything binds them in mental and physical shackles and inhibit enhancements in their socio-economic status. Moreover, the tea industry in India has faced an acute existential crisis since the mid-1990s, consequently grave financial situations led to several organisations shutting operations and abandoning their plantations while leaving the workers to their fate. The result was catastrophic and it has been reported that between 2000-2015 almost 1400 workers died in 17 tea estates in Bengal and some among the living presented with BMI as low as 14-15 (Chaudhuri, 2015). The resultant situation has led to an increase in dysfunctional social issues like alcoholism and criminal activities like human trafficking. While the free education that is provided by the government schools of the area do present as an opportunity for workers to educate their children and better their lot, curiously the school dropout rates are higher than warranted.

It is often emphasised colloquially that the physical and mental trauma which the tea garden workers have had to endure for over a century has resulted in certain behavioural patterns among the tea estate workers. These patterns are apparent within the pronounced levels of cognitive biases such as risk aversion (wherein humans take decisions to protect what they already have over future gains) and status quo bias (wherein humans fundamentally resist change) that are witnessed among the plantation workers. Furthermore, tea estate workers commonly exhibit learned helplessness which is described as a condition where “individuals may accept and remain passive in negative situations despite their clear ability to change them.” (Nolen, 2017).


The field study

I stay in the foothills of the Himalayas and travel among the tea estates of the area, consequently I have been fortunate enough to interact with the workers and their children for many decades. In 2019, I had conducted a limited field study among the children and adults of the tea estates to study the reasons for the high school dropout rates especially in the light of the fact that tribal children do get reservations for higher education and government jobs.

The tea estates are served by a network of primary and high schools; some of which are run by the state government while others are run by private entities as well as several missionary organisations including the catholic church. The dropout rates in these schools are high and children often drop out of schools to join work as casual labourers in the tea estates. I decided to find out their reasons for doing that. My interactions with the children as well as the teachers and some parents led me down the known path; some children saw no point in carrying on in school when they had no option but to join the tea gardens as workers; parents voiced similar opinions and cited lack of financial resources to fund children for higher studies; teachers pleaded their helplessness in motivating children to continue their studies in the face of poverty and lack of opportunities in the area for jobs that required educational qualifications.


The emergence of a pattern of ‘swarm intelligence’

As I proceeded with the discussions an interesting pattern emerged; some children who had opted for higher studies and secured government jobs had in turn inadvertently managed to motivate some peers, cousins or siblings to follow their route. The pattern iteratively continued apparently resulting in clusters of such students who have decided to take the proverbial leap towards a life outside the tea estates. Similarly, a contra cluster also seemed to emerge where students who have decided to opt out of formal schooling have indirectly led their friends and others in their contact to drop out of school too. Moreover, a family which has one member completing his or her high school graduation generally led others down the generation to follow their path. The phenomenon may have a number of reasons which might be studied in the future; however, some reasons could be socio-economic homogeneity among the clusters which interact closely with each other, trickle-down effect from enhanced economic conditions resulting from education and subsequent jobs outside the tea estate.

The emergent behavioural model can be theoretically presented in the context of swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence can be described as the collective intelligence which emerges within groups mostly from iterative interactions between the members of the group. (Bonabeau et al, 1999; Reid & Latty, 2016). Swarm intelligence has formed the reference point for numerous studies on diverse aspects of human behaviour (Bonabeau & Meyer, 2001; Krause et al, 2010; Liu et al, 2013; O’Bryan et al, 2020).

The present case can be particularly contextualised within the behaviour of ant colonies wherein ants leave a path of pheromones when they forage for food, and when they find food, they return by the same path thus leading to increased pheromones on that path consequently leading more ants to follow that path. This behaviour of ants has been studied in detail within the realms of swarm intelligence and is referred to as ant colony optimisation. (Colomi et al, 1991; Dorigo et al, 1991). The behaviour observed with ant colonies have often been placed within the context of human behaviour like adolescent psychology and juvenile delinquency (Cong et al, 2021).

Tea garden workers have been living as groups in tightly knit colonies for generations; consequently, they seem to be thinking as a collective on decisions with regards to education and future plans. Swarm intelligence protects the workers against social isolation during adversities but most importantly provides an evidence based ‘pheromone laden’ path to follow towards an alternate future goal.



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Author Information: Dr. Debarshi Roy is an independent researcher and author on school organizational behaviour.  His current research interests include complex adaptive behavioural systems, psychological safety and empathy in school behavioural systems and their relation to school outcomes and student motivation. His book Skinned Knees and ABCs – The complex world of schools( Routledge) was released in 2020.


Suggested Citation: Debarshi Roy. 2021. ‘The role of swarm intelligence in school dropouts among tribal students in the tea estates of West Bengal, India’, Think Pieces Series No. 22. Education.SouthAsia (