Vol. 31 No. 1 (2016)
By Sarah Besky
For more than 150 years, most tea grown on plantations in northeast India has been sold in open-outcry auctions in Kolkata. In this essay, I describe how, in 2009, the Tea Board of India, the government regulator of the tea trade, began to convert auctioning from a face-to-face outcry process to a face-to-computer digital one. The Tea Board hoped that with the implementation of digital technologies, trade would soon revolve around the buying and selling of futures contracts, not individual lots of tea. Despite these efforts, the tea industry has thus far resisted all attempts at financialization. That so prominent a commodity as tea has yet to be financialized provides a unique opportunity to examine the how of financialization—the governmental and technical steps that precede futures and other kinds of derivatives markets. Futures markets rely on a standardized notion of price and of the material things being priced. The story of Indian tea’s resistance to financialization shows how such standardization requires not just a disentangling of commodities at the level of productive infrastructure (that is, the separation of individual trader and thing being traded) but also a reworking of the communicative infrastructure of trading. In this essay, I analyze this reworking by examining the effort to reform how tea is priced at auction. Specifically, I describe a transition in tea valuation from socially embedded price stories to standardized price scenarios.
brokerage; bureaucracy; tacit knowledge; economic reform; scenario