By Ashis Biswas
Major tea growers in Assam, facing a smaller crop yield this August, fear that there could be an overall 10% drop in production over a 12 month period. Among major reasons for the decline in output are changing climatic patterns characterised by increasingly hot weather and erratic rains.
As a result, prices of different varieties could be negatively impacted both in domestic as well as foreign markets. Smaller plantation owners may face a harder time at the auctions because general demand remains strong as usual, for costlier, higher value varieties among buyers. The present trends do not come as a surprise for the industry — plantation owners had voiced their concerns about the future of their business several months ago.
Recent climatic changes because of global warming and related factors remain well beyond the industry’s control. Nevertheless, industry circles in Assam plan to meet State Minister for Science and Technology Mr Keshav Mohanta to discuss the present situation. Researchers and agricultural scientists are currently engaged in working out short and long terms solutions to protect existing levels of foodgrains production worldwide.
According to reports in the Northeast-based media outlets, efforts are under way to ensure production of special heat-resistant tea leaves, with no signs yet of any possible reversal of global warming trends in the near term. To offset the problems caused by unpredictable rainfall and droughts on the weather-sensitive plantations, arranging alternate supplies of water through irrigation is also under consideration.
In broad terms, August production in Assam last year was round 110 million kilos. This year it is around 100 million kgs. But according to other reports, to add to the worries of producers, the quantum of rainfall has been steadily reducing by almost 11 mms annually, between 1990 and 2019. During the same period, there had occurred a steady warming of summer temperatures by 0.50 deg Celsius
The situation is hardly better in parts of north Bengal, especially in Darjeeling and the foothills of the Himalayas. During the past decade, annual production from the high value Darjeeling varieties has declined from around 11 mkgs to around only 7 mkgs at present. Darjeeling-based growers are as anxious as their Assam counterparts about the devastating effects of global warming on local tea production.
They point out that in real-feel terms, summer temperatures in the hills in recent years are around 10 degrees C hotter than before! Most plants in the better known gardens are over a century old. Added to the problems posed by the shifting weather patterns, labour charges, the cost of fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs have gone up.
On the other hand, both during the covid pandemic period as well as during the post Ukraine war months, buyers especially in Eastern Europe the UK and USA, are buying less amounts of highly prized varieties. The reason: higher inflation in the developed countries because of the Corona outbreak and the Ukraine war.
The fresh outbreak of yet another armed conflict between Israel and Gaza strip inhabitants dominated by Hamas fights has already pushed up fuel costs further!
In terms of overall production, tea growers in north Bengal are not hopeful that the situation will improve very soon. While Assam accounts for around 53/54 % of India’s total tea production, North Bengal comes second, generally producing 24/25%. The decline in the high value production from Darjeeling apart, production targets have not been met from plantations in Terai, Doors or Alipurduar areas either.
In West Bengal, the state government, as in Assam, attempted to help both the industry as well as the daily wage earning labourers, through budgetary measures. In recent years, the daily wages have risen from Rs 176 to over Rs 220 over the past three decades, but there are complaints from workers’ unions that the payments are rarely made in time! The supposedly mandatory housing benefits for the wage earners, too, have remained only on paper, it is alleged.
Workers in West Bengal however, have strongly resisted the government’s proposal to make available 15% of plantation areas for development projects to be carried out by plantation owners not necessarily related to tea production. The Government as well as owners had been counting on this facility as a major benefit to the industry to diversify and ensure future economic growth by resorting to tourism and related activities in North Bengal. Workers and local people argued that such a move would sound the death knell for the tea industry, as well as the people variously engaged with it.
Out of around 1 million tea plantation workers in India, an estimated 250,000 are engaged in north Bengal tea plantations. (IPA Service)