The Tea Board Chairman and tea planter Prabhat Bezboruah painted a grim picture of the tea industry of Assam, stating that in the foreseeable future big gardens would “splinter” and will be taken over by small entities, most likely the workforce, and anarchy would prevail.
Addressing the 81st Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Assam Tea Planters’ Association (ATPA) at the Jorhat Gymkhana Club on Friday, Bezboruah said that if the tea industry was to survive in Assam it would have to improve the “quality of tea produced and not just concentrate on quantity”. The Brahmaputra Valley of Assam is the largest producer of tea in India.
Bezboruah stressed on price realisation in a scenario in which spiralling cost of production including ever increasing wage hikes and other overheads were nullifying profits. He said that for the past five years, the average price of tea had not risen by even one rupee and if the industry could not manage to increase the price, it would soon go into the red.
He further stated, “In 2012, the daily wage of a tea garden labourer was Rs 67, but now it has gone up to Rs 167 with the State Government announcing an interim hike of Rs 30. Apart from these, every garden also has to pay rations and other perks to the workers.”
“The industry is not against paying more to the workers, but without prices going up and steep rise in the cost of production, it would ultimately affect sustainability of the gardens,” Bezboruah said.
He was of the view that tea could get a better price if bad teas were not let out into the market. In order to do this, he suggested that factories should remain shut from December 15 to December 31, although this would translate into decreased production of about 350 million tonnes of tea being dispatched to the markets, mostly “bad tea”. Bezboruah further asked the State Government to withdraw the green leaf cess levied on tea gardens as has been done in the case of small tea growers in order to “heave the burden off planters”.
In order to ensure that best quality tea reaches the market, the Tea Board Chairman suggested that the Government should “raise the bar of standard (ISO 3720) through which tea is sent to the market to ensure better quality of tea and thereby better price realisation”.
He urged the industry to devise cost-cutting measures to tackle the present crunch and felt that there should be “change in the lifestyle of tea estate executives – downsizing of servants in the bungalows of managers and planters”.
Bezboruah said that if the big gardens splintered then working conditions and wages of small gardens would be lower than the present times and this would make tea production viable.
He also made a significant point by saying that it was “due to the growth of the tea gardens that Assam has not been overrun by illegal migrants from Bangladesh and thus tea gardens have played a key role in keeping the demography of Assam, especially the Brahmaputra Valley, intact.
The State Labour and Tea Tribes Welfare Minister, Pallab Lochan Das, who graced the ATPA AGM as the guest of honour, asked the tea industry to come forward and discuss their problems with the Government freely so that the latter could do its bit to extend whatever “possible support” to the industry and help it “come out of the slump”.
He said that as he is the Minister for Tea Tribes and Labour Welfare, his prime concern was “well-being of the workers and to ensure that the labour laws were implemented in a proper manner”. Das observed, “The tea industry will have to remain healthy – only then will the lot of the tea labourers’ improve. Both the planters and the tea labourers will have to live in peaceful coexistence.”
In a veiled warning, Das, who was a former General Secretary of the Assam Tea Tribes’ Students’ Association (ATTSA) before he became a legislator, said that the “tea garden management will have to protect the rights of the labourers and work in perfect sync with them to ensure that the Labour Department does not have to take any punitive action”.
The minister asked the planters to bring about a “change in their mindset vis-à-vis running the tea estates and no longer should they try to run a garden like the days of the Raj” (read how British planters managed the show).
The Tea Board Deputy Chairman, Arun Kumar Ray, said that before the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, a tea auction centre would be set up in Jorhat, the second in the State after Guwahati.
The ATPA Chairman, Arun Thekedath, stated that the industry should concentrate on producing quality and specialised tea and experiment with mixed flavours of herbs and fruits and target the growing middle classes in India, China and Russia and also the European market.
Thekedath further opined, “The tea industry here is overburdened not only by the interim wage hike of Rs 30 but also has to pay agriculture tax here which tea planters in States like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal do not have to pay.”
He opined that the schools inside the tea gardens should be “provincialised”. Marketing expert Manish Sinha too spoke on the occasion.