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Assam tea industry urges Centre to allow full workforce

By Sivasish Thakur

GUWAHATI, May 1 - With the spectre of a major loss looming large, the Assam tea industry has urged the Centre to allow full workforce in the tea gardens instead of the prevalent norm of 50 per cent imposed during the ongoing lockdown.

The industry is also worried that production up to April-end would be barely one-fourth of last year�s yield during the corresponding period. According to its estimate, April-end production will be about 21 million kg, i.e., 27 per cent of last year�s production.

�We are hopeful of producing excellent quality second flush teas this year and it will be possible only with the deployment of full workforce, failing which we will have to bear huge loss,� tea industry sources told The Assam Tribune.

The tea gardens in the State had resumed their operations from April 15 but with only 50 per cent workforce as a safeguard against the Covid-19 pandemic as per government directive.

The tea industry has reasoned that as the gardens had to skiff large portions of tea bushes because of overgrown tea leaves and which are not suitable for plucking, it will take another three weeks to�start harvesting in those areas.

As per Tea Board of India data, tea production of Assam in March and April was 33 million kg and 45 million kg respectively in 2019.

�This year our production up to April-end would be about 21 million kg or 27 per cent of last year�s production; the reasons being the lockdown from March 23 to April 14, and the fact that the gardens had to skiff more than 50 per cent area though initially we had expected that about 35 per cent area would require to be skiffed,� sources said, adding that the industry�s woes were compounded across many small plantations because workers stayed at a distance and were not being able to commute.

According to industry-watchers, the weather which was not conducive till April 20 as corroborated by rainfall data of a tea estate of Jorhat district, also impacted it hard.

�The total rainfall till April 30 this year is 76 per cent less compared to last year�s (last year rainfall till April was 27.17 cm and this year till April it is 6.51 cm). However, in the past few days we have received good rainfall and therefore we are expecting good crop � both quantity- and quality-wise from May 10 onwards. Unless we have full workforce deployment, it will be very difficult to manage our plantations with 50 per cent workforce,� sources said.

Sources said that as plucking activities in tea estates are carried out in a manner which automatically fulfils the criterion of social distancing, the government should consider allowing full workforce for the estates.

�The spacing between tea bushes is generally 105 cm (row to row) and each plucker is allotted two rows. So the distance maintained between two pluckers is more than two metres. Out of all the field activities in a tea estate, about 65 per cent of the total workforce is engaged in plucking activity. Also, in the rest of the field activities, social distancing can be easily maintained. The Tea Board being the regulatory authority of the tea industry, we hereby request your good office to take up the matter with the authority concerned regarding withdrawal of the condition of deployment of 50 per cent workforce in tea plantations and allow us to deploy full workforce,� sources added.

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