GUWAHATI, Jan 14 (IANS) - They were once the domain of hard-nosed British sahibs on horseback. But today, the lush green tea plantations in Assam have come full circle with thousands of small farmers taking to growing the crop.
The profession has now shifted from the rich to the common man, especially unemployed youths who have taken up tea cultivation as a business venture. Some even cultivate it in their backyards.
According to a government report, there are about 70,000 small tea holdings in 14 of Assam's 27 districts.
"Out of Assam's total tea production of 500 million kg in 2009, tea cultivated by the small growers accounted for 30 percent. This is a very healthy trend and hence the need is to make the small tea growers into an organised sector," Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told IANS.
The Chief Minister said this after releasing the first data bank on small tea cultivators, a comprehensive report titled "Tea - The New Emerging Sector - Small Tea Growers".
"With the current growth rate, 50 percent of the total tea produced in Assam is expected to come from the small tea growers by 2020," Gogoi said.
The report said some 117,000 acres of land is under cultivation of small tea growers in Assam.
"Interestingly, 87 percent of the cultivation is done in land area measuring less than three acres," state Industries and Commerce Minister Pradyut Bordoloi said.
Until recently, Tulsimohan Bora was wandering aimlessly after taking a degree in business management. "I decided to grow tea in about 15 hectares of land in 2003. Unlike the British sahibs who gave orders, I work alongside workers for the whole day," Bora said.
The small tea growers sell the leaves to the nearby big plantations where it is processed - a kilogram of green tea leaves is sold from Rs.8 to Rs.20.
Assam is considered the heart of India's $1.5 billion tea industry and accounted for over 50 percent of the total annual production of 980 million kg in 2009.
"Most of us were born amidst tea gardens. So we thought why not give a try to cultivating on our own as getting a government job in Assam is very tough. The plan clicked," said Basanta Deka, another small tea farmer.
Across this tea-growing belt in eastern Assam, people in large numbers have started growing the crop on land measuring from one to 25 hectares, with some even cultivating tea in their backyards.
"There is now the need for a directorate of small tea growers to monitor and regulate quality and other important parameters," a small tea farmer said.
"The fact that many youngsters are now taking up tea cultivation is a sign of prosperity and will surely ease the growing unemployment problem in the state," the chief minister said.
The Indian tea industry has been facing a crisis with prices dropping in the weekly auctions since 1998. The slump in prices was largely attributed to cheap and inferior quality of tea produced by many new tea-growing countries, thereby pushing premium quality Indian tea to face stiffer competition in the global market.
Tea production has also been hit by adverse climatic conditions - a mix of drought and spells of very heavy rains led to crops suffering.
Adding to the woes of the cash-strapped industry are pests which are eating up tea crops. A tea mosquito called helopeltis has attacked some 100 plantations in various parts of Assam. According to tea growers, the bugs tend to attack plantations when the young leaves turn brown.
But the industry is showing signs of resurgence with prices firming up in the auctions and exports increasing as well.
India exported 180 million kg of tea in 2009. Figures for 2010 are not yet released.
"We are fetching good average prices in the weekly auctions with a kg of tea selling at Rs.130, which is about Rs.30 higher than what we got last year in the same period between January and August," an Indian Tea Association official said.
"The overall mood is vibrant with the Indian tea industry now beginning to look up. Overseas demand is increasing and prices are also firming up mainly due to very good quality of tea produced by us," he said.
Pakistan, Egypt, Iran and Iraq and other countries in the Middle East figured prominently in the export list.