GUWAHATI, June 29 - Though hand plucking is the best method for maintaining quality of tea, shortage of workers and the reduced productivity of the existing pluckers in the State's tea estates (TEs) have now been mounting a pressure on the tea estates' managements to opt for the modern mechanised plucking devices. Days are not far when the tea growers of the State, including the small tea growers and the estate owners, will have to introduce the sensor-guided mechanised plucking devices in their gardens.
This is the observation made by Pranab Kumar Sarma, former Superintending Manager of the Tezpore Tea Company, a subsidiary of the Shaw Wallace & Co and a Field Expert under the BP Chaliha Chair Professor of the Civil Engineering Department of IIT Guwahati. He was talking to this newspaper.
It needs mention here that in the 1970s productivity of tea pluckers was 35 kg or more per head, which has now come down to 25 kg or less.
Sarma maintained that the existing mechanised devices for plucking tea are not at all suitable for quality harvest and they cannot match the quality of hand plucking. Therefore, the tea industry, as well as the government, should ponder over engaging scientists to develop a mechanised device for plucking 'two leaves and a bud' of the tea plants properly.
Already, IIT Guwahati has announced that it is capable of developing such a device. Both the tea industry and the government should contact the IIT Guwahati authorities with a request to develop such a device and extend support, if required, to complete the task, Sarma said.
Hand plucking helps in regeneration of the leaves within seven days for manufacturing CTC tea and four to five days for manufacturing orthodox and green tea. But a section of the small tea growers in some parts of the State and elsewhere has introduced sickle cutting due to ignorance of the plucking methods. This has been damaging the quality of tea leaves, besides causing loss in the quantity of crops.
Hand plucking enables the producers to go for 32 to 36 rounds of plucking a year, depending on the pruning and skiffing practised in the gardens. In this plucking practice, the leaves and buds plucked remain intact, not any of their parts become redundant and thus the quantity of the plucked leaves remain unaffected.
However, the sickle cut reduces the annual plucking (cutting to be precise here) rounds to about 20. Moreover, the leaves thus harvested contain five to six or more leaves and a bud in each of the stems. A considerable portion of the stems and buds thus harvested become redundant, below the two to three leaves and a bud. Or else, the small tea growers resorting to such harvests are offered much low prices.
Machine plucking introduced by some big and small tea growers is also not helping quality tea harvesting. This is due to the devices' blades not being selective, and, thus, the devices resort to random cutting. This necessitates sorting of quality leaves and thus the amount of the quality harvest gets restricted.
Such machanised harvesting also reduces the annual plucking rounds to 20 to 24, besides affecting the harvest quality.
Besides the reduced productivity of the pluckers, the tea industry is facing dearth of workers during the transplantation season of the sali paddy crop in June and July and during the festive season in October-November. Therefore, the tea industry should opt for sensor-guided mechanised plucking devices. But, this should not be allowed to affect the existing manpower strength of the industry, said Sarma.