Plummeting tea leaf prices and changing climate have brought misery to the lives of 70,000-odd small-scale tea growers, who cultivate 49,000 hectares in the Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu and contribute around 70 percent of the tea production in the eponymous district. In fact, more than half of the tea produced in south India comes from this district and nearly 70 percent of it is exported. Nilgiri tea — considered to match the premium Darjeeling and Assam varieties in quality and popular demand — is inextricably linked to the very identity of the region.
The district that boasts of the Raj-vintage hill station Ooty (also known as Udhagamandalam) is home to the largest number of small-scale tea growers in India, who typically own less than a hectare each and compete with big plantations for a share of the market. In fact, the big plantations account for no more than 30 percent of tea production in the district.
Unlike the major plantations that own and operate their own processing factories, the small growers sell their produce as green leaf to the privately owned Bought Leaf Factories. High input costs and wages have forced the small growers to bear the brunt of the recent crash in green leaf prices across the country. “Tea prices have fallen 19 percent in the current fiscal with the average grower getting a maximum of 85 per kg. In the corresponding period last year, they could make 105 a kg,” says Vijayan Rajes, president, United Planters’ Association of Southern India (upasi). “The growers have to bear a loss of 20-30 as the cost of production remains in the range of 105-115 a kg.”
Making matters worse are the adverse weather conditions that are taking a toll on tea production. With little hope of getting remunerative prices for their produce, many small tea growers are leaving their farms unattended and looking for alternatives to survive.
“I am struggling to make both ends meet as I have no other crop to depend on. If things don’t change for the better, I will shift to coffee cultivation like many others have done,” says KV Paulose, 50, who owns a one-and-a-half acre tea garden at Poolakkundu in Gudalur taluk. “Coffee is doing better at 73 per kg, while I manage to earn only 6 per kg of green leaf.”
Even the medium-size plantations are tottering due to the crisis and the worst affected are the workers. “The owners never cared for the staff and workers, but it got worse after 1996 when crisis gripped the tea industry,” says A Parameshwari, 51, a casual labourer who worked until recently at Mahaveer Plantations in Gudalur. “The daily wage for both male and female workers is just 70. You can’t survive on that.”
Parameshwari was forced to look for alternative livelihood and ended up in the hosiery hub of Tirupur, Tamil Nadu.
According to trade union activists, Gudalur taluk has the highest number of closed and abandoned tea estates. Local landlords had inherited them from British planters and ran them profitably until the downturn began in the early 1990s. There are 12 major plantations and thousands of small plantations in this taluk. And there are almost as many tea growers in Pandalur, Ooty and Kotagiri taluks.
Interestingly, the crisis that is driving so many small tea growers, estates and factories out of business is not reflected in the demand for Indian tea, which continues to command a good price in domestic and international markets. The problem, then, as the tea growers and experts point out, lies in the policies of the state and Central governments.
The crisis, in fact, is not confined to Tamil Nadu; it engulfs growers across all the major tea producing regions of the country such as Assam, West Bengal and Kerala. Tea growers accuse the authorities of turning a blind eye to the issues plaguing the industry.
South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Movements convenor MS Selvaraj, a small-scale tea grower himself, rattles out a litany of woes. “The demand for tea has not gone down anywhere, yet poverty, disease and death stalk the lives of the small growers and the labourers who work for them,” he says. According to him, the major problems faced by small growers include the difficulty in getting a licence to establish modern factories in the cooperative sector involving small growers, severe power shortage, distorted allocation of subsidies, a nexus between brokers and intermediaries and the absence of auction centres in all the major tea cultivating regions.
The government-run mega tea plantation tantea (Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Ltd), an initiative launched many years ago for rehabilitating displaced Sri Lankan Tamils, is also in deep crisis due to the same reasons.
Although the Sri Lankan Tamils number more than five lakh in Nilgiri, only 8,000 families (around 40,000 people) have been rehabilitated in the tantea estates, for which large tracts of forestland had been cleared. Yet, the company’s losses are piling up.
“The plantation sector suffered a lot in the wake of the liberalisation policies introduced since 1991. And now, with the fall in green leaf prices, even big plantations are finding it difficult to survive,” says Ullash Kumar, an environmentalist who has studied the crisis in the industry. “For instance, Mahaveer Plantations Pvt Ltd had to close down two of its estates, Yellumalai and Seaforth, in Gudalur.”
It is a vicious circle. “Due to the crisis in the tea industry, the new generation is not willing to toil in the tea gardens,” says Frank Benjamin, a naturalist based in the Valppari tea-growing region of Coimbatore district. “Since the older generation has little choice, they continue to grow tea even if it is unremunerative or work in the tea gardens for a pittance. But, given the anti-farmer policies and choking of subsidies, the educated youngsters choose not to follow in the footsteps of their parents.”
The tea industry is highly labour-intensive. That is why shortage of manpower leads to a rise in wages without a corresponding increase in productivity. Coupled with spiralling costs of other
inputs such as fertilisers, the manpower crisis has crippled the tea plantations. An average company spends 100 to produce a kilo of tea and has to sell it for 120 or less. Even leading companies such as Tata Global and Hindustan Unilever Ltd are incurring losses.
To tide over the shortage of local workers, some estate owners have hired labourers from Jharkhand who agree to work for lower wages.
Simrose, who has been working in an estate in Gudalur for more than 40 years, remembers the golden era of small-scale tea growing in the region. “In the 1980s, I used to get 72 as wages for plucking 14 kg of leaf. On an average day, I earned 126 along with overtime wages. But now I hardly get work and on the days that I do, they pay me a miserly 40,” she rues.
With the alarming dip in prices, the plantations will be forced to bring down production costs by stopping all development works such as replanting and cutting down on inputs, which, in turn, will reduce employment. It is high time the Central and state governments initiated immediate relief measures to save the tea plantations, which support a large number of workers and their families as well as play a role in preserving the ecologically sensitive hilly terrain.