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Do Tea Industry still stands as Economic Backbone of Assam?

Tea, Tea industry, chinese immigrant labour, adivasi tribes, Assam, tea estates.

The history of Tea plants in Assam goes back a little less than 200years ago when it all started. The story picked up after plants quite similar to Tea plants in neighboring China were seen sparsely in the North east corner of Assam. The Tea plant ‘Camellia Sinensis’ as it is known scientifically was not put through the corridor at once, with passage of time, Britain who were ruling India then lost the Tea trade monopoly with China in 1833, as the communists went through the Tea trade contracts with other European countries. Feeding losses, the British decided to peep in their own backyard, began paying attention in newly found Tea plants in Assam. Though it was apparent that Assam can have its own Tea garden, still East India Company started Tea cultivation in India with Tea plants from China. The story eventually got the heat after Tea leaves from this garden landed on the shores of Britain capital, London in 1838. The finest quality of tea from Lakhimpur garden opened enormous commercial opportunities in London, as more and more business houses began setting up Tea plantations in various locations in the state.

Even at the very outset, there had been difficulties in getting sufficient work force that led planters to believe that bringing Chinese immigrant labors in the garden would solve their problems. Initially the Chinese labors took hold of the responsibility but the idea was blown away as the cost of employing them had proved expensive, and it became difficult for the management to maintain them. The locals were quite reluctant to get into all this; consequently, the East India Company had to bring in the laborers from somewhere. The trend shaped up as the East India Company began migrating workers from Bihar, the Adivasi tribes namely the urau, munda and the santhalis were picked to carry the task.

Tea industry started well in the beginning of 20th century. Tea established itself as a major manufacturing industry in Assam that heralded a huge potential. As times crept by, the industry had lived on its reputation as the biggest large scale industry in comparisons to Coal and Petroleum. It boasted a comparatively better increased labor force; the kind of set up that it possessed was truly unparallel those days. Moreover the management of the British was quite exemplary; the infrastructure had reached lofty heights, the employment prospects were growing by the day, even the freedom movements never actually affected the tea trade, speaks of a rather focused inclination the government had for the industry.

Just when everything seemed fine, things began looking a shade different after Independence, there was a drastic change that took place in the complexion of the trade, Indians started to control some of the Tea estates in Assam, either through purchase of majority shares at the stock exchange or buying them. Since most of these new buyers were not aware of the intricacies of the trade, with less knowledge and trying to make money a bit faster, they took to coarse plucking to extract higher yields, ignored labor essentials, appointed laborers with no skills at a low salary and there was not sufficient attention to maintain tea gardens. All these resulted in poor quality Tea, with consumer complains started pouring in at the London tea auction. The entire North America and Australia along with Britain covered more than 80% of our export share. Due to unscrupulous activities of Indian owned Tea estates, lesser known Tea producing countries such as Indonesia, Sri lanka and Japan began exploding, in the international arena. The export market went low to an extent. On the other hand, non Indian owned tea gardens in Assam fared considerably well in the international market simply because the gardens were being looked after by big agency houses in Kolkata. Hence, the operational efficiency yielded better outcome.

Just then, at the end of the 60’s decade there was a twist, the Indian government abolished the managing agency system, which was done with an intention to weaken the Englishmen hold on Tea Estates in India and that compelled the English brigade to walk out of the Indian tea scene. The planning commission, henceforth, decided to curtail irrational practices of the estates that assisted the Tea industry to get back on the road to prosperity again. Tea got further enhanced as the most popular drink, as the world accepted it, because of its relative low price and high receptive consumer taste raised over so many years.

Assam on its part, since, has the largest acreage for Tea plantations, employs maximum number of labors in India and also carries a standing of being the largest Tea producer in the world. The industry’s growth rate had picked noticeably, the transformation that had taken place, the Tea industry getting recognized as the significant force in the development of state economy. The figures had moved on to more than rupees 6 crores annually as agriculture income, the figure adds up as the state also receives a share of income tax and export duties from the centre.

After the exit of Europeans, priorities changed ends as the supplies of Tea chest are being looked after by numerous Plywood industries of Assam. The reality of Tea industry provides a huge souk for plywood industry. It also provides a bazaar for Assam coal and the state fertilizer industry as the need for crude fertilizers in Tea plantation soils are being taken care of by some of these industries. Hence we can conclude that Tea industry share a significant employment burden for the state, a terrific 15 %+, direct and indirect employment within the state of Assam.

But times had moved out for a change, the 90’s had featured a Tea taste revamp in the west. With the emergence of Bio-Tea, Assam Tea industry had fallen back a bit. Bio-Tea signifies ‘Tea that is completely free of chemicals even if through fertilizers’. Higher content of fertilizers in the plantation soil to attain higher yields makes it impossible for the state to even imagine producing Bio-Tea. A German social activist Mr. Eberhard, a travel freak, and a fervent tea taster, points out that “Tea choices in Europe had gone in for a sea change and if Assam who were once the largest suppliers to Norway and other Scandinavian countries, did not cater to the swinging trends they won’t be able to stand on the same platform as they have done so often in the past”. The other side of the blanket has a different story written on it. The government of India with its path breaking implementation of improved labor laws has hatched enough set of hazards for the Tea industry. Santosh Soren, former Asst Manager, Mornai Tea Estate, lower Assam, has very strong words against labor laws; he says “Apart from provisions of minimum wages act and provident fund act others such as payment of wages act, trade union act, industrial disputes act and few others had only gone ahead to pile more problems for the industry, all these labor laws had risen the tea cost in the international market. Most importantly, the Assam Tea had lost its competitive edge in the market due to price rise”. There are still further perils on the way, one of them being the acreage for Tea plantations not grown much over the years while the work force had multiplied immensely, that explains huge surplus labors on side lines in Tea gardens. Small estates who do not have enough financial support being another significant aspect, though cooperative banks in Assam, industrial finance corporation and few commercial banks do lend their support.

The Tea industry does need a visionary transformation in their approach, prices had to be brought down, amalgamation of small estates and cooperative management should be introduced. Labor laws calls for a look in, labors now a day are powerfully organized under trade unions which is again a hitch. If actions are not taken now, the crisis will deepen and the decline in Tea industry conditions will definitely have ramifications in state’s economy.
Published: 2008-10-16
Author: Rajiv Sighamony

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I am extremely passionate about expressing myself, and writing is a way to do it.


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