Agri Business

Covid-19 lockdown may brew trouble for tea sector

Pratim Ranjan Bose Kolkata | Updated on March 30, 2020 Published on March 29, 2020

Panic-struck plantations and allied activities may do havoc with India’s tea industry.

While Tamil Nadu withdrew the restrictions yesterday, the entire sector has come to a grinding halt in all other major tea growing states of Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka, etc.

Assam contributes to half of India’s 1,300 plus million kg of production, while another 25 per cent production comes from West Bengal. The economy of upper Assam and North Bengal are almost entirely dependent on tea.

The lockdown coincided with flush production and will virtually kill Darjeeling tea industry that earns 40 per cent of annual revenue this season. The decision has impacted both large estates and small growers, contributing more than half of India’s production, in equal measure.

Small growers barely need much labour and were not barred from plucking. However, they were forced to pull shutters due to closure of the bought-leaf factories and complete collapse of the transport and auction infrastructure. Assam and West Bengal together have over four lakh such growers.

Disrupting crop-cycle

First flush (March) and second Flush (May) are the biggest profit churners for any plantation. The abrupt halt in plucking (and processing) will allow leaves to grow older and become unsuitable for consumption. The Tea Board had already advised the planters to skiff (cutting down) the overgrown tea leaves.

Assuming the lockdown will be withdrawn on April 15, planters will take at least 15 days to make the plant ready to grow new leaves. It means, the second flush crop-cycle may be disrupted. Considering the agriculture activities is dependent on natural conditions, the impact on second flush crop is not known.

“Agriculture is a continuous activity and cannot be stopped. Undoubtedly there are fears of community spread from migrant population, which has come back home during lockdown. The plantation owners should be made liable for identification and strict quarantine of risk-population and carry out rest of the activities,” said a Bengal-based planter who paid advanced wages to labours.

Incidentally, the Assam government imposed such rules. Planters are sending daily report to the government on Covid-19. However, sources say the State government ruled out pleas to revisit its lockdown order before April 9.

“Apparently, the State government doesn’t want to take any chance of community spread of the disease vis-à-vis the poor health infrastructure in Assam. It is particularly cautious in view of the return of sizeable migrants to the State,” said a planter from Tezpur.

Politics of lockdown

The tea industry is yet to make a strong pitch for reopening gardens. According to sources, tea associations are lying low as there is a stigma on the plantation sector with respect to sanitation, health and hygiene issues of among labourers.

The stigma is not baseless either. A survey launched by a district authority in Assam, a few years ago, found that nearly half of the labour quarters in tea gardens do not use toilets.

Politics has also played a role in enforcing lockdown in plantation sector. The Assam Tea Tribes Student Union took the first move in stopping work. In Darjeeling, the GNLF was most vocal.

In West Bengal, the tea union-led by BJP MP from Alipurduar (West Bengal), John Barla, didn’t agree to the decision of West Bengal (and Assam) government to allow basic maintenance of tea estates.

“The organised tea plantation sector, which was already suffering from weak fundamentals due to dual pressure of low-cost production by small growers and pressure on prices, will pay the maximum price for this lockdown,” said an official of a plantation company that owns over a dozen estates.

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Published on March 29, 2020
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