The small tea growers of Nilgiris are unhappy that their long-standing plight has been practically ignored by all political parties, even during elections.

In the Nilgiris Lok Sabha constituency, ‘small tea growers’ form a sizeable part of the 13.6 lakh registered voters. One estimate is that there are about 2.5 lakh small tea growers, who typically own between 0.5 acres to 10 acres.

These people grow tea and turn over the leaves to ‘bought-leaf’ companies—companies which do not have their own plantations but have tea processing factories.

These small tea planters have a problem: uneconomical price for their leaves—₹15 per kg. “This is not even enough to cover the wages we pay our workers,” says L Pasupathy, who owns 4.5 acres of tea plantations, near Sogathorai village, 8 km from Coonoor. “It is a burning issue,” he said.

The small tea growers say they need to get at least ₹30 per kg to survive. Today, only planters who press their family members into plantation work can stay afloat.

Their charge is that the tea factories are profiting at their expense. “They are getting at least ₹200 a kg, why can’t they pay us more?” was the refrain of a group of small growers that businessline met in the Sogathorai village, 8 km from Coonoor.

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The bought-leaf companies, while sympathising with small tea growers, say the growers have got their numbers wrong. The average price arrived at the auctions, for ‘made tea’ (leaves processed into tea and fit for retailing), is nowhere near ₹200, but only about ₹111 a kg.

K Kumar, who owns Kalpa Tea, a bought-leaf company, told businessline that prices have fallen further, to about ₹100 in the last auction. There is a set formula by which the tea planters are paid — 65 per cent of the auction price, divided by four, because it takes four kg of leaves to produce a kg of ‘made tea’.

Kumar and other factory owners say that it is the tea retailers — mainly Hindustan Unilever and Tatas —who make bumper profits and “not us”.

Both small tea growers and tea factory owners want the government to intervene — bring in a floor price for the auctions. Now, any kind of minimum support price is thought to have political ramifications.


Politicians of all political parties, including TN CM MK Stalin and BJP’s K Annamalai, in their election rallies have spoken about their support for fixing a floor price, but the growers are not impressed. Political parties have always been promising to help fix a floor price. “We feel betrayed,” says R Dharuman, Chairman, Nelikolu Charitable Trust, (a formation of the Badaga tribe) who has been fighting for a minimum support price for 20 years.

B Kumaran, former Vice Chairman of Tea Board and a member of BJP (who contested in 2011 assembly elections) agrees that fixing an MSP is tough political call but he has an alternative suggestion that will work: the government can just include tea in the list of commodities sold through the public distribution system. This will create a big demand for tea and raise prices.