India File

No longer the right climate for tea

Vishwanath Kulkarni | Updated on September 24, 2019

Brew of misery Tea is losing its flavour in the Nilgiris. Carrot and cabbage are taking its place in many parts, including the Kollimalai region shown above GRN Somashekar   -  SOMASHEKAR G R N

Climate change has unleashed havoc on the tea plantations in the Nilgiris. Frost, drought, pests — growers battle these and more, reports Vishwanath Kulkarni

Climate change is the buzz word in the country’s plantation sector these days. Commodity growers, be it of coffee, tea or rubber, among others, will tell you that changing climate has impacted them, reeling as they are from multi-year low prices. “We have witnessed very freak weather patterns since the beginning of this year till now, at regular intervals,” says Arjunan, a small tea grower at New Attuboil near Avalanchi in the Nilgiris.


First, a severe frost attack hit the production of tea leaves from December till early February. Temperatures hovered near sub-zero levels for many days during this period, says Arjunan. Tea is the only crop around New Attuboil, which is at an elevation of 2,100 feet above sea level and from where one can see the Silent Valley.

“Even as the tea bushes started recovering from the intense cold conditions in February-March, the flare-up in temperatures during April-May gave us a shock for the second time, impacting the production of leaves yet again,” says Arjunan, who’s also the headman of the Badaga hamlet that has some 100 houses and a population of around 400 people.

Then the rains came in really hard, with unusually high precipitation levels never witnessed earlier in the region.

Being on the western slopes of the Nilgiris, Attuboil receives an average rainfall of at least 1,000 millimetres, most of it during the South-West Monsoon season. “And one day in August, it started pouring and never stopped for almost three days, triggering a deluge in the region,” says Arjunan.

“The region around Avalanchi received almost three years of annual rainfall in only about 3-4 days this year,” says HN Sivan, Founder-President of the Nilgiris Nelikolu Micro & Small Tea Growers and Farmers’ Development Society (NSTF). This resulted in huge erosion of top soil, with major implications for the environment of the region, Sivan adds. “We have lost an average of 60 per cent of the crop this year due to these freak weather instances,” says Arjunan. “We have never seen this kind of a rainfall in our lifetime,” says septuagenarian Radhakrishnan.

Tea growers around this region, most of whom fall in the small category, supply the green leaves to the Indcoserve (TN Small Tea Growers’ Industrial Cooperative Tea Factories’ Federation Ltd) factory at Kundah. To add to their output woes, the factory offers them ₹10 per kg, much lower than the price fixed by the Tea Board. For September, the Board has fixed ₹13.5 per kg of green leaf.

Deficit on eastern slopes

If this is the case of tea growers on the Western slopes of Nilgiris, the growers on the Eastern slopes have a different story to share. The Eastern slopes, which receive most of the annual rainfall from the North-East monsoon season, have been facing deficit rain. “Continuous drought over the past three years has hit the productivity of the bushes. Moreover, there is a decline in the average number of rainy days, aggravating the situation” says N Lakshmanan, a senior planter in Coonoor.

While the average rainy days have come down from 110-115 to 95 over the past decade, the sunny days have increased during the same period. This poses a challenge to the growers who will have to look at augmenting the water resources at the estate level through steps such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation and fertigation, for which they would long-term funding.

Over the last decade, the productivity decline in black tea has been about 400 kg per hectare, forcing manufacturers to adopt frugal management practices as increase in prices has been marginal, says Lakshmanan. There is a general decline in the number of rainy days across the tea growing regions in South India, says B Radhakrishnan, Director of UPASI Tea Research Foundation at Valparai, impacting productivity of the bushes by up to 20 per cent in various regions.

While the number of rainy days has come down, the intensity of rainfall has increased, resulting in problems such as soil erosion and landslides. “We need well-distributed rainfall over 150-160 days. More than the quantum, distribution of the rainfall is important,” explains Radhakrishnan.

Pests add to the problem

The decline in the number of rainy days, leading to more sunny days, is seeing a flare-up of pests. Pests that were considered minor in nature are becoming major pests under the major influence of dry weather. For example, ‘red spider mite’ was a minor pest till recently. Now its infestation is spreading in the Nilgiris under the influence of prolonged dry weather, says Radhakrishnan. Moreover, tea made from leaves affected by red spider mite is of very poor quality. Producers with a focus on exports are forced to take up neem extract-based pesticides to deal with it.

Hit by the double whammy of low prices and freak weather, a section of small tea growers in the valleys of Nilgiris has slowly shifted to growing vegetables such as carrot and beetroot, among others. “Growing vegetables is profitable, there is a regular cash flow as we can take multiple crops in a year,” says L Shivappa at Ornalli village near Kollimalai, who has converted four of the nine acres of tea estate into vegetable field.

“Climate change is serious and we cannot afford to ignore it,” cautions Venkitaraman Anand, CEO of Harrisons Malayalam Ltd. “The situation we have got into today is a result of decades. You cannot correct it in a year. But we can start working towards that. For all this we require funds. The government should support the plantation companies in overcoming these challenges either through some subsidies or relaxing some policies,” he adds.

“To mitigate the effects of climate change, plantations have to go in for rain water harvesting, drip irrigation and garner solar and wind energy for power requirement. Setting up such facilities entails huge investment and we look forward to Government support by way of special package through the Commodity Boards,” says AE Joseph, former UPASI President.

Also in the North-East, the major producing tea region, the increasing maximum temperature and decreasing rainfall have made the tea estates highly vulnerable to the vagaries of nature. The report of Tea Research Association (TRA) in FAO IGG confirms reduction of rainfall by 220 mm and rise in temperature by 1.3 degree Celsius on an average in Upper Assam in the last 30 years.

Dwindling funds for research

Prabhat K Bezbaruah, Chairman, Tea Board of India and Chairman of TRA, says a number of studies have been conducted by TRA to understand the impact of climate change on tea plantations.

“We (at TRA) have passed on our recommendations to the member gardens, which have also been disseminated to all stakeholders,” Bezbaruah says.

Water and soil management, developing climate resilient-cultivars, irrigation, crop diversification and integrated pest management, among others, would be some of the key measures that planters need to undertake to mitigate the impact of climate change, TRA had noted. “The industry is trying, but they do not seem to have understood the gravity of this (climate change). We are working with them and trying to make them understand it,” adds Bezbaruah.The Commerce Ministry's decision to curtail funds to TRA is posing a hurdle to undertake relevant research in climate change. Earlier the government used to give ₹15 crore and the industry contributed around ₹10 crore. Now the industry contributes ₹18 crore but the fund support from government has come down to ₹5 crore. This is posing a challenge.

Vivek Goenka, Chairman, Indian Tea Association, says plucking of tea leaves would earlier commence by mid-February and go on till almost end December. However, now the production only commences by mid-March. “It has impacted tea industry in a massive way. Earlier we would start producing by mid-February and go up to December. Now the season has changed and we start plucking only by mid-March. So tea production, which was earlier following a 10-month season, has now come down to nine months,” Goenka adds.

Moreover, earlier, post second flush, an autumnal variety would come in during monsoon time in August. There is no concept of autumnal flavour now, Goenka says. This apart, a variety of pests attack the crop from time to time. Despite replanting and uprooting undertaken by the organised sector in the last decade or so, there has hardly been any increase in crop. “The industry needs to work with various tea research institutes to address this,” points out Goenka.

VG Dhanakumar, Director, Indian Institute of Plantation Management, Bengaluru, sums it up: “The entire research system needs to be revisited, as the plantation sector is vulnerable to climate change. Lack of research and financing might hinder plantations’ ability to adapt to climate change.”

With inputs from Shobha Roy in Kolkata and V Sajeev Kumar in Kochi

Published on September 24, 2019

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