Around 12 lakh daily wagers working in tea estates across India are struggling to survive

While the government has allowed tea estates to function with 50% of the total workforce, nothing is happening on the ground. Shortage of labourers, local administration’s apathy are to be blamed

Mithilesh Dhar Dubey
| Updated: April 13th, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic followed by the subsequent lockdown has not only affected the agriculture in the country but also has created panic among daily wagers working in the tea gardens of Assam and West Bengal.

Many wheat farmers are not able to harvest their crop as they are not getting labourers amid the lockdown. Similarly, the tea gardeners in Assam and West Bengal are worried as the leaf picking has been delayed.

The Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA), the largest organisation of tea planters, has estimated that the country’s tea industry may lose at least Rs 1,400 crore due to the lockdown.

The organisation has demanded a relief package from the central government and said that at present, livelihood of about 12 lakh labourers working in tea gardens is at risk.

Though the central government has allowed resuming work in the tea gardens with 50% of the workforce, this is not happening on the ground due to shortage of labourers and local administration’s apathy.

Nabajyoti Saikia (52), a tea plantation worker in the Siwasagar district in Assam, said: “We used to be over worked during these days. Although we would earn Rs 150-160 daily but we used to over work so that we could earn as much as Rs 250-300. The work has been stopped since the lockdown.”

According to the Indian Tea Board, Assam is the largest tea producing state in the country, contributing 50% of the total tea yield. However, West Bengal contributes 25% of the total share.

Besides, there are tea plantations in many parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. About 30 lakh people are directly and indirectly associated with the sector.

Vivek Goenka, chairman, CCPA and tea baron from West Bengal, said: “The plantation owners and labourers are currently undergoing a severe crisis. We need government help, only then this business can survive. After discussing with our members, we have written to the Central Government demanding that an amount worth Rs 1,000 is given to the workers per week for the next three months. It will be an immediate relief to the workers.”

Leaves that are picked during the first flush are used in preparing tea, but this time leaves could not be picked due to the lockdown

Crisis loom over the world’s best tea

As of now, Darjeeling tea is the worst hit. In 2011, the European Union, had accorded it the status of geographical indications tag (legal right to specific object).

Tea in Darjeeling is prepared from the first picked leaves. Picking of the leaves is called flush. Leaves that are picked during the first flush are used in preparing tea there, but this time leaves could not be picked due to the lockdown, and this is why the size of the tea leaves grew more than the usual size during picking. Now they have to be sorted out before the second flush.

The first flush is significant for the tea garden owners. This can be understood by the fact that the tea made from the leaves picked during this time, provides 40% of the annual earnings. About 20% of the total production comes from the first flush.

According to the Darjeeling Planters Association, there are about 300 tea gardens in the hilly areas in Darjeeling, which produce around 80 lakh kg of tea annually.

Usually, the first flush work begins from the second week of March every year, but due to delay in showers, the picking could only be started by the third week of March. The leaf picking had barely begun when the lockdown was announced. Had there not been this lockdown, the labourers would have gone to the plantations picking leaves every week.

Binod Mehta, president of the Darjeeling Planters Association, an organisation of tea plantations said: “Tea leaves could not be picked up this time. This why they are growing in size. Tea cannot be made with these leaves now. The Tea Board of India has asked the planters to sort the leaves out but it is not going to compensate for the damage. The condition would even worse by the time this lockdown gets over. The tea plantations in Darjeeling must have suffered losses worth Rs 200 crores at least. Even after the lockdown gets over on April 15, things are not going to change much. The losses will continue to mount further.”

The second flush after March occurs in May. Now, if the lockdown is lifted on April 15, firstly, the old damaged leaves will have to be sorted and it would take at least 15 days for new leaves to grow. It means that the planters will not be benefited even at the time of second flush.

The small tea growers are going to suffer a lot as there are more than two lakh such growers in the country.

In India, tea plantation is practiced in about six lakh hectares of land. The small tea growers practice tea farming in about 2 lakh hectares of land.

Sanjoy Datta, director, Datta Plantation Private Limited, has taken up a plantation spread over about 600 acres in the Chavafali Tea state of Darjeeling on lease. He said: “About 700 workers work in my plantation. By this time, the picking used to be on a full swing. About 15,000-20,000 kg of tea leaves would be picked up every day, but as of now, everything is shut. The first flush has been completely ruined. We don’t expect any profit from the second flush. No matter what, we would have to pay for all expenses.”

With 701 million kg of tea production, Assam is the largest tea producer followed by West Bengal that produces 344 million kg of tea. There are tea plantations in about 148,121 hectares in West Bengal. It has more than 37,000 small tea growers while the number of large growers is more than 450.

Bijoy Gopal Chakborti, president of the Indian Small Tea Growers Association, said: “Big tea growers have their own companies. They may somehow cope up with all this, but the biggest problem is for the small tea planters. They supply leaves to big plantations. As of now, the entire system is in jeopardy. The small planters of West Bengal have suffered losses worth Rs 500 crores at least. For the entire country, the losses would be around Rs 1,300-1,400 crores. The central government had said that 50% of the employees can work by following social distancing, but the state government has finally allowed only 15% of the employees to work.”

“Three months later, our work has finally begun. We are demanding that the small tea growers must be given a subsidy of at least Rs 59,990 per hectare,” added Bijoy.

In around 33 lakh hectares of land in Assam, more than a lakh small tea growers and more than 750 large-scale tea growers practice tea farming. About 17% of the population in Assam is engaged in tea production.

The tea gardens in Assam have been shut since March 22. The first flush cycle was ruined here as well

Vidyananda Barkakati, advisor to the North East Tea Association, Assam, said: “The upcoming 15 days are very important for us. If things do not change, we will incur heavy losses.”

“Following the order of the state government, the district magistrates are now talking to the planters and are trying to find a solution. In Assam, about seven lakh labourers work in large plantations and three lakh in small plantations, and about 10 lakh people are into the trading. The economic condition of the state is dependent on tea plantations. There would be huge losses if nothing would not be done soon,” he added.

Vidyananda Barkakti said, “Tea under the food processing ministry is on the list of essential food products. It is imperative that the plantations are gradually brought back into operations.”

To understand that why the work in plantations was stopped when the central government had allowed to resume the work with 50% of the workforce, we spoke to the Tea Board of India.

Dr Hrishikesh Rai, deputy director, Indian Tea Board, said: “The central government has allowed to resume the work but it depends on the state government to execute it. Earlier, work in Assam was about to begin but it had to be stopped because of the labour unions as they were worried about health risk of labourers. Small plantations may be able to operate but big plantations are in a fix. Overall, it is for sure that the production will suffer this year.”

About 17% of the population in Assam is engaged in tea production

Labourers are in a fix

The labourers and labour unions working in the tea gardens have been demanding that they get wages under the Minimum Wages Act 1948 for over a long time.

Around 4.5 lakh labourers work in the tea gardens in West Bengal and around 8 lakh labourers work in Assam. The minimum wage in Kerala is Rs 310. In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, it is Rs 263 and 241 per day respectively. However, in Assam the rate is Rs 167 for a day’s work and Rs 176 in West Bengal. It is clear that the wage rate in these two states is significantly lower than other tea producing states of the country.

Under the Tea Plantation Plantation Labour Act, 1951, the plantation owners should meet the boarding, lodging and education needs of the labourers and their families. This is why the labourers working here are paid less than in other areas.

Suman Pathak, district secretary, Indian Trade Union Centre, Darjeeling and who is leading the 29-tea trade union teams’ joint forum, said: “The labourers have been getting both money and ration for over a week, but the problem is going to start soon now. The plantation owners would refuse to pay labourers citing the closure of the work.”

“Tea garden owners may have become successful but the labourers are still suffering. Now, if the work is not started sooner, the situation may worsen.”

As per the report of the United Tea Workers Front, 2017, more than 1,000 plantation workers died because of malnutrition and hunger between 2002 and 2014 in West Bengal. While 23 plantations were shut, more than one lakh labourers were also rendered jobless.

Jia ul Alam, the convener of the Central Trade Union, CTU, has been raising the issues of labourers who have been working for a long time in the tea plantations. He said, “The wage rate is already very low in our state than the other states. The plantation owners are paying because of the pressure from the government. It is in doubt that they would continue to pay labourers or not.”

Exports hit, the worst is yet to come

Iran, China and Germany are largest buyers of the Indian tea. Of these, China and Iran have completely stopped tea imports from India. Many other small countries have also stopped the trade. As a result the price of tea, which was sold for Rs 200 a kg till last year, has now dropped to Rs 100-110 a kg.

In 2019, the tea industry in the country had done foreign trade worth Rs 3,740 crores.

“The price of tea leaves has come down to Rs 120-130 per kg, which was Rs 200 per kg at the same time last year. Exports to China and Iran have been stopped. Export is going to be affected severely this year,” said Mohit Agarwal, managing director of Asian Tea Exports.

According to the Indian Tea Board, China had imported 1.345 crore kg of black tea leaves from India in 2019. At the same time, it had become the biggest buyer of Indian black tea.

“The demand for Indian black tea in China has risen by four times in the last five years. In 2014, China imported 36 lakh kg of black tea from India. No consignment of tea has gone to China after 25th January. No one knows when the next consignment will leave,” added Mohit.

Vishal Shah, Manager (Oversees sale) of Jai Shri Tea Industries, one of the largest tea producing companies in the country, said: “This is the time when traders from abroad used to visit tea gardens of Assam and Darjeeling and would place orders.”

India is one of the top three tea producing countries in the world. However, during the first 11 months of 2019, the export of tea decreased as compared to 2018. According to tea board data, the export of tea during the period January to November 2019 was around 22 crore kg as compared to 23 crore kg of tea during 2018. Iran was the largest buyer of the India tea. Iran imported more than 4 crore kg of tea from India.