Tea industry faces fall in exports, revenues and volumes due to Covid-19 lockdown

Assam and Darjeeling are staring at a loss of 15 percent and 30 percent in revenue respectively

ExportImage Courtesy:business-standard.com

The Tea Board has said that the tea industry may be looking at about a 6 – 8 percent fall in exports owing to the loss of the first flush and the wipe out of Darjeeling tea from the system, reported Business Standard.

It is estimated that there is a shortfall of 16 – 20 million (kg) this year in export volumes. The loss of the first flush production due to the Covid-19 lockdown lead to a financial crunch for garden owners, which accounts for 20 percent of the 8 million kg annual production in the hills. Darjeeling Tea Association’s (DTA) former chairman Ashok Lohia told The Indian Express, “We want the government to allow production to start, since this is primarily an agricultural activity.”

In Kolkata, Lohia says, some of the tea garden owners have made payments to the workers as per government directives, while some whose financial conditions are not good are facing difficulties in paying wages to the workers.

DTA chairman Binod Mohan said that they have requested the West Bengal government to reduce their burdens to some extent. Out of the 22 members registered with the Darjeeling Chapter of the Indian Tea Association, five had paid the workers despite the production having come to a halt. Those who have not yet paid the workers are in talks with unions. The tea workers get Rs. 176 a day in addition to food and ration.

Rajya Sabha MP Shanta Chhetri, a member of the Tea Board of India, has also written to the Centre appealing for dole of Rs. 1,000 per week. The letter read, “I request the Government of India for support during this period to help the industry with direct wage payments to the workers and humbly suggest that a direct transfer of Rs. 1000 only per week into each worker’s account for the next three months.”

The Centre had issued a memorandum to West Bengal asking tea gardens to resume operations with 50 percent labourers before the lockdown ends on April 15. However, CM Mamata Banerjee made it clear that doing so wouldn’t be possible. She said, “Centre told us to let tea gardens operate but I have spoken to people involved in the industry and they were all of the opinion that the lockdown should continue. Also, the workers are scared and unwilling to join. Above all, we need to be cautious because the region that is home to the gardens has international borders with Nepal and Bhutan and state borders with Assam and Sikkim. I can’t take the risk of letting the gardens operate.”

However, some garden managers are tricking workers in to getting back to work. SK Lama, the General Secretary of the Himalayan Plantation Workers’ Union told The Telegraph India, “Certain garden managers have prepared a memorandum written in English and are asking workers to sign on it. The memorandum basically states labourers are willing to work in the gardens.”

In Assam’s Lakhimpur, the central committee of the Assam Tea Tribe Students’ Association (ATTSA) has expressed its reluctance over some tea garden management refusing to release the full wage and ration for tea garden workers till time the lockdown is in place, reported The Sentinel. In a statement, ATTSA said that it appreciated the various awareness programmes held for tea garden workers across various states. It said, “To contain the pandemic, various awareness programmes have been initiated in the tea garden areas laying emphasis on the maintenance of cleanliness and hygiene among the people of the tea tribes. At present, 1.30 lakh people of the tea tribe community, who are the pivotal part of the tea industry, have been following the lockdown advisories. But the matter of deep regret is that some tea garden management have expressed reluctance to release the full wage and the due ration to the tea garden workers for the lockdown period, but decided to pay a deducted amount of the same despite  government’s order served vide letter No. PLA. 7/06/Pt—I/ 4381-444 in this regard. This attitude on the part of the tea garden management concerned has provoked reaction among the tea garden workers in addition to creating a kind of panic situation among them.”

The All Assam Small Tea Growers’ Association (AASTGA) has said that small tea growers in Assam are set to suffer huge losses due to the lockdown. They had pruned their tea plants between December 2019 and the start of January 2020. These plants had sprouted near the end of February and while some of the green leaves were picked from March, the exercise slowed down due to the lockdown. As a result, the green leaves have already started aging; and the small tea garden workers are now left with no option but to pluck these aging leaves simply to throw them away.

Speaking to The Sentinel, Karuna Mahanta, general secretary of AASTGA said, “We stopped plucking the newly sprouting leaves since the very first day of lockdown. Now we have no alternative but to dispose of the already aging leaves as the tea factories do not buy such aging tea leaves. We’ll face more problems if the lockdown is extended and work has to be stopped in the tea gardens. However, even if we are offered any relaxation we’ll have to go for fresh pruning of the tea plants. After that, new leaves will sprout only after a gap of almost 20 days.”

“Our workforce is made up almost entirely of local Assamese people. Unfortunately during this season, this section of the populace will suffer economically,” he added.

Citing a report of the Assam Agriculture University (AAU) he said that approximately 1.5 lakh small tea growers were directly involved in the sector and about 15 lakh people including labourers, drivers and many others were indirectly attached to the industry. 

TOI reported that according to the Tea Board of India, tea gardens in Assam and Darjeeling are now staring at a 22 percent loss in revenue. The report says that Darjeeling will suffer a 30 percent revenue loss and 15 percent loss in volume, Assam will witness a 15 percent loss in revenue and 12 percent loss in volume.


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