The tea stall or the ‘chai kadai' is one of the most enduring images of any city's streetscape. No street or main road is complete without a tea stall. The buzz around tea stalls adds character to street corners.

However, the number of licensed tea stalls in the city is starting to decline, according to participants at the 29th annual general body meeting of the Chennai Metropolitan Tea Shop Owner's Association held here on Sunday.

“Most youngsters are not willing to buy a token and stand on the roadside with a cup and saucer,” says K.Manoharan, an executive member of the association who has been running a tea stall in Parry's for the last 20 years. “IT companies contract out tea supply to individuals who supply instant-tea machines. Some earn as much as Rs.14 lakh a month,” he adds.

There are nearly 10,000 tea stalls in the city. Of them, about 2,000 are unlicensed. Vellaiyyan from Kerala has set up shop in Chennai though his family is still there. Admitting that it is not very easy running the business now, he says: “Earlier, we sold tea for Rs.3 to Rs. 4. Now, ordinary tea costs Rs. 5 and special, masala chai costs Rs.7 at our shop. Otherwise, we cannot do business.”

According to Mr. Manoharan, while regular shops sell at Rs.6 a glass, the unlicensed shops manage to sell at Rs.3 making the business unviable for others.

Changing demographics

Many of the newer tea stalls in the city are run by teenagers from Bihar and Orissa. Earlier, Nairs such as Mr. Manoharanused to make their way from remote corners of Kerala to set up shop in the city.

But now, the labour demographic has changed so much that hiring a tea-master has become extremely difficult. “Everyone has more opportunities. No one wants to work in a tea stall anymore,” says Mr. Manoharan.

His daughter woks in an IT company and wants him to quit because she feels uncomfortable when someone asks ‘What does your father do?'

B. Balan (52) has been working in tea stalls since he was seven years old. Now, a seasoned tea-master working at a stall near actor Sivaji Ganesan's house in T. Nagar, he says, “You could be a very rich businessman or a daily wage labourer, but you cannot do without a cup of tea.”

But, the age of instant milk powder and coffee machines seem to be giving tough competition to tea stalls. P.K. Anish shut his family-owned tea stall three years ago and started a business in safety equipment. He feels that in today's fast-paced life, tea stalls do not have much of a role.

However, P.C. Samyuktha, who runs an online collective called ‘Chai Kadai,' which positions itself as a place where cultures mix and conversations happen, says, “The culture of tea shops will never vanish as long as there is a culture of conversation. The trade is no longer hereditary, but that is the case with many other professions. Tea stalls will learn and adapt to the changing needs. Many have started using plastic cups, for instance.”

According to her, the most striking aspect of a ‘tea kadai' is its openness. “Anyone can drop by for a cup of tea. It is the place where day-to-day conversations about politics happen. It is one of the most important and free spaces for conversation available in the city.”

(With inputs from Meera Srinivasan)

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Meera SrinivasanJune 28, 2012

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