D. Radhakrishnan

Small tea growers finding it most difficult to maintain gardens

Children of labourers take up more lucrative jobs

Udhagamandalam: Consistently reasonable prices so far this year have brought cheer to tea planters in the Nilgiris who had since the beginning of this decade been badly hit by the prolonged crisis in the sector. However, all is not well with the industry. Over the years labour shortage has become a serious source of concern to the planters, including the small tea growers.

The problem in the labour intensive industry which came to the fore a few years ago has now become acute. Consequently, it now more or less tops the list of challenges adverted to in the tea industry circles and related conferences. While experts in the industry and observers are attributing the growing problem to a number of factors, a consensus is that migration is playing a significant role.

A study made recently by a Non- Governmental Agency, the Rural Development Organisation (RDO), is revealing.

It says the crisis, which led to closure of estates and denial of wages triggered large-scale unemployment and consequent migration.

Claiming that over 3,000 families have migrated to places like Tirupur, Kerala and Coorg, its Director N.K.Perumal says among those were Sri Lankan repatriates and tribals. A long time industry observer G. Stephen Jayaseelan says shortage of labour is among the worst problems confronting the industry.

Referring to the migration of workers, Mr. Jayaseelan says the tea industry can in no way match the pay offered by the industries in places like Tirupur. The children of plantation workers who earlier used to end up working in the estates are now well educated and look for jobs which suit their qualifications.

Since the average age of the existing labour force is about 50, the efficiency and productivity is low. The hike in wages has added to the cost of production. If remedial measures are not taken soon it will be just a matter of time before the industry finds itself in deep trouble.

The small growers most of whom are Badagas are finding it difficult to maintain their gardens because on one hand labourers have become scarce and on the other the youngsters in their families have found jobs outside the district. A solution suggested by practically all segments of the industry is rapid mechanisation, particularly in harvesting. The Tea Board should take the lead in facilitating this.

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