Indrani Dutta

Tea Board relaxes scheme to pep up participation

Labour scarcity in South India is one of the reasons

Mechanisation leads to drop in quality

of tea

KOLKATA: The Special Purpose Tea Fund (SPTF), launched this year to rejuvenate age-old tea bushes, has been made more flexible in order to pep up the participation from gardens in South India.

While the first loan application is expected to be sanctioned within this week so as to enable the commencement of replantation activities before this monsoon, so far only 29 applications have been received from South India against the 300 applications received from Assam, West Bengal and Tripura till July 31. Labour shortage is believed to be the major factor that may stymie the participation of South Indian gardens.

SBI Caps, to whom the entire loan vetting process has been outsourced, is now grading the proposals — A to D —depending on tea estates’ financial parameters, managerial capability and the past development activities as evidenced by the field inspection reports. ‘A’ denotes top grade with a proposal with the ‘D’ tag requiring a reconsideration.

Confirming that response to the SPTF has been tardy from South Indian gardens, which contribute 200 million kg out of the 900-odd million kg produced by India, Tea Board sources said flexibilities regarding the minimum amount of land that could be taken up initially for replantation had been introduced in the scheme.

While earlier it was envisaged that loans would be given only if at least 2.5 per cent of the total area under a garden was proposed to be rejuvenated, it has now been decided to relax this norm.

Similarly, the upper limit has also been relaxed so that gardens wanting to replant over and above the existing ceiling of 12.5 per cent of the total area would be allowed to do so, provided there were no objections from the bankers and if the gardens were financially sound.

However, there seems to be little optimism regarding participation from South India even after such relaxations.

With a depleting manpower, the industry has been forced to go in for mechanisation, using, for instance, shear harvesters for tea-plucking. While this has addressed the industry’s labour problems to an extent, it has led to a drop in quality since tea plucking is all about selecting the right leaves and a bud to pluck. This is crucial to the flavour.

Moreover, replantation and rejuvenation does not generate huge interest among the garden owners most of whom have composite gardens where other plantation crops are also cultivated.