Indrani Dutta

45 applications for assistance received

Chidamabaram to hand over sanction letters next week

KOLKATA: Tea gardens in south India will roll out their re-plantation and rejuvenation programme from next month. The exercise got under way in Assam and West Bengal earlier this year and uprooting activities have begun.

Forty-five applications have been received by the Tea Board for the assistance that would be given to the gardens which have sought loans and subsidies under the Special Purpose Tea Fund (SPTF) announced by the Union Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh earlier this year.

Union Finance Minister P. Chidamabaram is scheduled to hand over the sanction letters at a function in Kochi next week, Tea Board sources told The Hindu. In all, 416 hectares are expected to be covered under this programme. This includes 24 gardens in Tamil Nadu, 18 in Kerala and three in Karnataka. Kannan Devan Hills is among the major participants in this programme.

Aging bushes has been the bane of the more than 100-year-old tea industry. This is among the factors that has edged out Indian tea in the international markets and led to a sharp decline in export. A decline of about 30 million kg is feared in 2007.The average life of a tea bush is 50 years and about 38 per cent of the area under tea cultivation has outlived this span.

As part of its plans to pep up the sector, the Commerce Ministry decided to introduce a programme for a massive re-plantation and rejuvenation – the SPTF. Under the programme, bushes on 2.13-lakh hectares are to be uprooted and replanted over the next 15 years. Of this, 46 per cent would be in Assam, 28 per cent in West Bengal and 22 per cent in south India.

North India accounts for about 80 per cent of the 900 million kg that India produces on an average, and the remaining comes from the south. The total estimated cost of the programme, which is targeted at the organised sector, is Rs.4,761 crore which includes a loan component and a subsidy.

The programme is expected to increase yields from 1,662 kg to 2,120 kg per hectare in north India and to 2,420 kg per hectare for south India. However, the response to the SPTF has been tardy in the south, where the small size of the holdings as well as labour problems had discouraged garden owners to go for the scheme. Officials said that in the south it was difficult to find workers for this labour-intensive industry — many of the second generation workers were unwilling to join the industry that their fathers spent a lifetime in.

The SPTF had to be made more flexible to pep up the participation from gardens in south India. Tea Board sources said that flexibilities regarding the minimum amount of land that could be taken up initially for re-plantation was introduced in the scheme.

Manpower problem

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

“Moreover, re-plantation and rejuvenation, which is expected to be a time-consuming activity, does not generate huge interest among the garden owners most of whom have composite gardens where other plantation crops are also cultivated. Tea is just one crop for them,” the sources said.