Industry

Bengal tea industry sees ray of hope in minister’s visit

West Bengal is India’s second largest tea-growing State with a 20 $ share of country’s tea cultivated area, contributing about 24 per cent of the total India tea crop

West Bengal is India’s second largest tea-growing State with a 20 $ share of country’s tea cultivated area, contributing about 24 per cent of the total India tea crop  

The state has made global headlines with reports of ‘starvation deaths’ in the gardens in North Bengal

The West Bengal tea industry has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The state, which has in its fold the famed Darjeeling brand, has since last year, made i >nternational headlines with reports of ‘starvation deaths’ in the gardens in North Bengal. Similar reports have resurfaced this year.

However, although the term starvation death has been disputed, there is no denying the fact that there is distress in some of the tea-gardens in the state. Importantly, the entire industry is at a precipice.



Indrani Dutta
This provides the backdrop to Union Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit last week. She visited a closed garden as well as a garden belonging to a major corporate group and met all the stakeholders during her short stay. It is her positive approach towards the problems being faced by the West Bengal tea sector, which has cheered the industry.

Talks with a cross-section of the industry revealed, that the minister has accepted the need to examine Plantation Labour Act and the possibility of asking workers to accept a minimum wage structure that encompasses the benefits now being extended, to the workers under the PLA.

“The industry is in a precarious state,” said A. N. Singh a former Chairman of the Indian Tea Association and the Managing Director of Goodricke, which owns some 12 gardens in West Bengal and 10 in Assam.

“The rising demand for high quality teas in the export and the domestic market has led to a situation of declining demand for Dooars teas, whose quality has been affected by climate-change,” he said. “Big blenders now rarely bid for these teas at the auctions. The minister has looked at the entire issue of the West Bengal industry in holistic manner.”

It would be relevant here to examine the construct of the West Bengal industry.

West Bengal is India’s second largest tea-growing state with a 20 per cent share of country’s tea cultivated area, contributing about 24 per cent of the total India tea crop. There are 377 gardens of which 87 are in Darjeeling and the rest in Dooars ( Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar district) and Terai (Darjeeling plains and Uttar Dinajpur). It is the 188 Dooars gardens, which are facing problems the most. There are a total 2.64 lakh workers directly involved with the industry.

As per latest statistics between January and October 2015 production in West Bengal is lower at 274 million kgs compared to a year ago figure, with the gardens in Dooars accounting for a major part of the drop.

The issue of high-costs is plaguing the organised industry throughout the tea producing regions in Assam, West Bengal and the South. The small growers are mostly out of this as they are not governed by PLA.

“The industry flagged the issue of high costs and low prices before the minister. Climate-change is affecting tea industry badly and we sought interventions from the Centre,” said Arijit Raha Secretary General, ITA.

The industry is also keen to see some changes on the PLA front. The Plantation Labour Act was enacted in 1951 to ensure workers’ welfare measures, which normally falls within the realms of the State. This included housing facility, cheap power, firewood, subsidised food grains and medical facilities.

A 2009 report on the Competitiveness of The Indian Tea Industry, prepared by a Union Commerce Ministry panel said that while the industry has failed to keep up with global trends in the tea industry, there was also need to review many of the provisions of the PLA, which may have lost their relevance.

The committee, which had representation from the government and the industry, said that statutory social welfare measures, as mandated in this Act adds to garden-costs and reduces the Indian industry’s competitiveness. It also recommended that as in Sri Lanka, India may consider the dovetailing of various government schemes with the benefits being provided by PLA.

It has long been felt that schemes like social security schemes like Indira Awas Yojana, Targeted PDS schemes, National Heath Schemes and Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana could all be dovetailed with the schemes being implemented under the PLA by the industry.

“We face huge pressures on account of housing, subsidised electricity and ration costs” Mr Raha said adding that 80 per cent of the costs are fixed in nature.

The industry will now face an additional cost on account of irrigation as climate-change is affecting rainfall patterns. The cost of production for manufacture of 1 kg of tea for an estate governed by PLA is around Rs 170 per kg. However auction prices at an average of Rs 126, has led to cash losses in the large number of gardens in West Bengal.

There is at present no minimum wage for tea industry in West Bengal and while the Minister stressed the need for this, the industry felt that minimum wage should take into consideration the in-kind benefits being provided to the workers. Industry has estimated that the current daily wage rate of Rs 122. 5 works out to an employment cost of Rs 225 if the benefits are monetised.

While for the industry the situation is one of revival the stakes are no less for the governments at the state and the Centre, given the fact that there is a sizeable electorate among the tea workers and elections are knocking on the door in the country’s tea-belt.



IN A NUTSHELL

Although the term starvation death has been disputed, there is no denying the fact that there is distress in some of the tea-gardens in the State.Importantly, the entire industry is at a precipice.

The rising demand for high quality teas in the export and the domestic market has led to a situation of declining demand for Dooars teas, whose quality has been affected by climate-change

As per latest statistics between January and October 2015 production in West Bengal is lower at 274 million kgs compared to a year ago figure, with the gardens in Dooars accounting for a major part of the drop.

The industry is also keen to see some changes on the PLA front. The Plantation Labour Act was enacted in 1951 to ensure workers’ welfare measures which normally falls within the realms of the State.

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 1:20:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/business/Industry/Bengal-tea-industry-sees-ray-of-hope-in-minister%E2%80%99s-visit/article14017720.ece

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