Planters for expert panel to study problems

CHENNAI FEB. 15. With the plantation sector, especially the tea industry, unable to pull out of the continuing, deep recession, there is a growing demand from planters, small farmers and the labour for the Central and State governments to `do something'.

For some strange reason, the Centre has adopted, what the planters call `stoic indifference' to this sector. The State government has shown an on-off kind of interest, with the latest initiative focused on setting up a new auction centre in the Nilgiris itself. The reason — Tamil Nadu suspects that the tea cartel is deliberately suppressing the prices and making all the profits as the low prices have not translated into any reduction in the market price of packaged tea.

Whether the setting up of an auction centre can solve the problem and will break the resolve of the cartel to still keep the prices down remain a question mark. But officials of the State Government believe that `market intervention', coupled with a local auction centre, could certainly help boost tea prices. The government wants to step up its purchase and launch `Ooty tea' in the north at competitive prices. This, they insist, could certainly lift the floor price.

But the planters and the industry as a whole are looking for a more concerted effort to solve the problems and bring the sector back to its `healthy days'. They realise that this means a compromise and a lot of restructuring. Given the deep crisis the tea industry has got into, there appears to be no easy way out of the mess.

As a preliminary step, planters and well-meaning residents of the Nilgiris have suggested the setting up of an expert committee to study the seriousness of the problem and come up with a comprehensive report that can suggest short term remedies as well as long term solutions.

An industry spokesman explains that this committee should ideally consist of a non-official chairman, representatives from Indcoserve, United Planters Association of South India (UPASI), Planters Association of Tamil Nadu, Bought leaf tea factories and the Small Growers Association, besides a local government official a Secretary from the Tea Board.

He says that the main problem has been the proliferation of small and medium tea growers. "There has been all round encouragement and growth of tea cultivation without assessing the market demand. We are left with a glut in the domestic market and on top of it a limited import from Sri Lanka too".

This is not the first crisis that the plantations are facing, nor will it be the last. But unfortunately, the small farmers who were raising other cash crops have also switched to tea and are finding it difficult to go back to other crops.

It has been suggested that the expert committee should perhaps identify areas and come up with a scheme to encourage withdrawal from tea and focus other crops.

From the labour's viewpoint, sources say that Nilgiris has shown the way by signing an agreement with estate managements for a ten per cent reduction in wages.

The plantation workers are also at their wit's end not knowing what to do — they cannot even think of an alternative employment. All this needs to be studied in detail to come up with immediate and long term solutions before the situation turns worse.

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