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India tries to brew new cup of tea

The slumping Indian tea industry is making a bold bid for the future - by uprooting its storied past.

Labourers pick the tea at the Belgachi tea garden in Naxalbari, West Bengal.
Labourers pick the tea at the Belgachi tea garden in Naxalbari, West Bengal.

KOLKATA // The slumping Indian tea industry is making a bold bid for the future - by uprooting its storied past. To compete with younger rivals both within and outside India, some of the country's biggest growers are tearing up gardens more than a century old and replacing them with new plants. The cost of such a massive transformation, and the years required for new tea to grow, would normally amount to agricultural suicide.

But keen to prop up one of the country's biggest industries, the government has stepped in this summer with a raft of loans and subsidies that would absorb up to three-quarters of the cost. "Almost 40 per cent of the bushes are more than 50 years in age," said Basudeb Banerjee, the chairman of the Indian Tea Board, the government agency that regulates the country's tea industry. "Normally, a tea bush's productive life cycle is between five and 50 years.

"The solution is uprooting and replanting, which is something we are doing now." Without an inch of land left to cultivate, growers have been wringing tea from the same plots established by the British Raj a century ago. As a result, yields have become progressively smaller, with declining quality. Compared with robust crops in Kenya and Sri Lanka, only a few decades old, and much younger plantations in Nepal, India is antique.

"It is a huge and expensive process," said Subrata Dasgupta, the chief executive officer of the Grob Tea Co, which produces about four million kilograms of tea annually from gardens in Assam. "And the moment you uproot the old trees, there will be a reduction in crop yields." Crops that are de-planted are effectively dormant for two years, while the new plants mature. "But then we will have the advantage of a young tea at a better quality," Mr Dasgupta said.

There remains, however, a host of other challenges unique to Indian tea growers - most notably the industry's own social conscience. "The social cost is hanging very heavily on us," Mr Dasgupta said. Strict legislation ensures Indian tea labourers are employed for life, with jobs guaranteed for future generations. Education and health costs are also heavily subsidised by employers, along with the cost of rice.

While it costs Dh0.94 or Dh1.03 at current market, a kilogram of rice is only Dh0.04 for labourers - an arrangement that takes an ever deeper bite out of operating costs amid vaulting global grain prices. "We cannot match the Kenyans or the Sri Lankans," Mr Dasgupta said. "They walk from the village, do their work, collect their pay and go back. "It's not that we don't want to give. But we need a level playing field."

India's tea industry may be too steeped in tradition to change readily. Many tea gardens were established long before the country declared independence in 1947. To lure workers, the British offered a host of incentives, creating tea gardens much like distinct villages. Since independence, the Indian government has not only enshrined those practices, but built upon them with such legislation as the Plantation Labour Act of 1951.

"Obligation starts from when the female worker conceives right up to the funeral pyre," Mr Dasgupta said. And regulators are unflinching in enforcing employee rights, literally from womb to tomb. "If you fall behind, the government will come down heavily," Mr Dasgupta said. Ultimately, the "social cost" of tea is between Dh0.69 and Dh0.94 per kilogram, a significant margin of wholesale prices, which hover at about Dh9.85 to Dh10.30 per kilogram.

While the labourers, through costly shutdowns and political agitation, have long held that owners are shirking their responsibilities to increase profits, there is little doubt the industry is feeling the pinch. But the government may finally be listening. Although Mr Banerjee is hesitant to "jump the gun" on an upcoming announcement, he cites two government commissions in the past five years that have looked into sharing those social costs.

"We are moving in that direction," he said. "Something is likely to be announced soon. There is a positive development in this direction." The government is also offering incentives, encouraging growers to move away from its traditional black tea crop - crush, tear and curl, or CTC tea - and into the growing market for orthodox tea. That strain, popular in eastern Europe, is processed and packaged so differently that growers have long held it to be a risky proposition.

"It is more labour intensive," said Monojit Das Gupta, the secretary general of the Indian Tea Association, an umbrella group for the country's tea growers. In addition, specialised equipment is required at the processing factory, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a grower to switch back to CTC. But with demand burgeoning in Russia - and Indian growers keen to exploit the market - many seem ready to take that chance and make the needed investments.

"There's still a slice of the pie for orthodox tea," Mr Das Gupta said. "And it's a growing slice of the pie, largely led by the recovery of the markets and consumerism in Russia." A traditional consumer of orthodox tea, Russia developed a taste for cheaper CTC in the 1990s, when its buying power was low. "Russia, as it improves, is also seeing a huge resurgence in purchasing power," Mr Das Gupta said.

"And they're going back to the high-value orthodox drinking that they were used to in the 1970s. "India, unfortunately, does not have the necessary wherewithal to export orthodox, having burnt its production boat, in a manner of speaking, by jumping on the CTC bandwagon. "So you need a correction there." The industry is also embracing the skyrocketing international demand for organic tea. But the gestation period for such tea is considerably longer. Whereas an estate could produce 2,000kg of standard tea in a single harvest, an organic grower would produce 800kg on the same amount of land.

And these days, there is precious little room for India to slow down, with tea producers in Sri Lanka and Kenya eager to fill in the gap. @Email:ccotroneo@thenational.ae