They have their share of problems, yet have been contributing 29 per cent of tea produced in the state
Tea has a long trajectory of development in Assam ever since it was discovered by Robert Bruce in the state in 1823. Now Assam is the largest tea producing state in the country contributing about 55 per cent of the total production. Besides the large estates, the contribution of the small tea growers in the state has been no less significant.
Tea is the largest agro-based industry in Assam. Last year, small tea growers from the state exported around 13000 kilograms of tea to Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia which consisted of both the black and green varieties. Clearly, the graph has been rising for the past few years facilitated by a combination of many favourable factors. In the domestic market, Assam consumes approximately 30 per cent of the total tea produced by small growers. The tea consumed by the state’s consumers is mostly green tea. Next to Assam is Bengal in terms of demand from these growers in the domestic market. Tea is sold to different states like Kerala, Karnataka, Delhi and Mumbai by dealers in Bengal.
Small growers produce a range of varieties that include White, Oolong and Dhekhi made tea in gardens scattered in the eastern and the northern districts of the state, where Dibrugarh accounts for 30 per cent, Tinsukia 22 per cent, Jorhat 13 per cent, Golaghat 12 per cent and Sivasagar 11 per cent. Small growers contribute around 29 per cent of the total tea produced in Assam. However, due to the fact that most of these growers don’t have access to the financial support needed to set up their own tea factory, they sell their green leaves to bought-leaf factories owned by big companies. By the end of 2011, it was estimated that there were around 70,000 small growers in Assam.
Buoyed by the steady increase in demand, the All-Assam Small Tea Growers’ Association started an awareness campaign in 2012 among all cultivators to focus on improving quality for better prices and resource persons were engaged from the Tea Board. The programme witnessed a week long quality awareness meet across the state and sharing of experiences by the planters.
Tea cultivation on small holding was initiated in 1930s in India beyond the traditional tracts of cultivation in Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. By the 1960s and 1970s, the cultivation spread to the other tea producing states like Assam and West Bengal. In 1978, the Assam government took the initiative and encouraged the rural youths of the state to take up tea plantations in the homesteads and fallow land to improve their economic conditions. Since then, plantations in the small sector have shown a considerable expansion. Skilled manpower from the nearby plantation estates, a convenient market to sell in the tea estate factories and advantages of plantation crops over the seasonal agriculture crops were some of the factors that helped in consolidation of the sector in the state. This phenomenon is described in the popular discourse as the most remarkable people-oriented economic activity towards boosting the state’s economy and addressing the unemployment problem to an extent.
The success notwithstanding, there are many problems faced by small tea growers as revealed by the research carried out by scholars. In many areas, the unsuitable lands and marginal lands were utilized for tea cultivation which has affected the quality as well as productivity of the plantations. In many cases, production of green leaf from small tea growers is not matched with the demand of tea markets. Small growers sell their green leaf tea to big tea estates factory through intermediaries. The green leaf price varies from factory to factory and time to time within the same district.
Another important problem faced by small tea growers is the shortage of water supply to various gardens and especially in the gardens located in the hill slopes. Research has also revealed that there are wide differences in the technology used between the trained and untrained small tea growers. There are certain areas like drainage, manuring, weed and pest control where the planters are in need of training to enhance the productivity.
Researchers have also cited ecological imbalance as a consequence of the emergence of the small gardens.
The bamboo plantation is many villages has been drastically reduced as also other commercial crops like orange, pineapple and sugarcane which have been replaced by tea cultivation. The traditional farming system of the area has also suffered due to the unsystematic growth of the small tea units. The indiscriminate uses of pesticides and agrochemicals have had an adverse impact on the rivers and the riverine population.
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