The mountains of the Nilgiris are always green – for, the people say, the tea plantations of the Nilgiris keep it green. The lives of people in the Nilgiris are inextricably intertwined with tea.
There are more than 65,000 small tea-growers in the district. The Tea Board of India defines small tea-grower as one who owns 10.15 hectares (ha) of tea plantation. However, most small growers have only one or two acres of land.
India is a major tea exporting nation and a major contribution comes from Tamil Nadu, particularly the Nilgiris. As of 2016, approximately 1.70 lakh ha was under tea cultivation in Tamil Nadu. Of this, 90,000 ha is in the Nilgiris from where around 35 million kg of tea produced annually.
The cash crop was introduced to the district by the British in the early 19th century. Since the 1930s, there has been a constant increase in the area under tea cultivation in the district. It was steady well through the 80s and 90s. But by the end of the 90s, the prices of the Nilgiris tea started to decline due to competition from the North-East. It was a time of production surplus as many with small land holdings turned to tea to make a quick buck.
When the market had more competitors, the quality of tea too dropped. Due to this, the produce from the North-East got higher prices. The district was then producing more plain tea due to poor technology infusion and faulty agricultural practices like using knives to pluck leaves.
At the time, green leaves fetched a lower price. But, the processed dust, which traders called ‘made tea’ or ‘black tea,’ got a fair price. This caused distress in the growers.
Another reason for the price fall of Nilgiri tea, traders said, was its association with the then USSR. Russians then liked Nilgiris tea for its strong flavour, dark colour, and aroma. The USSR imported tea from the district. But when the Soviet Union disintegrated, the demand came down. The factories which initially exported quality tea had by then become ‘price sensitive.’ Due to this, the Nilgiris tea was no longer in a position to compete with emerging contenders like Kenya, China, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. Interestingly, tea farm labourers were taken to then Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to create tea plantations.
Small tea-growers pluck leaves from plantations and sell it to ‘sheds,’ where the dealers weigh the leaves and make payments. The payments vary from dealer to dealer. From these sheds, the leaves are taken to the nearby private or cooperative factories. A kg of tea powder would need five kg of green tea leaves. The tea powder, after branding, is auctioned by factories between ₹150 and ₹200. But small tea-growers get around ₹10 to ₹15 for one kg of green tea leaves.
To ensure fair praices for small tea-growers, the Tamil Nadu government set up the industrial cooperative factories or Indco factories in 1962 in Kundah. Currently, there are 17 such factories in the district.
Small tea-growers believed that these Indco factories would help them get better prices. But the purpose was defeated when Indco factories found it difficult to sustain as private companies offered marginally higher prices to growers.
Tea-growers were not mandated to sell their produce to Indco factories. So, they went for the higher prices offered by the private ones. Over a period, Indco factories started making losses.
To bring in a uniform price structure, the Tea Board introduced a price-sharing formula. The prices for green tea leaves are fixed by the Tea Board. A board headed by the district collector announces the price each every month. But the private and cooperative factories usually fail to provide the prices as per the recommendations.
Tea-growers say the prices announced each month do not even make for their sustenance. The price fluctuations also make them weary. Hence, the growers have been seeking a minimum support price (MSP) for green tea leaves. The MSP could be between Rs30 and Rs40 per kg of green tea leaves, they say.
Tea being a central subject, politicians who are contesting the Lok Sabha elections rake up the issue during poll time. Industry observers said none of the MPs had actually fought hard to bring in MSP for tea. Above all, the Nilgiri tea industry has been swamped in losses for the past two years.
The DMK established the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (TANTEA) in 1968 and the AIADMK introduced the ‘Ooty Tea’ brand through the public distribution system in 2006. But, the people of Nilgiris seek MSP as a long-term measure to alleviate their woes.
Recently, the tea-growers and allied associations in the district staged demonstrations raising this demand. Subsequently, all major political parties like the DMK, the AIADMK and the AMMK have taken up this issues in poll rallies. As it stands, tea could brew major trouble for all political parties if they ignore the pleas of the growers.