Production is expected to be hit by 20-25 per cent, with drought-like conditions adding to the problems for this year’s crop.


Inews reports that a devastating Covid-19 outbreak coupled with changing climatic conditions has torn through India’s tea industry, with exports of our beloved brews expected to take a 25 per cent hit.

In 2019, India produced around 1.34 million tonnes of tea, second only to China, and exported £587m-worth of a wide variety of tea
including green tea, organic tea and high-quality speciality blends from Darjeeling and Assam.

Around 3.5 million people in India work in tea gardens, mostly in Assam, West Bengal, Tamilnadu and Karnataka, as well as other states on a smaller scale.

Assam tops the list, producing around half of India’s tea at 725,000 tonnes in 2019, with 18 per cent of its population employed in the 800 tea estates across the state.

While India’s second wave of coronavirus started to decline late last month in most of the country, there was no respite in Assam’s tea gardens, which recorded a 300 per cent spike in cases in just 10 days to 28 May.

Around 6,146 tea garden workers tested positive and 43 died during this period, with the virus sweeping through around 403 of the 800 gardens in Assam.

“There were not many infections among the workers during the first wave last year but the second wave has taken a toll on the lives and health of the workers,” Bidyananda Barkakoty, adviser at the North Eastern Tea Association (NETA), told i.

Production is expected to be hit by 20-25 per cent, with drought-like conditions adding to the problems for this year’s crop. “It has been an unusual year for the Assam tea industry,” added Mr Barkakoty, noting that the average rainfall has been down by 45 per cent. The “first flush” (harvesting season) saw a deficit of 60,000 tonnes, he said.

Those within the industry claim that the situation may be improving, with cases trending downwards in recent days and the positivity rate (percentage of tests that are positive) falling from eight per cent to five per cent. “The production is certainly hit but it would be too early to predict anything about exports,” Ranjan Paul, secretary of Tea Association of India, told i.

But unions are sceptical of this claim, saying there is very little testing. They believe workers may be concealing sickness so they
do not lose their meagre wages, with Assam now in the middle of its “second flush”, when premium tea for export is harvested.

“We cannot say that cases are really coming down because there are hardly any testing,” said Abhijit Mazumdar, a senior tea garden
union leader. “The workers who earn paltry wages often hide their symptoms in the fear of job loss.

He said workers often live in single rooms with their families, making isolation almost impossible. “The larger tea gardens have ambulances and other health facilities like Covid care centres, but what about the smaller ones located in remote areas?” he asked.

“The vaccination process has also been very slow as tea garden managers are often reluctant to give workers leave as it would be a loss for them. Tea gardens are also located far away from main cities, which makes vaccinations challenging.”

Assam’s government says that only 46,874 of its 1 million tea pickers have had a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine and just 3,604 were fully vaccinated as of 31 May.

The tea workers receive paltry wages ranging between 183 and 205 rupees (less than £2) per day, leaving them with few alternatives except to keep working and risk their lives.

“We (India) have suffered substantially in the pandemic hit-2020 and faced major loss in the international market,” said Sumon Majumder, general manager (marketing and exports) at Kolkata based HMP Group. “The loss by India was a gain for smaller countries like Kenya that captured a substantial market because of its low cost of production.

“Moreover, international buyers like UK and other countries are not placing many orders because they are also having cash crunch due to the lockdown last year.”

He said unfavourable climatic conditions were also making things difficult for Indian tea, leading to declining production and quality.

“The Indian government must come forward and provide traders relief by defraying taxes, levies, etc,” he added. “Indian sellers should also look at countries that are still untapped and can be potential markets.”

The upheaval could mean a huge change for India’s tea industry, as well as the cuppa we drink each day in Britain.

(Story source: Inews)

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