Uttarakhand tea, which was known for its flavour, aroma and colour during the British time, is today nowhere in the brand race, thanks to poor marketing strategy and consequent weak domestic push.
Experts say this leaves the local producers with no option but to sell the tea as a brandless entity in the Kolkata auction market. The brand giants lift it in bulk, package it as their product and the country enjoys the flavour without giving credit to its real producers, they say.
“This is agonising yet it shows the potential of the local tea to rise as a brand name,” says retired IAS officer and tea expert SS Pangti.
Earlier in 2004, the ND Tewari government had set up Uttarakhand Tea Development Board (UTDB) to establish the local tea as a brand. But, due to poor marketing strategy, the Uttarakhand tea is still suffering from identity crisis.
According to officials, the total area under tea cultivation is 878 hectares. The board aims to add another 155 hectares in the coming year, which it thinks will help give boost to quality production.
After a decade, the board now operates seven tea gardens in Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Nainital, Bageshwar and Champawat districts. But, it has yet to take real steps towards giving local tea a brand name.
The British flavour
The British had introduced tea cultivation in 1835 in the slopes of Kausani, Dehradun and Berinag. However, old records show that picturesque Kausani was the most favoured tea cultivation spot for the British as the tea produced here was considered to be the finest in taste, aroma and colour.
Later, UTDB leased out its factory in Kausani to a private company Uttaranchal Tea Company , so that it could process tea and sell accordingly. But, now the company has closed production and marketing as it is facing acute labour shortage.
It is no different in Dehradun where tea cultivation has shrunk. From nearly 3.5 lakh kgs till a decade ago to 20,000 kgs at present. This is majorly due to gaps in marketing linkages, lack of skilled labourers and increasing production cost.
However, the UTDB officials are still hopeful. Board director KC Joshi says the Uttarakhand organic tea has been evaluated by tea tasters in Kolkata as comparable to Darjeeling quality tea. Recently, commerce and industry minister Nirmala Sitaraman had commented in Rajya Sabha that the tea produced in Uttarakhand was reported to be of good quality and indirectly hinted that it needed a real brand promotion to help it claim its right place in the domestic market.
According to officials, the board has converted 218 hectares of plantation into organic tea in Ghorakhal (Nainital), Champawat (Champawat) and Nauti (Chamoli) to give boost to its production.
“We plan to earn Rs. 2.5 crore by the end of this season. The board has tied up with Kolkata tea auction market. We hope to sell 42,000 kg tea this year.”
Interestingly last year, the board sold 30,000 kg tea in the Kolkata market. The Uttarakhand tea usually fetches Rs. 300-Rs 350 per kg, which is significantly less.
The board develops tea gardens leased out by the local farmers. It takes seven years to develop a tea garden and total 12 years for farmers to get returns. Moreover tea making takes lots of efforts. About 5 kgs of tea leaves needed to make a kilogram tea, board officials say.
“Perhaps this is the reason that locals are showing less interest. Moreover cost for skilled labour has skyrocketed,” says Bhanu Pande, manager at Kausani tea garden.
Till late 80s, Berinag tea was much sought after because of its unique light taste and colour, says Pangti. “But, since 90s I have not found this brand.” More than Indians, Uttarakhand tea has many lovers in the western countries.
Presently, the local tea is also sold through retail counters at tea gardens. The board officials say roughly 50% of sale is made through the retail chain for around Rs. 650 for a kilogram.
Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam managing director Deepak Rawat says there is need to upgrade UTDB factories to get local tea a marketing and production push.