Trouble is brewing in India’s tea industry, stirred by the Central government's job guarantee scheme and the return of plantation workers to their homes.
Hordes of workers are abandoning the tea gardens of Assam, West Bengal and the southern states, lured by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), under which the Central government promises at least 100 days of work annually to every rural household."Tea gardens are otherwise at the losing end (of NREGS)," said DP Maheshwari, chairman of Tea Association of India, an industry lobby.
"Neither can we replace absentee workers with new ones nor can we stop providing errant workers and their families with food grain, housing, fuel, medicines, education and other fringe benefits."
Assam, which accounts for 51% of India's and 13% of the global tea production, employs a million permanent and seasonal tea workers, while another million are involved indirectly. The annual turnover of Assam's tea industry is R5,000 crore.
The industry is considering measures such as linking wages and perks with attendance to rein in workers, Maheshwari said, adding that NREGS work should not be offered during the plucking season on tea gardens.
But that's not his only worry. A large number of workers are also returning to their native states-mostly in southeast and central India, from where their ancestors had been taken to the tea plantations of Assam and West Bengal by the British two centuries ago.
More than 300 workers and their families, for instance, quit a couple of estates in eastern Assam's Golaghan district to return to Telangana.
"Shortage of labour has added to absenteeism to become a major challenge for the tea industry," said North Eastern Tea Association chairman Bidyananda Barkakoty.