Discontent brewing in Kangra’s tea gardens

Covid-induced labour shortage, transport disruption and erratic rainfall have cost Himachal’s tea industry dear; the number of tea growers has come down from 5,000 to 1,100 since 2010, while the area under cultivation has declined from 4,000 hectares in the early ’80s to 2,300 hectares Kangra’s cup of tea, a unique journey Tea was brought to Kangra by William Jameson, the superintendent of the botanical gardens at Saharanpur and the NorthWest Frontier Province. Jameson planted Chinese hybrid shrubs, Camellia sinensis, in Kangra valley in 1849 and they were a success. In 1852, the local administration set up a commercial plantation at Holta near Palampur. By 1880, the Kangra tea had established itself in the world’s tea map with its unique flavour and aroma. In 50 years, Kangra’s black and green teas were travelling to Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asia. While the black tea has a sweet lingering after taste, the green tea has a delicate woody aroma. The first catastrophe struck in 1905 when an earthquake destroyed most of the plantation and the European planters left the valley. Locals who took over the abandoned estates were unable to meet the same standards of quality and productivity. Government apathy has compounded the problem. Though granted a geographical indicator in 2005, this industry has not revived. Kangra’s cup of tea, a unique journey
First flush, plucked in April, teas are often the best, as the year’s first harvest— rich in aroma, quality, flavour and value. Each additional flush produces a different flavour and aroma as the growing season for that tea plant progress season. (HT Photo)
First flush, plucked in April, teas are often the best, as the year’s first harvest— rich in aroma, quality, flavour and value. Each additional flush produces a different flavour and aroma as the growing season for that tea plant progress season. (HT Photo)
Updated on Jun 09, 2021 01:23 AM IST
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By, Dharamshala

The Covid-19 pandemic and erratic rainfall have hit the Kangra tea industry for the second consecutive year.

Once in demand in Europe, Central Asia, Australia and Afghanistan, Kangra tea is already facing a crisis due to the shrinking area under cultivation, high input cost and tough market competition.

According to the economic survey, the total area under tea in 2019-20 was 2,314.71 hectares with a production of 1,002 tonnes. The number of tea growers has come down from 5,000 to 1,100 since 2010, while the area under cultivation has declined from 4,000 hectares in the early ’80s to 2,300 hectares today.

Nearly 1,000 small tea growers of Kangra and Mandi have reported losses. In 2020, even though the produce was good, the tea growers suffered losses due to the nationwide lockdown imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19.

This year, the erratic weather had a major impact, while the state imposed a lockdown to deal with the second wave of the pandemic.

Nearly 1,000 small tea growers of Kangra and Mandi have reported losses. (HT Photo)
Nearly 1,000 small tea growers of Kangra and Mandi have reported losses. (HT Photo)

Erratic rain ruins 70% of first flush pluck

Gokul Butail, the spokesperson for the Kangra Tea Planters’ Association, said” “Erratic rainfall pattern and hailstorm destroyed the first flush of Kangra tea.

A first flush is the first round of leaf buds coming out of the tea bush in the harvest season. First flush, plucked in April, teas are often the best, as the year’s first harvest— rich in aroma, quality, flavour and value. Each additional flush produces a different flavour and aroma as the growing season for that tea plant progress season.

“At least 70% of the first flush crop tea produce, which fetches the highest price (around 600- 700 per kg) in the market was destroyed this year,” said Butail.

Temperatures were comparatively higher in winter, while rainfall, which is must for plant growth, was low. In summer, when it should be warmer, hailstorm and untimely rainfall ruined the yield.

“The estimated first flush production in Kangra would be around 200 tonnes but the production this year was only 60 tonnes,” he said.

Delayed transportation, labour shortage

The tea industry was further hit by problems in transportation due to the lockdown amid rising Covid cases in April. Though the government had given relaxation to the agriculture sector, but fear of the virus caused problems in getting transport. “This led to delay in the tea reaching the market. There was a lockdown in Kolkata and the wholesale tea market, which impacted the auction,” said Butail.

If there is delay in auction, the tea loses its moisture content, aroma and flavour, fetching a low price.

Another tea grower, Sachin Butail, said the retail market has also been hit hard due to the Covid-19 lockdown. “People are afraid of going anywhere and there has been negligible tourist footfall. The tea industry is also facing labour shortage which has slowed down the plucking that continues till October,” he said.

Sachin said most of the labour engaged in tea plucking comes from Jharkhand. “They left for home last year and not even half of them have returned,” he said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Naresh K Thakur is a staff reporter in Hindustan Times’ Himachal bureau. Based at Dharamshala, he covers Tibetan affairs, local politics and environmental issues.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2022