Kangra’s cup of tea is losing its aroma
It’s a loss that tea lovers in India will rue the most. Kangra tea, rated much higher than its Darjeeling cousin by the connoisseurs, is on its last leg in the hill state.
The tea, which even marked its presence at the White House after Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented it to US president Donald Trump, has been suffering an existential crisis. In the past 25 years, the area under Kangra tea in Palampur and Dharamshala has fallen drastically with several marginal cultivators selling off their lands due to the sky-rocketing rates of real estate in this tourist destination. The administration too has been apathetic towards this 160-year-old heritage.
Decreasing area under cultivation
For the last 25 years, the area under Kangra tea, which retails at prices 40%-50% higher than even the Darjeeling tea, has reduced significantly. As per the data obtained from Tea Board of India, though the area under cultivation is 2,300 acres on papers, only 1,150 acres of tea gardens are being properly maintained on ground.
An official of the tea board in Palampur said 300 to 400 acres of gardens were lying abandoned, while more than 600 acres were being neglected by the owners. “This neglect decreases the production,” he says.
At present, five factories in Dharamshala, Palampur, Bhwarna, Baijnath and Bir produce 10 to 11 lakh kg of tea every year.
“If the existing gardens are maintained well, the production can easily surpass the 20-lakh kg mark,” tea promotion officer Piar Chand says.
Manujh Mandotra, a tea estate owner in Bhwarna near Palampur, says if the production increases, more skilled labourers will be required, which will create employment opportunities in the state.
Sale of land and shortage of labourers
Owners of tea gardens blame the high cost of land in the state, especially around the tea gardens, for the fall in plantation.
One kanal of land in Thakurdwara near Palampur costs around Rs 30 lakh. In Palampur town, the hub of tea gardens, a kanal can fetch as much as 35 lakh. The more commercialised Dharamshala is much costlier.
Skilled labour too is in short supply. “The number of such workers is negligible here. We have to source labour from Siliguri in West Bengal,” said Mandotra.
He adds that small factory owners are unable to pay the provident fund, and the work is seasonal. “Many labourers have shifted to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme,” he said.
What the law says
As per guidelines issued by the Tea Board, the employers have to pay a daily wage of ₹200 and a monthly provident fund to the labourers. The big tea cultivators with more than 10 acres of land, follow the norms but the small growers and factory owners are not able comply with the rules.
“When we had not mechanised our estate, we had limited earnings, and the labour could not be paid well,” said a tea cultivator, requesting anonymity.
In the past, the Himachal Pradesh government did take some steps to protect the tea legacy, but it focused only on large plantations. In 1997, for instance, the state government passed a law prohibiting the sale of tea estates, which were bigger than 30 acres in 1972.
In 1972, the government had ruled that no one in the state could own more than 30 acres of land. But horticulturists and tea planters were exempted from this ceiling. The 1997 law was brought in to ensure that such farms were not sold. Today, most of the tea estates being sold belong to small farmers.
No help from govt
In the absence of any support from the government, the marginal farmers have taken to selling off their tea estates. “For every 1 kanal, a farmer earns around ₹8,000 per year. This is not enough to sustain them,” says Pooran Chand, a marginal farmer in Tanda village near Palampur.
Even the big tea estate owners complain about the inefficiency of the Tea Board and Himachal Pradesh government. “The state government has no policy for the promotion or expansion of Kangra tea,” groused Amarpal Singh, manager of the Dharmsala tea factory.
“The board provides subsidies but they are virtually of no use,” added Amrapal. The board gives a subsidy of 25% on the purchase of new equipment such as dryer, pruner etc, but it is given to only those cultivators who have more than 20 acres of land under plantation, or export more than 10% of their produce. As of now, the export from Kangra tea stands at 7%-8% of its production.
The cultivators complained that the board has also not been promoting Kangra tea in the international market. “Since our production is quite less, the board overlooks the promotion of Kangra Tea,” said Amarpal.
The silver lining
Although the cultivation area has decreased over the years, there has been a surge in the production of tea in the valley in the recent years.
The cultivators owe it to the tourism boom in the area coupled with the demand for green tea.
“We are planning to expand our facility at Dharamshala. At present it produces 1.5 lakh kg tea, but we are trying to double the production,” said Amarpal.
The cultivators have also started mechanisation. “The labour cost has reduced and efficiency increased after we bought new pruners and collector machines,” said Mandotra. His garden is the first mechanised garden of the state.
The push was also provided by the UPA government. The former commerce and industries minister, Anand Sharma, had announced a package of ₹5 crore for the promotion of tea in the state. A tea fair in Palampur was also organised during his tenure.
Now the Tea Board is trying to increase the area under Kangra tea, and has started operations in Mandi and Chamba district.