Any discussion about the economy of Assam brings to mind its oil wells, coal fields, lush forests and rolling tea estates. Very few states are so well endowed, but Assam is faring poorly with most of its tural resources. Even its own refineries are not getting enough crude oil to refine, while its forests are getting chopped down at an alarming rate. As for tea, this declining industry is staring down the barrel. The popular perception in the State is still of a profitable tea industry, which explains the entry of a large number of small tea growers. Vast tracts of prime agricultural land have been cleared for thousands of such small tea gardens to come up. But what future awaits these gardens? The manner in which tea is produced in Assam, the uneasy magement-worker relations, as well as current trends in quality control, pricing and marketing — do not augur well for the industry. The State is paying dearly for tea garden magements not capitalising on good times earlier to build up their physical and human capital. The day may not be far off when Assam tea is relegated to a poor cousin in the family of beverages, fit to be sold only in roadside stalls, bus stands and rail stations.
In the absence of any long term strategy by the Assam government to keep pushing tea in the world market, small growers are at a loss. How can they survive in a market where ‘image and branding’ matters above everything else? In the tea auction centres in Guwahati and elsewhere in the country, the average auction price is presently Rs 132-139 per kg. As for the retail market, the three categories of premium, economic and economy tea are selling at rates ranging from Rs 190 to Rs 450 every kilo. Meanwhile Chi has put itself in a near-invincible position in the world market with its green tea, commanding retail prices from Rs 8,000 to Rs 60,000 per kg. Significantly, small tea growers in Chi are at the forefront of revolutiory changes sweeping across the industry. They are endlessly experimenting with green tea flavour, as well as mixing it with many fruits, flowers and herbs. Following their lead, a ‘tea party’ culture is growing rapidly in Chi, which in turn is fuelling the growth of ancillary enterprises like making tea crockery and building tea drinking salons from bamboo and other local materials.
Lest we think a large country like Chi is turally unbeatable in the market, it is instructive to follow how aggressively a small country like Sri Lanka is pushing its tea. Its brands like ‘Dilmah’ and ‘Basilur’ are now established as exclusive, premium quality tea which buyers are happy to savour by forking out good money. Faced with such competition, is it any surprise that the ‘Orthodox’ tea of Assam no longer has the lustre it once had? Assam tea has its unique flavours and invigorating qualities, but that needs sustained positioning as well as reinventing to suit changing tastes. But where is the concerted effort by big tea players and the State government? Even Darjeeling tea enjoys a far higher (and consequently pricier) position than Assam tea. Successive governments in Assam have taken a short-sighted view of the tea industry’s future, treating big plantation magements with kid gloves while cynically manipulating tea workers as votebanks. Apart from Dispur’s occasiol lip sympathy, small tea growers are left to fend for their own. While some disheartened growers are dumping tea leaves at throwaway rates, others are bravely exploring ways to occupy small niches by branding their own teas and assiduously cultivating client networks. They need support through special schemes and a coordited mechanism. Or else abandoned tea gardens will dot the State’s landscape in the not too distant future.