The small tea growers in Assam are presently a worried lot. They are not getting a fair price for their produce despite a price sharing formula — because prices are fluctuating wildly. The markets are depressed and prices far lower than what it costs them to produce raw tea leaves. They are seeking easier access to fince, lesser red tape in permits and licenses, and end to delay in providing subsidies already announced by the government. To tide over uncertainties in cultivation, they want crop insurance cover. As tea is being marketed more as a health drink worldwide, consumers want it to be organically grown. Mindful of this trend, small tea growers want the Central government to make available certified organic manure and pesticides. These and several other demands were sent in a petition to Union Commerce and Industries Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently by small tea growers from Assam and their counterparts from West Bengal, Tamil du, Kerala, Tripura, Aruchal Pradesh and Mizoram. The Confederation of Indian Small Tea Grower Associations (CISTA) pointed out that in last fiscal 2015-16, small growers having on average less than 2 acres of land, contributed 33.85 percent of the country’s total tea production. In terms of quantity, the small growers contributed 417.42 million kgs of the country’s total tea production of 1233.14 million kgs. This is a huge leap in less than two decades, considering that in 1999, small growers’ contribution was only 1.16 percent. These figures account only for the tea supplied by small growers to bought leaf factories; if their supplies to factories of large tea estates are also factored in, their contribution would be even higher. Since small growers have no processing facilities of their own, they are dependent on bought leaf factories which buy their green leaf, process it and then sell it to big companies in the organized sector. But small growers complain they are at the mercy of big players, with the Central government as well as the Tea Board more geared to look after the heavyweights.
Last year, the Tea Board made it mandatory for bought leaf factories to sell not less than 70 percent of the processed tea bought from small growers — through public auction. It was expected the move would give small growers a better deal by helping monitor the price of end-produce. But the system is still not transparent enough. Their grouse is that district committees monitoring green leaf prices are not helping their cause. In September this year, irate small growers in Golaghat dumped truckloads of raw tea leaves in front of the deputy commissioner’s office to highlight their plight. While big tea companies are known to be disinterested in buying raw leaves from small growers (supposedly because of their low quality), the bought leaf factories too were cutting down purchases. Why? Because of erratic gas supply, for which they were curtailing production. What came through clearly in that incident was the utter vulnerability of small growers, forced to accept low prices for their perishable produce. In Golaghat, while it was costing small growers Rs 14.60 to produce a kilogram of raw tea leaves, they were getting prices of Rs 13 or lower, despite the Tea Board fixing the price at Rs 18.64. Their counterparts in districts like Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sonitpur were getting far lower prices. However, the small growers association had pointed out that there was no such fluctuation in tea auction prices; since only half the tea produced goes to auction, small growers suspected being short-changed by the lack of transparency in actual tea pricing. When over 15 lakh people in Assam are directly or indirectly associated with tea cultivation on small scale, ensuring them some degree of price security and protection from middlemen should concern the State government more. Small tea growers need all support to face challenges in a rapidly changing market, where they need to be highly savvy and competitive as well as keep production costs to the minimum.