Beyond the frontiers, Assam’s identity for the pan-Indians generally are: Assam Tea, Brahmaputra and its devastating floods, Kaziranga National Park for its one-horned rhinoceros and Dr Bhupen Hazarika. In lighter vein, for local Assamese three “pani”s (water) highly influence the economic and cultural existence of the Assamese: “chahpani” (hot black tea beverage), “saajpani” (the local alcoholic brew made from rice) and “baanpani” (the floods).
The history of organized Assam’s tea industry is almost two centuries old, when in very early 19th century, Robert Bruce, a Scottish adventurer believed to have seen wild tea plants in a hill near Rangpur (now, Sivasagar), the then capital of Ahom regime. But tea plants possibly were available in the wilderness of Assam’s hill tracts from the pre-historic times. The Singpho and Khamti tribes who migrated from Northern Burma (now, Myanmar) and settled in the upper reaches of northeastern hill tracts of Assam (now in Arunachal Pradesh) knew about tea plant and used to drink that special brew made out of it. Not very long ago the habit of drinking home-made delicious brew by crushing tea leaves in a ‘dhenki’ and sun-drying was prevalent in most upper Assam villages.
Maniram Dewan, an enterprising noble of Assam, introduced Robert Bruce to his friend the Shingpho Chief Besa Gam, and arrangements were made to get a few indigenously grown tea plant saplings and seeds. But after the sudden death of Robert, his younger brother Charles Alexander Bruce met the Shingpho Chief and managed the supply. The saplings were planted in his residence and a few leaves were sent to the Botanical Garden at Calcutta for testing. Tests confirmed that the leaves belong to the ‘Camellia sinensis’ family, the scientific name of tea plants, with distinctive characteristics, different than the Chinese variety. China was the sole suppliers of tea to the world then. Subsequently Assam tea was named as “Assamica” making it an exclusive property and pride of Assam.
Under the aegis of British colonialists, the agro-based industry of tea plantation and manufacture started growing rapidly consuming vast tracts of land. In 1839 CE, a joint-stock company in the name and style of ‘Assam Company’ was formed for organized tea plantation and manufacture with head quarters at Nazira. By 1852 CE, some 4000 acres of land was already under tea plantation and by 1872 there were some 300 tea gardens in Assam valley, Cachar and Sylhet (now in Bangladesh). Assam’s low altitude high-land valleys, rich loamy soil condition, ample rainfall and humid climate were ideal for high quality tea. A few local entrepreneurs, led by the inimitable Maniram Dewan, also joined the bandwagon by establishing tea gardens either in government land- grants or in their own landed property. Maniram Dewan established two profitable tea gardens, Chinnamara and Shinglo, distinguishing him as the first Indian organized tea entrepreneur. In 1838 CE, Assam tea was sold in the London Tea Auction challenging the sole dominance of China for the first time. The tea industry actually fuelled the jump-start from the hitherto feudal economy of Assam to the era of modern market-based economy.
Assam tea slowly became the shinning feather in the crown of Assam.
The tea industry propelled Assam’s nascent economy and infrastructure to great heights. The British laid a huge rail network and organized river transport to carry out Assam tea to the outside world, mainly through Chittagong port. It also created huge employments for tea workers imported from the eastern tribal regions of the country and also generated large scale employment for the educated natives, mostly for clerical jobs. Many migrated business families of Rajasthan established shops for their flourishing supply and money lending business even in the remotest locations of tea garden areas. Thus a ‘tea-culture’ was ushered in, especially in upper and northern Assam.
As per State Government records, Assam has some 800 plus registered tea gardens with manufacturing facilities, employing four lakh plus permanent and about 3.50 lakh contractual workers. About three decades ago, new economic entities of small tea growers, engaged only plantation of green leaves as cash crops in small areas also joined the bandwagon booming tea production substantially. As per records, there are some 72,000 small tea growers in the State employing three lakh-plus workmen, mostly of casual nature. Small tea growers’ contribution of just 20 percent in 2003, jettisoned to 48 percent in 2018. This boomed tea production in the country by 52 percent just in fifteen years outstripping tea consumption and leading to stagnant selling prices. Today, India is the second largest tea producer in the world, next only to China, of which Assam tea’s contribution is 52 percent.
But today, the pride of Assam is in doldrums. Unprecedented rise in tea production and increase in cost of production due to increased input costs and wages without corresponding increase in export or price are the root causes. Tea is a global commodity and its export and pricing are regulated by the world market. Ambitious players like, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, a few African countries are pausing great threats. At the government level, urgent policy revisions are necessary. Receipt of GI (Geographical Indication) tag for Assam orthodox tea is a welcome development. Government of India must be persuaded to declare tea as the National Drink. At the industry level, a paradigm shift in approach needed. Creating a world-class brand equity for Assam tea, adopting effective advertizing and marketing strategies, modernization of plantation, manufacturing and management, digitalization, value addition, resorting to high value organic ways for the export market and so on can only save the century old pride of Assam. The tea industry constitutes a major chunk of the Assam economy. Any devastation to it would create a tremendous pressure on the already fragile economy and employment scenario. Let all concerned pull up their shocks before the situation turn into a ticking bomb.
(The author of the column is a former Vice President of Reliance Defence & Engineering Ltd., Gujarat. Presently, he is a freelance writer, management consultant and professional trainer. He can be reached at email@example.com.)