QualiTea and quality of life

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Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s inauguration of a training programme for small tea growers on Thursday, which has been christened ‘Mission Assam QualiTea’ comes at a time when the state has witnessed one of the worst man-made tragedies in recent times. The death toll following consumption of spurious liquor in tea estates in Golaghat and Jorhat has crossed the 150 mark. While many are still undergoing treatment in hospitals, media reports have indicated that many of them would suffer permanent injuries like blindness and weakness of nerves for life. Moreover, a sizeable number of children have been reportedly rendered orphans by the liquor tragedy, all from very poor sections of the society. It is encouraging that the state government is taking positive steps to improve the quality of tea in Assam, especially those teas produced by the several thousand small tea growers. India’s total tea production during 2018 was not very good, and it has been long since the country had lost the honour of being the highest tea producer of the world. The production of Assam tea too has not been very encouraging in the past few years. While the industry captains have been blaming rising cost of inputs and climate change as two major hurdles affecting increased production, the quality aspect too has suffered due to various reasons. There have been reports about haphazard use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer by a section of small tea growers too, which has been happening because of the absence of a quality control mechanism covering the thousands of such growers spread across several states. The present initiative, going by chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s statement that the small tea growers must work with dedication to produce quality tea for transforming Assam into a front ranking state and capturing the world market, is clearly directed at bringing about drastic improvement in the quality of tea. What must also be simultaneously underlined is the importance of improving the quality of life of the thousands of people involved in its production. They include not just the tea labourers engaged by the tea estates, but also the families of the several thousand small tea growers and the labourers they engage. Living conditions of many small tea growers is also not very satisfactory, with lack of safe drinking water, poor sanitation facilities, lack of knowledge about personal hygiene and cleanliness being some. One also should not remain complacent by imagining that spurious liquor like sulai are only being consumed by the semi-literate tea labourers; a sizeable rural and semi-urban population across Assam, as also a sizeable section of people in Guwahati, are in the habit of drinking such illicit and spurious liquor. The liquor tragedy in Golaghat and Jorhat is probably only the tip of the iceberg.