Discussion with Shri Bijoy Gopal Chakraborty, President, CISTA
Q. What are the biggest issues faced by Small Tea Growers (STGs) in India?
A. The biggest issue is price sustainability. The cropping season is 8-9 months, but for the past many years, STGs have been able to sell their crop for more than the production price for only 2-3 months. In the remaining months, they were forced to sell it below the cost of production. STGs don’t have the ability to fix the price. The factory owners control the price instead. This highly perishable produce is borne out of his labour and sweat, but he has no control over the price.
STGs have the ability to produce low cost, high quality, export friendly produce. The export amount of Indian tea is stagnant right now. But if you look at Kenya and Sri Lanka, you will see that STGs dominate the tea market. The government of India and CISTA are now trying to make STGs the key manufacturer of tea. In the near future, within ten years, they will be the main force of exports for the Indian tea market.
Q. How do Trade Unions see the problems of workers engaged in STGs?
A. In 90% cases, STGs themselves engage in tea cultivation. So they are the owner, worker, manager, and handle everything in their plantation. In 10% cases, they hire workers from nearby villages. These workers are treated as casual workers. In some cases, these workers are permanent, and they are paid estate prices.
The workers engaged in this sector have total independence; they are totally free to form unions. In West Bengal, the workers of STGs are already under the purview of trade unions. The workers in Assam and West Bengal are paid the same wages as plantation workers.
The issue of poor living condition does not really apply here, because in 90% cases, STGs themselves work to cultivate their crop. But in those few cases where they need workers, they hire them from nearby villages, they do not migrate them from elsewhere. They are not traditional workers. These workers get every government scheme that the villagers enjoy- like ration, BPL, PMAY, etc.
Q. How is climate change affecting the growth of tea in India?
A. This is a big problem for STGs. Tea is a weather-based industry. Tea is fully dependent on the weather. Scattered/uneven rainfall, less rain, hot temperatures, etc. have an adverse effect on tea. As a result, our cost of production is rising, but the tea prices are not rising, which is a large problem.
We are trying to mitigate the situation by environmental friendly cultivation in tea gardens, by not using irrigation during dry periods, planting drought-resistant tea bushes, measures that we hope will mitigate the situation. We are also trying to educate tea growers by providing training, workshops, and symposiums- to groom them as smart tea cultivators.
Q. What is the relevance of international tea day to you, and do you have a message for ITD 2018?
A. ITD is a symbol of rights and demands of STGs. Government of India should announce tea as a national drink, and should celebrate this drink on ITD. Further, domestic consumption is our asset. We want every Indian to drink tea. Our demand to the government is to increase tea drinkers in our country. They should announce and recognise international tea day.
Our message this year is that we want the government to declare a livelihood price of green tea leaf.