Focus on Assam small tea growers crucial for industry: ADB report

Guwahati: Rediscovery and reorientation of Assam’s tea garden management strategy toward small tea growers are overdue, said the Asian Development Bank.

The Bank said this in its report on Assam as India’s Gateway to ASEAN, which builds on a vision to follow an outward-looking strategy and become a $75 billion economy by 2025

“The current strategy of selling CTC tea leads to low-value output in a highly competitive, commodity-led market. Investments in debottlenecking infrastructure and leveraging the small tea growers (STGs) of Assam can develop the entry into the high value global and Indian leaf tea market,” it says.

The Bank says for the past couple of decades, the Assam tea industry is facing numerous challenges, including increased competition from new tea-producing countries, steadily declining price of tea, high cost of production, labour issues, sporadic rainfall due to climate change, lack of storage facilities, and low research and development. These issues have been exacerbated by the inability of the local supply chains to adapt to changing patterns of consumer demand.

More than half of Assam’s tea production comes from small tea growers who now number more than a lakh. The small tea growers movement in Assam came up after 150 years of the introduction of tea in the state. It was in 1978 that Soneswar Bora, who was agriculture and cooperation minister, declared that the state government would like to encourage the Assamese people to take up tea plantations in their homesteads and fallow lands at their disposal.

“Traditionally, the STGs were not part of the Tea Board database. According to discussions with industry experts, the dramatic shift post-2014 in the number of STGs is on account of the increase in outreach to connect the STG to the overall tea supply chain system. In view of this, a rediscovery and reorientation of Assam’s tea garden management strategy toward STGs are overdue,” the Bank said on the tea sector in Assam.

The first thing to be done is to organise STGs into producer groups. “The producer groups would gain economies of infrastructure while retaining ownership and uniqueness of each tea garden. A registration drive for all the STGs within the state needs to be undertaken,” it said.

It says while workers in the organised sector get all facilities and are protected by all statutory acts, the small tea growers generally work on their own plantation together with their family members and are devoid of all such facilities provided to the tea garden workers. 

The scheme talks of collectivizing the small tea growers of the North Eastern Region, formation of Self Help Groups, Farmer Producer Organisations, hand-holding them, providing training towards a good manufacturing process, and documentation in obtaining various certifications etc. A separate brand building and promotion scheme for teas from Assam and other North-Eastern regions has been envisaged.