Growers worldwide adhere to the Tocklai Tea Research Institute’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards. The standards, based on decades of research and development, date to the early 1900s, with frequent updates. The latest update, titled TRA-Tocklai GAP-GMP Standard, will be available January 2023. The revisions are necessary to help growers and manufacturers improve soils, protect natural ecosystems, encourage diversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and establish a more climate-resilient tea industry, according to TRA. The new standards closely align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
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New Tea Policy Emphasizes Quality Evaluation
India is seeking ways to improve tea quality. In January, the Tea Research Association (TRA) will implement a unified agricultural standard for tea fields and factories. Introduced in September, the revised standards align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, explains Joydeep Phukan TRA’s Principal Officer and Secretary. He said that India’s tea sector is experiencing environmental and social changes that impact the livelihood of 10 million people, including 1.2 directly employed in the regulated tea gardens (RTG). Phukan has managed the research institute for the past 16 years. Before that, he was Assistant Secretary of the Indian Tea Association and Asst. Secretary at the Guwahati Tea Auction Center. He graduated with a degree in History and has a master’s in Management studies.
Dan Bolton: Will you share some details about TRA’s new ag standards?
Joydeep Phukan: Certainly. Tocklai is in its 111th year of non-stop operations. Over the years, we have come out with many different agricultural and manufacturing advisories, which have become the standard for the tea industry in India, and elsewhere.
It’s two-way traffic. We learn from the practical problems faced by the industry in the field through our vast advisory network spread out in nine Indian states, our scientists work on that, and then we come out with solutions to the industry. These advisories are documented in the TRA Field Management Book, TRA Planters Handbook, and the Tea Encyclopaedia of TRA.
Since the advisories were spread out and extensive, we considered summarizing them into a few chapters to create a Bible for the industry. We began by collating the pillars of our advisories and condensed them into seven chapters aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals covering 2, 4, 13, and 15 of the SDGs
Tocklai’s Good Agricultural Practices GAP and GMP are based on hardcore research on tea done by our scientists over the last 111 years. We added a few more chapters primarily to address the industry’s sustainability issues.
GAP is a dynamic document; as we go ahead, we will add on things and discard what is no longer beneficial. We are doing it through a consultative process with the industry. A standards committee within our organization reviews our standards from time to time.
Dan: How do these standards differ from third-party certification by organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance, which introduced a new sustainable ag standard in June 2020?
Joydeep: The main difference between our standards and those developed by third-party certifiers is that our standards are backed by scientific research carried out by our scientists. There is scientific evidence for every practical recommendation that works well in the tea industry.
Sustainability has been a buzzword for the last 25 years. When you look at the Indian tea industry, you see that we at TRA Tocklai have been researching and publishing advisories to make tea more sustainable for more than a hundred years.
Third-party certifiers bring in many things which are not based on their own work and or scientifically backed. Many certifications use a fit-all model where tea is put in the same basket as other commodities.
Initially, we are concentrating on the TRA GAP GMP standards for the regulated sector in India, but gradually we will include advisories specific to small growers so that there is one standard for the industry. Assam’s Government has mandated TRA Tocklai to provide R&D support to more than 200,000 smallholders in Assam.
Dan: When farms and factories adhere to these standards, are they recognized for their effort? Do they receive a certificate attesting to the fact they adhere to TRA’s best practices?
Joydeep: Yes. Our advisory network is spread out across Northeast India. They visit every TRA member’s gardens twice a year. They have to review each aspect of their operations against these standards. Once they are fulfilled, the gardens will be certified annually and receive a certificate for adherence to the adoption of best practices. There is no additional cost for the TRA members.
Member estates of TRA comprise almost 90% of the organized sector in North India, covering nine Indian states in East and Northeast India.
Dan: After inspections are completed, do growers and manufacturers receive a report indicating what they’ve achieved and what improvements to focus on?
Joydeep: Yes. They will receive a report indicating how they have fared vis-à-vis the standards. If there are shortcomings, we will help them improve the estate’s compliance with the standards. Most of our members implement the TRA recommendations, and some go beyond, by implementing new ideas. We also plan to share the best practices followed by certain estates/companies within the code if the concerned company agrees to share the same.
Dan: Gardens that conform to various standards may tick the boxes and demonstrate lowered emissions, but standards alone do not ensure better tasting tea. Will you discuss the importance of teaching growers how to improve the quality of their pluck and the fundamentals of manufacturing good tea?
Joydeep: That’s a very good question. It is not enough to lay standards and certify them on paper. We must walk the talk to teach our members better plucking and manufacturing. Although the perception of quality differs, the basic standards of plucking and manufacturing must be maintained. At TRA we have organized hundreds of onsite workshops for small tea growers on good plucking standards. Parallelly, we are aggressively organizing cold weather and early weather workshops for all our member estates on the care they should take for better plucking standards.
TRA has a dedicated tea manufacturing advisory service. The TMAS team which consists of a biochemist, a tea taster, and a tea technologist will hand-hold tea makers in tea factories and train them on quality manufacturing. Apart from our model tea factory at Tocklai, we are coming up with another model tea factory at Nagrakata in Dooars for gardens to experiment with quality tea manufacturing. We are also considering training estates on Orthodox tea making which should see good demand amongst our industry.
Soil plays a significant role in long-term sustainability, and the method of regenerative agriculture developed by TRA will go a long way in addressing soil health issues at a much lower cost.
Dan: Truly sustainable production is profitable, which, due to today’s costs, demands the additional revenue generated by value-added tea, right? Will you talk about how India can add value to generate more revenue?
Joydeep: Tea is a commercial business for everyone in the organized sector, including the small grower. To produce truly sustainable tea, you must be economically sustainable. Ultimately if the venture is not commercially sound, no one will invest the money to make a plantation sustainable.
Indian tea is sold mainly as a commodity; accordingly, as each commodity has its own cycles, it also has its ups and downs. It’s high time tea producers see merit in their produce and market directly as a brand. Today we have many channels to sell our products and many consumers. The pandemic was a blessing in disguise, and many tea companies tried out their own selling and distribution platforms. We need to scale this up fast to have visibility across the digital platform.
However, with all efforts, if we can’t increase tea consumption, these measures will not bear fruit. Attracting millennials and GenZ to drink more tea is crucial. The tea industry needs to have a well-thought-out plan and execute it meticulously to attract them.
Interestingly, the young generation, whom we target to drink more tea, are conscious of the environment and like to experiment. They have a strong digital footprint. We from the industry need to act together to position our product with the right message. The young generation surely will pick up the threads and make tea their preferred drink. If the new generation feels for a cause or a product, money is not an issue for them. So that’s how we can get our value from the tea.
Agrotechnology developed by Tocklai is primarily based on GAP principles and implemented through a strong network that provides advisory services. The network covers all of Northeastern India. One area of research is optimizing process parameters for black tea processing. ECM (Environmentally Controlled Manufacturing) and Model tea manufacturing enable tea processors to achieve ECM objectives. Fertilizers are checked for the presence of hazardous substances before application, and recommended pesticides are sprayed on tea bushes to ensure that no pesticide exceeds the permissible limit of MRL (maximum residue levels). Meeting the regulatory requirements in domestic as well as global markets under Sanitation and Phytosanitation (SPS) measures under WTO are one of the challenges to be dealt with appropriately in the coming years. TRA research efforts need to be continuously focused on ensuring quality at the farm gate. Research data is regularly updated to help develop quality standards for conformance.
Assam’s Proposed Tea Policy
Assam’s chief minister has proposed financing several activities to further develop the tea industry in terms of quality, and valuation, not only in tea but other by-products like tourism. Group A initiatives offer incentives for all gardens. Group B initiatives are exclusively for small growers. Together they will help establish brand identity for the state.
Similarly, the central government of India is also promoting quality, product diversification, and market access. These initiatives require substantial money to be allocated both by the state government and the central government.
The focus is on quality evaluation and new markets, a combination that will re-energize the sector and make it sustainable.
Equifarm tea is a new brand with deep roots. In 2017 New Delhi-based Grassroots Tea Corp. first shared its vision for transforming the livelihoods of 250,000 of India’s small tea growers (STGs) by processing and marketing well-made chemical-free teas. Subsistence growers with generations of experience understand how to cultivate tea but are held back by their inability to add value. Few advance beyond a time-bound role as raw leaf suppliers. Grassroots helps secure financing and then aggregates, repacks, wholesales, and retails authentic teas supplied by collectives. Tea Producer Companies then partner with the collectives to operate mini-factories that process 2,500 kilos of green leaf a day.
Photo caption: From left, Sabin Narzary, Sanibar Boro, Assaigra Boro, Thapsa Boro, Baburam Daimary, Pijush Goyary, Ajith Boro, Bijoy Boro, Kukhol Boro, J. John, Minto Goswami, and Sanjwrang Basumatary.
Assam Smallholders Express Pride of Ownership
By Roopak Goswami
Tea grower Sabin Narzary, 32, is proud and brimming with confidence, as are 260 small tea farmers in the Udalguri and Biswanath districts of Assam.
All are shareholders in a tea producer company, a new business model that enables subsistence growers to finance mini-factories and create local brands collectively. Their new equifarm tea is now on sale on Amazon. The Grassroots Tea Corporation (GTC) launched the product during a virtual meeting on Oct. 8.
Two weeks later their teas debuted on Amazon.in priced from INRs 360 to 605 (US$4.85-$8.15 for 250 grams).
In 2017 New Delhi-based Grassroots Tea Corp. first shared its vision for transforming the livelihoods of 250,000 small tea growers (STGs) by processing and marketing well-made chemical-free teas. Subsistence growers with generations of experience understand how to cultivate tea but are held back by their inability to add value. Few advance beyond a time-bound role as raw leaf suppliers.
“I have not heard about growers becoming shareholders in the small tea grower sector,” says Narzary, a father of two who was raised in Khasiapather. Small tea growers now produce more than half of the millions of metric tons of green leaf grown in India. Producer-members of the Swmkhwr Valley Tea Producer Company contribute green leaf and are granted shares in the venture.
Smallholders in 2020 produced 52% of India’s tea, primarily for production as black CTC (cut, tear, curl) but with a growing segment of specialty tea producers.
The equifarm brand’s tea range includes Premium Orthodox Whole Leaf, Premium Orthodox packaged in stand-up pouches, and orthodox tea and green tea in teabags. Initially, it will be available online on major e-commerce portals like Amazon, Flipkart, and selected cloud kitchens.
Shortly after it was founded, Grassroots Tea encouraged a group of 260 indigenous Bodo small tea farmers in Assam’s Udalguri and Biswanath districts to set up four manufacturing units to process green tea leaves sourced from their farms. Each unit required an investment of INRs 1.3 crores (about US$175,000) to purchase the property, structure, tea-making machinery, and other equipment. The four factories raised the required capital – as equity and as a term loan from Financial Services Limited (NABFIN), a subsidiary of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD).
Ten years ago “We were not getting good prices as we used to sell our leaves individually [to bought leaf factories],” explains Narzary. One of the biggest problems and worries of small tea growers in Assam are getting low prices for the green leaf as they are dependent on bought leaf factories.
Protests and demonstrations are ongoing. The Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers Association (CISTA) says that bought leaf factories pay an average of INRs 15-17 (US$0.20 – 0.23) per kilo for green leaf growers in Assam and West Bengal. Growers say the cost of producing green leaf has increased as much as INRs 19 (US$0.25) per kg due to shipping expense and a tightening supply of fertilizer and other inputs increasing the cost of production.
He said the entry of Centre for Education and Communication (CEC) New Delhi and J. John changed all that, and the growers formed a society to get a higher price for the leaf they supply to the processing factories. The collective leaf trade fuelled the leadership and entrepreneurial aspirations of kindling their desire to move up the value chain. The societies brought their active members as shareholders to constitute producer companies.
While taking advantage of a ‘Company’ registration, like raising capital and sharing profit, the Producer Company framework has the advantage that it runs based on cooperative principles. The shareholders are ‘active producers,’ which means only those who contribute to the supply of green tea leaves can participate. Each shareholder has one vote irrespective of the number of shares owned.
“Our lives are now completely transformed as we are getting good prices for the green leaf and have learnt a lot about tea,” he says.
Kukhol Boro says one of the most significant learning has been the advantage of being united. “Earlier we were selling our green leaf only by ourselves and did not get good prices, later when we became a society, we got better prices,” he says.
“We had difficulties in getting compliances, but now, we can proudly say that we have a factory of our own where we manufacture tea all by ourselves, a dream that we have been chasing for the last eight to 10 years.
Today after many ups and downs, we could make it happen,” he said.
“We have many more miles to go, but today is the beginning, today is the day of farmers, today is the day of GTC. Let the small tea growers of the world unite and be active part of the value chain,” Kukhol Boro said.
“We could never imagine that one day the growers would be owning factories as members of societies,” added Kukhol Boro.
Grassroots Tea has a packaging unit in Barpeta, Assam.
“It is a market linked to the farmers’ movement in which farmers own and govern various stages of value accrual of an ethical product and obtain a reasonable share of the value accrued. It also establishes a direct connect between farmers and consumers by making available high quality ethical, ecologically sound and traceable natural tea,” said J. John, managing director of Grassroots Tea.
GTC provides support at three distinct stages: empowering small tea growers (STGs) to cultivate chemical-free tea; assisting STGs in raising equity to set up Tea Producer Companies (under the Company Act, 1953) to build processing factories that manufacture high quality, certified orthodox tea; and when the tea is made Grassroots aggregates and markets the tea to conscious consumers under the joint ‘equifarm tea’ brand.
Teas are natural, traceable, single-origin (subsumed within geographical indicators); made and owned by small tea farmers, ensuring a sustainable livelihood and an optimum share of the profits, he said.
“Our long term vision is to transform socio-economic outcomes for 250,000 small tea growers at risk, in India. We want to ensure dignity and economic justice for all STGs by enabling fair compensation at multiple levels of value accrual throughout the value chain,” John says.
India needs an alternate model for the tea-value chain as a core strategy to drive systemic change. In this model, subsistence tea farmers organize in collectives that own and actively participate in the value-creation and value-sharing processes, he explains.
“As part of our long-term vision, we will facilitate the setting up of more STG owned tea producer companies (TPC) across India, directly impacting larger number of STG households and worker households,” he added. In time big brands and retailers will recognize and execute, the principle of fair compensation at value accruals.
At the virtual launch event, Adina Pasula, Supply Chain leader, IKEA, Sweden, commented on the distress faced by small-time farmers across the world: “Social entrepreneurship like the equifarm tea is contributing in addressing their plight,” she said. Initiatives of this nature lead to systemic change and would have a collective impact across stakeholders at various levels, she said.
NABARD General Manager Baiju Kurup praised the GTC model. He said that during the “last couple of years, NABARD’s major focus has been in the facilitation of the aggregation of farmers to a farmers’ producer company, or FPO, where better share of the price can be transferred to the producers so that they enjoy better price realization.”
CISTA president Bijoy Gopal Chakraborty said, “in equifarm tea, we see the prominent footprint of the small tea growers in India.”
A recent development in tea in India has been the rise of new brands, many that have their roots in tea regions. Almost all of them seek to bridge producers and consumers. Most rely on the narrative that accompanies a product from its place of origin. For consumers, it’s in part vicarious living and a window to another world. This is as good as it gets for those who want to know who made their tea and where it comes from.
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Exceptionally Local Teas that Connect with Consumers
By Aravinda Anantharaman
Emphasizing the local characteristics of Assam (instead of crafting tea to the expectations of export markets) shows respect for the land, customs, and artisanal craft, according to Folklore Tea co-founders Subhasish Borah, an urban planner, and Bidisha Das, a business management grad.
Folklore Tea, based in Guwahati, actively works with farmers to become something more than a marketing platform for their teas, explains Borah, 30, and Das, 29. The couple run the Kohuwa Collective, a space that comes with a slow food café and tea room, with rooms for collaborative clothing and pottery workshops – concepts that seem to drive their work. They launched Folklore early in 2020 and, as a brand, are keen to carry the farmers’ stories.
Folklore is anchored in the idea of storytelling and connecting to consumers intimately. Each tea acknowledges the farmer who grew it. Each tea is given a name, and a poem accompanies it.
Each eco-friendly packet is numbered with a handwritten note addressing the recipient. And while this helps connect with the drinker, it’s not Folklore’s unique sales proposition. That lies in the experiments and work they do with their farmers.
Folklore works with three small growers, Beeman Agarwalla, Birinsi Borah, and Tarun Gogoi, who collectively cultivate about three hectares (seven acres) of tea. They also run Prithivi, a farmer producer company that now includes 56 members with farms ranging from 0.2 to 3 hectares in size. All the growers are geographically located close to each other, making this a community enterprise. Beeman, Birinci, and Tarun have chosen organic farming and work with the other members to convert inorganic farms to organic. The process takes a long time, up to five years, during which farmers have to face a loss in yield and income. The association supports them by way of small scholarships for children and providing compost from a small vermicomposting unit.
“Behind it all, there are real people – small tea growers whose innovation improves the craft and whose land stewardship protects the environment and the quality of your tea. It is their passion that makes the tea taste better.” – Folklore Tea
In Assam, small tea growers sell their green leaves to bought leaf factories that manufacture and sell tea. Most of these factories make CTC tea, which is bought and blended for the domestic market. Farmers adopting organic cultivation find no advantages in price as CTC factories are not always organic. Here, the tea is mixed, and the source and style of cultivation are lost. With no advantages to producing organic tea, the farmer has no incentive to stay the course. And this is something that Folklore is trying to address.
Subhasish describes a proposed project for a mini-community factory that will be used to manufacture organic CTC with leaves sourced from their own farmer community. Currently, they have six small units where their tea is made. These units are not heavily equipped with machinery, and even the CTC is made using traditional wooden tools.
“Right now, there are 56 growers who have joined us. So, collectively, whenever we will be able to set up the factory then we have a huge leaf bank. If we get this funding, which I’m not sure we will get, then of course we go for CTC as it will help not only these three people but all 56 families. That means almost 180 people will be benefited with this factory, it will be huge change in the village,” he said.
“Whatever we can do in terms of packaging, design, or marketing will help them,” he said.
Folklore’s association with Prithivi is a close and mutually beneficial one. Prithvi and its farmers brought knowledge of cultivars and tea making, along with market intelligence. Says Subhasish, “Most of the small tea growers with whom we are working started back in the early 1990s. They planted whatever tea bushes they could get from nearby tea gardens. The knowledge of cultivars was not very prominent at that time.”
The Folklore team decided to study tea and brought knowledge and the willingness to experiment in tea making. Their experiments are with clones, leaf-to-bud ratio, and processing methods such as pan-roasting and naturally scenting tea. Only a small volume of made tea, not more than 300-350 kilos, is sold under the Folklore brand, primarily black and oolong whole leaf tea and some CTC.
They are experimenting with rolling techniques to improve appearance, experimenting with blending to get the right flavor. And they have also taken on the immense challenge that oolong brings to tea making.
Artisanal tea making is still has a niche market within India. Folklore seems conscious of this, taking a B2C approach for India and a B2B platform that caters to a global market, with customers in the US, Canada, UK, and Australia. Since the scale is still small, the brand can sustain its relationship and customer base.
As Subhasish says, there are two main challenges and opportunities of Assam’s tea industry: people who live in the tea areas of the state don’t know enough about loose leaf teas. The irony of producing one of the finest teas and yet sending them to faraway markets is the story across India’s tea-growing regions.
“It’s very sad,” says Subhasish, “because people in their own region, especially in the villages and towns that are surrounded by tea gardens, the people don’t know much about loose leaf teas. It’s absurd that mainstream media is promoting the concept of green tea in Assam. Green teas have been grown here for years. It is supposed to be the other way around,” he says.
“Paying 500 rupees for a kilo of tea is not a thing here,” he says. The economic status is not very high. Assam’s annual per capita income is INRs 119,155 ($1,700 compared to the all-India average of $2,100 per capita).
“People collectively have less money so marketing loose leaf teas at a higher price is difficult. It takes a lot of effort to make loose leaf tea and if you’re selling it for let’s say INRs 300 to 400 rupees per kilo then it’s not giving me anything.
“Consider that you can get a kilo of CTC for INRs 90 to 100 rupees ($1.20). In this scenario everyone is going to buy CTC but it’s weird. In Assam the culture of water-based tea is also very high but that water-based tea is made using CTC, not loose leaf teas.
“Most of the growers face difficulties here, they don’t have the human resources or the financial resources to do marketing or packaging. Many people who start making teas go back to selling fresh leaves so that they don’t have to think about marketing again. And many people go back to inorganic because if they ultimately have to sell the leaves to bought leaf factories then then there is no point in maintaining organic because the factories are not certified to process organic tea,” he said.
Due to financial limitations, few of our growers can afford the expense of the organic certification process, but the growers are far beyond it. They preserve ancient processing traditions and care deeply about their environment. They put their heart and soul into the teas they make naturally, says Subhasish.
As much as the conversation is on branding and experimentation, ultimately, what will make a brand like Folklore work is its impact on the community. Already there are plans to set up a bamboo cottage on one of the tea farms open for experiential travel. Assam has a lot on offer, from textiles to food, and of course tea. “We want to bring people,” says Subhasish. We want to show the things that are going on here. That it’s not only tea, but a lot of associated cultural elements too.” He talks about the vision to make the area an open museum, where “the entire place can act as a museum, all the houses can act as a museum and the traditional tools which are used in the processing are living heritage.”
Subhasish describes Folklore as a “passion project.” Perhaps that’s what Assam needs more of, passionate marketers who can join hands with farmers to create quality teas and find a market for them for the greater good of the community. And if it includes nudging local preferences towards better tea for their consumption, that’s a bonus.
Trouville Black Tea
People have spun stories on my genesis. Was it a monk who discovered me? or Was it a king who dropped me in boiling water? Yet my origin is unknown Since then, I have grown And grew and grew some more Moving across spaces and borders A living chronicle of several cultures. I’m Trouville. I was found through pure chance.
New study recommends motivational campaigns, demonstrations, training, and extension work to encourage growers large and small to adapt to climate change.
Tea Garden Managers in Assam Confront Climate Change
The threat of climate change looms large in tea. “There is increasing evidence that climate change will strongly affect tea cultivation,” concludes a study of growers in Assam, the world’s top tea producing region.
Garden managers in Assam are responding to the threat with adaptive measures that growers will find useful in many tea lands. These include rainwater harvesting to enable irrigation during dry spells, reforestation, conservation of biodiversity, soil mulching, and the creation of wind barriers that combine to mitigate the threat.
To better understand the seriousness of the situation and to discover local adaptations, two scientists at the Tocklai TRA (Tea Research Association) in Jorhat sent questionnaires to growers in four regions of Assam – Upper Assam, South Bank [of the Brahmaputra River], North Bank and Cachar. Combined, these regions produce about 12% the world’s tea, supporting the livelihood of 1.2 million workers.
The scientists note that climate change is a global concern with impacts that vary at the farm level. The majority of respondents were aware of changing climate conditions and the effect on tea production. How farmers respond to climate change needs to be precisely understood if the government, policymakers and researchers are to effectively support adaptive and mitigative approaches for the tea crop. Data was received from 83 tea estates.
The impact of higher temperatures, erratic and often torrential rains are evident, according to Dr. Baruah, monitors weather and growing conditions and regularly shares his findings and advice online like in this March 15 tweet: “Rainfall has been quite scanty so far this year in Assam tea areas. Irrigation is still on in a Golaghat area tea estate today, which is mid of March.”
Rainfall has been quite scanty so far this year in Assam tea areas. Irrigation is still on at a Golaghat area tea estate today, which is the mid of March. – Dr. Pradip Baruah
The study revealed that most respondents (85.5%) were ‘deeply concerned’ about climate change, 9.6% were ‘somewhat concerned’ and only 4.8% were ‘unconcerned’ regarding climate change.
Three quarters of respondents (78.3%) reported a decline in productivity while 12% were uncertain. Only 9.6% of the respondents suggested that tea production was not vulnerable to climate change. Respondents from gardens along the South Bank of the Brahmaputra River report the greatest impact, followed by North Bank growers and those in the Cachar region. A majority in every region confirmed that climate change, visible as spikes in temperature, drought, and variations in rainfall, was significantly affecting their crop production.
Tea depends greatly on rainfall for optimal growth. Leaf productivity and the bushes are harmed by either an excess or shortage of water. Respondents said adverse conditions such as prolonged drought during winter and/or periodic heavy rainfall in recent years pose a threat to the sustainability of the crop.
The study pointed out that rains have become unpredictable with some regions suffering from prolonged dry spells, while other experience incessant rain particularly during the monsoon months. Respondents said climate change has also led to an increase in insect and disease infestation.
In July 2020 the Brahmaputra River inundated around 26 districts, driving 2.8 million from their homes and killing 123.
Assam recorded 1,164mm of rainfall compared to a normal monthly average of 894mm during July 2020, an excess of nearly 30% (see map). The catchment areas of nearby states, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim also received excess rainfall 16% and 45%. – NASA Earth Observatory
“As future management strategies, tea growers have opted to gradually replace synthetic fertilizers with organic manures and pesticides, construct anti-erosion measures along river sides and embankments, and generate awareness programs” according to to the study.
The Rosekandy Tea Estate in Cachar in South Assam anticipated the local impacts of a changing climate as early as 1982.
Ishwarbhai Ubhadia, general manager at Rosekandy TE, told Tea Biz, “We have created rainwater harvesting ponds all over the estate. We now have a 100 hectare area under water,” he said. “Wind belts have been created and we have maintained 500 hectares of reserve forest to maintain micro-climate and ecological balance,” he said. Installation of 70- kilowatt powered solar plant is underway. The generator will be commissioned by April, he said, adding that hunting of birds and animals on the land is now prohibited.
Garden managers expressed optimism in applying strategies to mitigate climate change. Rainwater harvesting and irrigation are now common in Upper Assam and along the South Bank, North Bank and Cachar. Adaptive measures like reforestation programs and the creation of wind barriers were mostly implemented in Cachar as compared with Upper Assam. Cachar and South Bank gardens are more likely to practice of soil mulching compared with the North Bank.
In-situ water conservation largely consists of constructing artificial ponds and lakes and developing existing natural water bodies such as streams, rivulets, swamps, and low-lying areas. “Rainwater harvesting increases the amount of water per unit in cropping areas, reduces drought impact and enables the use of run-of beneficially,” according to the study.
Rooftop harvesting at Heeleakah Tea Estate is low cost and effective. Water is stored and used for consumption, tea tasting, dehumidification, etc. In the garden, rainwater ponds and reforestation programs establish a microclimate ideally suited to growing tea. Photo by Dr. Pradip Baruah.
Photo by Dr. Pradip Baruah.
Mulching conserves soil moisture, reduces surface runoff and soil erosion and lower soil temperature. To minimize the impact of wind speed, respondents are constructing wind barriers to deflect high velocity of winds that increase evapotranspiration and desiccation, lodging in young tea plants, uprooting of shade trees, etc.
Dr. Baruah says the impact of climate change is readily evident. “The first and second flush tea is getting affected. More needs to be done with regard to ecological micro-management by planting various types of trees,” he said.
“Climate change is dynamic, impacting all but it needs a total approach at global and local level,” writes Dr. Baruah. “The good thing is that the tea estates have the capability of doing it to a great extent in different topographical and agro-climate conditions. Results are absolutely visible in Cachar area tea estates and in other areas of the state,” he says. “It is never too late but trying to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change is the only way ahead,” he said.
The study says coal and natural gas are extensively used in tea production and can be gradually replaced with new, cleaner technologies. “However, the cost economics, availability and energy efficiency standards of such ‘green energy’ will have to be properly worked out before essentially implementing in tea plantations. Similarly, the gradual replacement of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides with organic ones will be a welcoming step, but at the same time, one has to look at the practical feasibility and cost economics of such implementation” the scientists involved in the study say.
Plan of Action The proportion of tea plantations proposing future strategies like planting of tolerant/resistant tea cultivars and awareness and training programs among workers and associated people is higher for South Bank and North Bank as compared with that of Upper Assam. The proportion of tea plantations proposing future strategy of awareness and training programs among workers and associated people were in favor of South Bank and North Bank, respectively.
Scientists say the present study will be helpful to make more informed future strategies regarding best practices for tea cultivation under a changing climate for tea-growing regions all over the world.
The Way Forward During a virtual International Tea Day panel discussion last year, FAO Director-General, Qu Dongyu, cited the importance of achieving greater sustainability in the tea sector. Panelists agreed on the need to develop strategies for climate change adaptation and mitigation, promote market transparency and sustainability of the tea value chain and develop policies for sustainable tea production benefiting, first and foremost, smallholder farmers. FAO has since launched projects to develop carbon-neutral tea cultivation (see below).
FAO’s Intergovernmental Group on Tea when it last met formally in 2018, warned that tea cultivation and production globally is facing climate-related challenges which need to be addressed. Delegates concluded that “Climate variability, incidents of frost and prevalence of pests, also have an influence on tea production, and are beginning to affect productivity.”
The Assam study calls for motivational campaigns, demonstrations, training and extension work to encourage adoption of climate change. “The implementation of long-term policies for climate change by the government needs to be strengthened so that the benefits reach every tea plantation and if necessary, subsidiary schemes can be developed by the government to encourage more adoption of such techniques” the study says.
FAO Launches Carbon-Neutral Tea Project in Kenya
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is working with tea growers in Kenya to pioneer carbon-neutral tea.
The program attempts to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at each stage in the tea value chain.
The project will use carbon-neutral tea production methodologies developed in China by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) as well as new technologies to tackle climate change through energy efficiency, tried and tested in the Kenyan tea sector by the German Development Agency (GIZ).
Scientists will prioritise energy and resource efficiency in tea factories through technology transfers, implementation of effective monitoring management, green procurement guidelines and factory automation.
The project will also address the first stages of the tea value chain and the cultivation of tea bushes using low carbon practices including the reduction of fertilizers and pesticides, the support of carbon sequestration and soil conservation.
In recognition of International Women’s Day, Tea Biz spoke with Sabita Banerji and Krishanti Dharmaraj from THIRST, The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea. Sabita was born and raised in tea gardens in Assam and Munnar. She is an economic justice advisor and the founder and CEO of THIRST. Krishanti Dharmaraj is a THIRST trustee and Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership in New York and co-founder of WILD for Human Rights (Women’s Institute for Leadership Development).
Where do we stand with respect to workers rights, and women’s rights, in particular, in tea in countries like India?
Sabita Banerji: There’s a lot of talk about labor rights on tea plantations all over the world, but very much so in India as well. The majority of workers particularly at the lowest paid level, the tea pluckers, are women. The industry talks about women having delicate fingers and being able to pluck the two leaves in the bud. But when I’ve spoken to women workers, in the Dooars, for example, and asked them, why do you think there are more women employed at this level, they said, because we are easier to boss. So, you know, they are aware of their situation. I think the vast numbers of women working in tea plantations are kind of stuck at the level of tea pluckers. They don’t have the kind of education or the empowerment to be able to stand up for their rights as they should be. And so, it’s important to empower them because it’s the right thing to do. And it’s important because it’s such a major element of the tea industry.
Krishanti Dharmaraj: I want to say it is the right thing to do as well as it’s a smart thing to do. It’s important to recognise that there’s a structural nature to discrimination against women that is not limited to the tea plantation. We see that at every level, but when you take gender and intersect that with class, with caste, and with ethnicity, then at that point, the discrimination doubles.
So when you look at the women who are in tea plantation, and I can speak for Sri Lanka, this was the Tamil community that went, that the British took from India to Sri Lanka. They are at the lowest level. It was very recently that they were able to vote in Sri Lanka. So in that context, that systemic discrimination seeps through. And so when you see, even in spite of that systemic nature of discrimination, that women are rising up, that is extraordinary.
And I think the tea plantations, the businesses as well as government, must pay attention to that uprising.
Sabita: And that is the case on virtually every tea growing area all over the world, but particularly in India where the workers tend to come from another part of that country, a poorer part, a more vulnerable part. So, very often as well as being vulnerable as women, they’re also vulnerable as migrants, as lower caste, as tribal people as Krishanti said. There is a particular vulnerability there in the tea estates.
But where have you seen the change, where women have risen to protest this?
Sabita: I saw this first hand, in Munnar in 2015, and this is what inspired me to set up THIRST in the first place, The International Round Table For Sustainable Tea.
I had gone to visit my birth place, Munnar, and it just happened that that same day, the uprising of women workers, “Pembilai Orumai”(unity of women) had just begun. It was really an unprecedented event, that these thousands of women went on strike. And there were not only striking against management but also against the trade unions. They said that the trade unions are male dominated and that they’re not representing the women workers fairly or effectively. And so for, for many, many days, they, they stayed on strike. They did hunger strikes. They were not allowed to negotiate with the employers and the government as part of the tripartite pay negotiations because they weren’t a formal trade union.
But the chief minister of Kerala agreed to talk to them and agreed with some of their demands. And subsequently that group of women has formed a trade union. So, you know, it probably is one of the few, genuinely representative of women workers, trade unions that there is in the tea industry.
Another example is a cooperative called the Sanjukta Vikas co-operative in Darjeeling which runs a tea garden called Mineral Springs. This was originally a British era tea estate which was closed down when the British left and the workers were left pretty much destitute, which is still happening today.
All over India, estates are closing and the workers have no other source of income. But this group managed with the support of a local NGO called DLR Prerna and tea promoters to actually form a cooperative, which involves several villages around the area. There has to be a balance of men and women and women have an equal say in how that co-operative is run. And they’re growing not only tea but they’ve now diversified into other crops, and they’re doing dairy … the tea itself is really good quality. It’s organic, it’s fair trade and it’s doing well.
What’s enabling this show of strength? And what kind of support do these women need?
Sabita: In the case of the women from Munnar, I asked them that question because everybody around me was saying, we’ve never seen a strike like this before. And I think the local, townspeople were quite impressed with the women being strong and standing up for themselves.
I was asking them, why do you think this has happened now? How are they now aware of their rights? They were saying that they were underpaid, their bonus was being reduced from what they were expecting it to be and they responded with just one word: WhatsApp.
With the younger generation being on WhatsApp and I think that the uprising itself was pretty much coordinated using social media. That’s one thing, information and communication but also the strength and determination of these women themselves. What they need, in addition to their own strength and determination and information, is support from other trade unions, from local people. During that strike, they were fed by the local shopkeepers, and hotel keepers came and supported them.
They’re now a very small trade union. They only have about 240 members, at least when I last spoke to them, that was the case. And then not really being heard by management. So I think they need more support perhaps from other trade unions, from the company itself. The tea company should be valuing this amazing resource that they have in their midst, of these women who are able to really genuinely represent their coworkers, and to tell them what they really want and need, and to respect those wishes so that they have a contented and thriving workforce.
Krishanti: To add to that, I think it’s important to also recognise where they land, because this is not a group of women where after they finish work, they could go home and relax right there. They’re also taking care of their families, their in-laws, they are part of a community, and children. In most cases, they also face domestic abuse. Intimate partner violence is pretty high.
When you see a woman really receiving her pay check, her face looks very different on that day than any other day. So part of it, and most of the time at least for Sri Lanka, there was a time where the husband got the money because he was able to sign for the pay check, even to put the thumbprint.
There’s been a shift. For the first time, to be able to feel like she is the caretaker of her family and because of her hands. She is the caretaker because it is for her hands that the entire family gets not only paid but has the ability to just stay in that steady state.
So what we need to recognise is that if she is taking up to actually striking and pausing her work, that is not an easy decision for her. She’s got to really realise that there’s no other way, but to strike. There’s no other way out. So it is not a decision that the women in the tea estates would take lightly. They would take that decision only because there is nowhere else to go. But at that moment, when they choose to, when they have made that decision, then there’s nothing else that will stop that. Because there’s nothing else to lose.
When you saw the uprising where the women were striking, where were their husbands and children and other family? Were they with them?
Sabita: The women actually refused to allow their husbands to join them.
The women were all sitting on the ground, outside the head office of the company and the men were in a side street. They were kind of messing around and they had thrown lots of tea leaves on the road and they were picking up these tea leaves and throwing them at passing cars and laughing. It was a kind of festival atmosphere for them. They were being like naughty school boys.
And meanwhile, just around the corner, the sea of very serious women were sitting there. They had brought not only the tea industry to a stand still that day or that week, but also the tourism industry, because they were sitting on the main road through Munnar.
They were not to be messed with, those women and they were very consciously keeping the men out of it because they were saying, we are the ones that do the work and so we are going to speak up for ourselves.
What would you say to this display of strength? What has it taken them to arrive here?
Krishanti: Centuries of oppression.
To me, there are three things:
It’s the timing and the networking. WhatsApp is one extraordinary way that people are able to organise. The first thing is that it’s not that women don’t know their rights. Innately, we know, even as children, when someone does something to us that is not right. These women know. They do not believe sometimes that they have the ability to speak up and protect themselves because the consequences would be much harsher if they speak up. So I think the rights are already in place when they have a space to articulate them.
And then moment to express them. They will take that up. And I think now more than ever, it’s almost in the air when you look at the informal sector. And in this case, I think the tea plantation workers are considered formal because they are able to unionise. There is a movement within a movement to see that those most marginalised are rising. And I think that’s in the air. And we cannot deny that it’s sweeping across the globe. With the extraordinary amount of oppression that women are facing at this level, there is a moment that is right. And I think they’re picking up on that.
Assam faces the flak in the conversation around workers’ rights. Why? What can you tell us about that?
Sabita: I’ve always wondered why there is this intense focus on Assam. I mean, this situation is very difficult there for, for workers, but it is probably worse in the Dooars, in West Bengal, in Darjeeling as well. Despite Darjeeling tea being a high value export commodity the same issues apply in any tea growing area. In terms of what’s happening in Assam, currently, there has recently been a small pay increase. Last September, many hundreds of thousands of tea workers there had gone on strike and that was a trade union organised strike demanding an increase in wages to 351 rupees a day. Which funnily enough is what the government had recommended back in 2018 and yet has never been implemented. So they’re only asking for what the government has recommended, in a system where they’re supposed to be tripartite wage negotiation.
So, you know, you can see there’s something not quite right with this system where workers are still being paid so much below the living wage. To come back to the question that you asked about the men, and it also links to something Krishanti said about domestic violence — one of the issues is with the fact that most of the tea pluckers are women — and the industry relies very heavily on that labor — one of the side effects of this is that the men on the tea estates tend to be underemployed or unemployed. And this leads to a lot of problems like alcohol abuse, drug abuse and domestic violence. Often men will migrate away from the estates to try to earn money elsewhere. Sometimes they don’t come back or don’t send money back. This causes a lot of societal problems, the fact that there’s so much pressure on the women, not only to do all the unpaid domestic care work, but also to do all the labor as well.
Often organisations come along and suggest solutions like alternative income generating projects, like having a cow or having a kitchen garden or something … that too is something the woman has to do on top of everything else.
One of the women I met in the Dooars told me that yes, we had a cow at some point, but I couldn’t look after the cow AND pluck the tea AND look after the house. So we had to sell the cow. Like we were discussing before, there needs to be a whole change of mindset about how this industry is structured and how it operates.
Krishanti: One of the things we haven’t talked about is the level of harassment and violence these women face in the job as well. So they face discrimination, harassment, and violence at home, right in the community as well as at work. Then there’s structural discrimination that discriminates the entire community.
How can we persuade producers and governments to look at it from a woman’s point of view? What is it that we need to show them?
Last year, the international labor organization passed a convention called ILO 190 to eliminate harassment in the world of work. So there are things that I think that’s important to recognise. One is that the convention talks about harassment and violence against men and women. And harassment is not limited to sexual harassment. It is a broader definition, That is extraordinary because that allows us to really address the systemic nature of discrimination. And it talks about the world of work. The employer is responsible for ensuring and enabling an environment for the workers to thrive. Because it’s the ILO, it speaks to government, it speaks to employers and unions. This particular treaty, if ratified and implemented, it might support the shift in this structural systems. Because it is not one system.
What would you say these women want?
Sabita: The women were demanding better pay, they were demanding all the things that are promised to them under the Plantation Labor Act, which was, you know, decent housing, healthcare, education. A lot of outsiders look into the situation and say, actually, this situation is not really sustainable. A company can’t provide all those things that a government would normally provide AND pay decent wages, especially as they’re not being paid necessarily a very fair price for the tea.
But when you talk to workers themselves, because they’ve been in that situation for many, many generations, it’s sometimes hard for them to see what life might be like, without all of those supports. So often they say, no, we do want to keep the rations and the benefits that are provided rather than … it’s just, it’s almost like, their prison is also their safety net.
In Sri Lanka, there have been some attempts to set up community development forums, attempts to actually give the housing and the land to the workers. So they’re not lines which are just connected to be owned by the tea company, but they are actually owned by the workers and then that developed some pride in their own.
Krishanti: I think I wanted to just step back to say that in the context of existing systems, yes, they want the basic rights. If you pause and if you allow them to speak freely, and if you allow, if you give them the space to imagine, that imagination runs wild and that is completely out of the existing structure.
Within the existing structure, like when you talk about Sri Lanka, yes, there have been attempts as well as successful ways in which women have inherited land, in partnership or by themselves. But most of the time it’s written to the man because of an inability to do that. Sri Lanka has one of the highest literacy rates — it’s close to 90+ percent, but in the tea estate, they barely make it, they’re unable to even sign their name. Now we have provided them the ability to sign their name when they take their pay check. But that is all they can do.
Sabita: In Indian states like Kerala, there are very high literacy rates and other kind of social standards, but not on the tea plantation. So, the disparity is extraordinary.
Krishanti: If you take it within the context, yes, they want to make sure that the housing is there.
They want running water. They want to have toilets that have doors. They need to be able to take showers. So, when you’re looking at the basics, they are looking at economic, social, and cultural rights to be in place that India and most of these countries have already signed on to that human rights treaty. And it is only provided for some not others. Education. They want everything that any regular citizen would want. Access to education, housing, healthcare, decent work sanitation, right. To express themselves, you know, in their job.
Sabita: About education, everywhere I went, every tea worker I spoke to wanted to get a decent education for their children so that they wouldn’t have to work in tea plantations anymore.
Krishanti: When you ask, is there anything else you want, the first thing they say is I want to be treated well as a human being, with respect. They know they can’t get in the system. So, they will compromise that right to dignity to have the basics for their family.
So, it is about the treatment. It is about the inherent right to dignity that is violated on a daily basis because of the way in which structurally they are discriminated against as a community, as disposable humans, who they cannot dispose because they provide a specific service for a massive industry.
Sabita: Krishanti talking of them being disposable. … in fact, that’s exactly what is currently happening in Kenya where there has been increasing amounts of mechanisation. For example, Finlay’s has been laying off thousands of workers and bringing in machines instead, and it’s mostly women who are now losing their jobs as a result.
In Malawi recently, there has been an interesting development in which Camellia, a tea company that owns many local tea companies there, has agreed to a settlement for women who made claims of sexual abuse, rape, and sexual violence. Camellia, thanks to the work of Leigh Day lawyers have not only agreed to make a settlement, but they’ve also agreed to put in place other initiatives to actually empower women and protect them going forward.
When you ask, what do women need, I think some of these. And what do they want? Some of these things that the settlement includes, like gender equality, scholarships, female leadership training programs, which hopefully will also be accompanied by the willingness to engage women at more senior levels.
But these are all things that we’ll add to. Women, not only attaining their rights, but as Krishanti said, feeling that they are being treated with respect and with the dignity that any human being deserves.
Krishanti: When a woman loses her job, it’s not just her losing a job that is that entire family’s livelihood is at stake. We need to understand it is not only that the woman loses. And that’s an entire company, community’s livelihood and the quality of life that is at stake. And that in itself is an economic threat to any government, to have that many unemployed or underemployed. So I think when you ask, what do the women want, if we pay attention to what women want it is what a country wants. So you can take it from a holistic standpoint and say, if you really believe in democracy and human rights for all the people as leaders, then you need to listen to those who are in the margins. Because without them, there wouldn’t be democracy. We can talk, it will be rhetoric. And for a business, it is that a happy worker, is a more productive worker. As individuals, if we’re in a better mood, we can get a lot more done. But if we are beaten up every day, that is a very different conversation to be had.
Paying attention to what they want and the way they want it, I think is the trick and the importance of it, not what a company, the industry or government believes they should be given.
Sabita: That idea of a happy contented worker being more productive was actually quantified. Care international produced a paper on the business benefits of empowering women tea workers in Sri Lanka, which actually showed that the productivity increased. But of course that shouldn’t be the reason why companies should do it, but this should be reassuring for them.
Also, there are so many long-term benefits. The younger generation don’t want to buy tea that’s been produced using slave labor and sexual harassment of women. They increasingly want things to be ethically produced, environmentally friendly. And if it’s not, they will know about it because of social media. And so, I can visualise a future in which tea is not grown in plantations, but it’s grown more like in Mineral Springs where it’s interspersed with other crops ,where there’s cooperatives or other business models as well, but ones in which the producers have a say in their own future and are fairly paid.
This tea plantation model, which was set up 150 years ago — it’s still that same model — is just not appropriate for this day and age. They’re huge monocultures with a captive workforce. It just cannot continue that way. It needs to be really shaken up and something beautiful and dignified and, healthy and thriving needs to come out of it instead.
Do you think mechanisation is one of those things that’s going to bring about this change?
Sabita: There are some limitations to where mechanisation is possible. Tea is mostly grown on slopes and it is quite difficult to mechanise tea plucking in hilly areas. Also, tea that is plucked using machines is not as good quality because it can’t actually differentiate the leaves as well as a human can. It’s possible that a lot of the lower value, high volume tea will end up being harvested through mechanisation as it’s happening in lots of other sectors like tomatoes and grapes and so on. But there will always be a space for high quality tea to be plucked by hand, like the Darjeeling first flush, which is very valuable. And hopefully, those who use that recognised skill will be fairly rewarded.
Is it about holding the producers more accountable?
Sabita: I think that the problem is that the tea industry has an almost 200 year history. There are all these defence mechanisms. So the minute any criticism is made of the tea industry, they immediately go into defence mode and deny that it’s happening. They will say, you’re just victimising us or it’s politically motivated or, or that was just an isolated incident. It’s not true. Or the workers are lying to you. That’s not the case. So unfortunately, they know what the problems are. They know what civil society thinks the problems are and what the workers say the problems are. I think what they need now is, is to understand that the, that the consumers will no longer stand for it.
We now need to look to the future and try to work out a way of growing and selling tea that actually aligns with the sustainable development goals, be that through, at an environmental level or for decent work or ending poverty or ending inequality, all of those things.
Krishanti: I think we have to really recognise that what we are doing is perpetuating aspects of colonialism in these estates. That is like the first realisation and to really sustainably transition, you can’t just break it down overnight and destroy the well being and the ability for communities and individuals to live. I think this is where the collective power of the government, the industry and the workers needs to come together. Even the best estates, even when women and the workers are treated well, the model itself is not sustainable, right. It doesn’t allow humans to thrive. And I think that this sense of coming together to come up with solutions is important.