• Rooibos Revived

    Rooibos is a shrub that grows in a very narrow corridor north of Cape Town in the fertile soil of the Cederberg Mountains. Growers there produce about 20,000 metric tons annually to make a healthful, refreshing, non-caffeinated herbal beverage known locally as red bush tea. Rooibos and the region where it is grown were recently awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Union. The traditional process used to make rooibos was also protected.

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    Carmien Tea Rooibos
    A field of rooibos in the shadow of the Cederberg Mountains. Photos courtesy Carmién Rooibos Tea. Photos by Peartree Photography

    Listen to the interview

    Mientjie Mouton, founder and managing director of South Africa’s Carmién Rooibos Tea, a supplier of quality rooibos, explains the significance of the protected status afforded this widely consumed beverage and how rooibos has rebounded from a devastating drought.

    Mientjie Mouton, founder and managing director Carmién Rooibos Tea

    Dan Bolton – Will you tell our listeners why the EU’s decision is good news and how you see the European Union’s seal of authenticity advancing the overall consumption of rooibos worldwide?

    Mientjie Mouton – We are very excited about this. It’s a process that was started about ten years ago. Everyone now knows that rooibos tea is really something special and that some key points differentiate the product from all the other herbal teas. The rooibos tea certification means the product must be cultivated and produced in this region. Processing also has to take place in that region.

    The region sees very cold winters and hot summers, which helps create the special taste and flavor of rooibos tea.

    Rooibos is a natural product only grown in 15 areas in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape of South Africa.

    Carmién Rooibos Tea is based in the Western Cape. We buy tea for processing from all the different areas, including the Northern Cape and southwest locations. When buying rooibos tea from Carmién Tea, we can guarantee that you will get true, honest, and purely natural products from these locations.

    Dan – About half of the rooibos produced is consumed locally, and the rest is exported to 60 countries, mainly in Europe, where Germany (28%) is the leading market. Japan consumes about 22% of rooibos exports. Following several years of strong growth, a four-year drought in 2015 curtailed market expansion. The rains have since returned, and the perished bushes have been replanted, some with drought-resistant cultivars. Mientjie, you mentioned that shifting temperature and rainfall patterns have actually expanded growing areas.

    Mientjie – Drier conditions apply globally, specifically in South Africa and the Western and Northern Cape. The production area for rooibos tea has moved slightly towards the southwestern parts and away from the northern parts. Our average rainfall is around 300 millimeters per year came down to below 100 mm of rain during the severe drought. Over the last two years that rainfall has picked up, but it’s still below average. So in general, we see a trend towards drier conditions. Luckily for South Africa, we have areas that used to be too wet to grow rooibos tea, which has become perfect and suitable for growing good quality rooibos.

    Dan – The EU’s Geographical Indication (GI) requires strict compliance with traditional processing methods and prohibits third parties from using phrases like “rooibos style,” “red bush type tea,” or “imitation red bush” on labels and promotions.

    Mientjie – This is actually a stricter GI certification that has been approved for rooibos tea. It specifies only 15 regions within the Western and Northern Cape of South Africa where Rooibos can be grown and be called rooibos tea. Rooibos undergoes an oxidation process where the antioxidants in the tea and the natural plant phenolic activities in the tea give you a very specific characteristic smell and taste, which is a more fruity, sweet flavor. That is one of the most identifiable properties of rooibos tea. The tea has a slightly sweet caramel taste and flavor and is not as stringent as black tea or other herbal teas. It has a very nice, smooth, full flavor and aroma. All that has to do with the special oxidation process where the temperature can increase to about 40 degrees Celsius. That happens overnight after the tea has been cut. Once it’s gone through that process, we have a nice red infusion in the cup. “Rooi” in Afrikaans is the color red in English; that is where the name comes from.

    When it does not go through that process, we have green rooibos tea, which is the unfermented variant of our rooibos. Green rooibos is very popular nowadays, and we are very excited about it because the health properties are even greater in green rooibos than red.

    “All Carmién Rooibos Tea products will now carry the PDO logo ensuring buyers that they are purchasing rooibos sourced from the above-mentioned areas and authentically produced.”

    Dan – During the ongoing pandemic, there’s been a significant increase in consumption and interest in the health qualities of herbal infusions. Will you describe some of the health advantages of rooibos.

    Mientjie – Rooibos tea is naturally caffeine-free. That is one of the biggest health benefits. Every batch of tea that we process is graded for the quality of that specific cup when it comes to specific antioxidant values. These antioxidants benefit and support your immune system and helps you to stay hydrated. We all know that is the baseline of keeping healthy. What we’ve seen is that minerals like zinc, magnesium, and calcium have become exceedingly important in times like these. It is about a well-balanced, healthy body that you have to maintain in order to prevent contracting viruses.

    To keep a healthy body, and healthy lifestyle, we like to say that you need to drink 10 cups of rooibos tea a day. Research indicated six cups of rooibos/day provides important benefits but even two cups will suffice.

    So you’re gonna have to drink your rooibos daily in order to keep healthy.

    Dan – Customers looking for convenience will find rooibos available in both an iced format (bottled and canned), or brewed hot then chilled over ice, as well as cold brewed. Will you talk briefly about cold brew formulations since they are growing in popularity.

    Mientjie – You can brew rooibos for as long as you like and it will not become bitter, it just increases the sweetness and antioxidant value. The cold brew option as a way of preparation is very interesting to us. Just put the tea bag in cold water, let it steep overnight and you get a very smooth flavor profile.

    Carmién rooibos served hot or cold. Photo by Peartree Photography

    If you use a high-quality tea you will get the rich flavor and fullness in your cup. The health properties, antioxidant levels, and minerals available in that cup are exactly the same. Processed rooibos is steam sterilized and has a very low total microbial count, making rooibos a very safe tea to use as a cold brew. As for convenience, you can keep it in the fridge, let it brew overnight, and have it eady for the office or children’s food boxes, the next day, or simply for in-home consumption. It’s very healthy and very safe.

    Carmien Rooibos

    Carmién Rooibos Tea

    The company was founded in 1998 in an old farm shop in Citrusdal, South Africa, at the foothills of the Western Cape’s Cederberg Mountains. Founder and Managing Director Mientjie Mouton grew up on a rooibos farm in the same valley before moving to the Brakfontein Estate where rooibos was also produced. Carmién sources from several growers and supplies Costco Japan, Taiwan, and several private-label and bulk clients globally. In North America QTrade Teas & Herbs has been the exclusive distributor of Carmién organic rooibos for the past 20 years.

    Rooibos is native to South Africa and has been consumed by the Khoisan for more than 300 years. It has been grown commercially for over a century and now accounts for most of South Africa’s tea exports (South Africa also produces a small quantity of black tea). Initially regulated, in 1993 the South African government permitted commercial production that boosted exports. Plantings in the prime growing areas of Citrusdal, Piekenierskloof, Nieuwoudtville, Wupperthal, Clanwilliam, Redelinghuys, and Gifberg expanded and dry yields rose to about 300 kg per hectare using modern harvesting techniques. In 2007 rooibos generated $10 million annually (ZAR155 million) a total that doubled by 2015 when a severe drought depressed yields that fell to less than 10,000 metric tons. In 2019 South Africa exported 7,693 metric tons. The domestic market consumed 7,000 metric tons. According to the Rooibos Council fact sheet, there are 11 commercial processors and approximately 300 commercial farms employing 8,000 farm laborers. The annual harvest begins in late January through February.

    – Dan Bolton

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  • A Rare Find

    What makes a tea book special? asks Tea Book Club founder Kyle Whittington. Rare book collector Donald A. Maxton says that he first considers the age of a published work, which often reflects the culture of the time, and then interesting and unusual designs, and, finally, the use of color. Here Maxton describes a label from his collection:

    ‘Another interesting one was for Silver Eagle Tea. This label is off-white with a red border embellished with tea leaves at the corners. The text, printed in red and black, reads, “U.S. Registered No. 766 Silver Eagle, Carefully Selected Formosa Oolong.” An eagle carrying a chest of Silver Eagle Tea in its talons is centered on the label.

    Rare Tea Books and Ephemera

    As founder of Tea Book Club, I was immediately intrigued when Dan Bolton suggested interviewing Donald A. Maxton, collector, and dealer in rare tea books and ephemera for the Tea Biz Podcast. As Donald wasn’t able to record,  I’ll be voicing his answers for you here.

    Listen to the interview

    An interview with rare tea book collector Donald A. Maxton

    Kyle Whittington: What got you into dealing in rare tea books and related tea ephemera?

    Donald A. Maxton: I’ve been collecting books, primarily English and American literature since I finished college. Years later, when I wanted to learn more about the tea I drank every day, I bought a few books about the subject, which added to my knowledge and enjoyment of the beverage. Eventually, I discovered that a large number of books had been published about tea and its rich history. This was before eBay, Amazon, and the many websites we now have where you can easily locate and purchase collectible books. At the time, I found that many used and out-of-print books about tea were available at reasonable prices at used bookshops, usually in their cookbook sections.

    Donald A. Maxton

    So, whenever I hunted for books in my areas of interest, I also searched for tea books with the intent of setting up a small mail-order business. I started attending book shows that included dealers in ephemera: posters, postcards, magazine advertisements, trade cards, sheet music, etc. When I had sufficient stock, I created a mail-order catalog, advertised in “Tea, A Magazine.” I soon had quite a few customers: tea enthusiasts, owners of tea rooms, tea firms such as Harney & Sons, and even public libraries.

    Kyle: What is the most unusual or interesting tea book or piece of ephemera that you sold/have in your collection?

    Donald: One of the more interesting books I sold was titled Jinrikisha Days in Japan, written by Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore and published in 1902. It’s a first-hand account of Japanese culture in the late 1800s with vintage black and white photos and illustrations. It’s filled with interesting facts about teahouses and tea tasters. There are some wonderful anecdotes, such as one about chi ni yotta, or “tea tremens:” The author asks a Japanese friend if drinking large quantities of tea makes him nervous, and he responds, “I do not drink enough of it. I am very careful. but when my friends begin the study of English, they must stop drinking it. The English seems to bring into action many nerves that we do not use, and the drink is probably exciting enough in itself.” It had a lovely white and gilt pictorial binding and sold for $50.

    Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore
    Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

    I purchased several delicate rice paper labels at a book and ephemera show that tea shippers and merchants once used to identify their products. I believe they date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They’re very attractive when framed. The labels I offered included one that reads, “Pacific Mail; No. 50. EXTRA CHOICEST GARDEN PICKED JAPAN TEA; FRAZAR & CO JAPAN.” The label is off-white with text printed in red, green, and purple, framed by a purple border, and illustrated with trees and pagodas. Another interesting one was for Silver Eagle Tea. This label is off-white with a red border embellished with tea leaves at the corners. The text, printed in red and black, reads, “U.S. Registered No. 766 Silver Eagle, Carefully Selected Formosa Oolong.” An eagle carrying a chest of Silver Eagle Tea in its talons is centered on the label. Recently, I’ve seen framed examples of similar labels priced as high as $1,000. I’ve kept two favorites for myself, one advertising gunpowder tea and the other Formosa Oolong.

    Kyle: Be they rare or otherwise, what are your top three tea books?

    Donald: James Norwood Pratt’s The Tea Lover’s Treasury, published in 1982, introduced the noted food writer M.F.K. Fisher is my favorite. This was the first tea book I purchased, and it’s a superb introduction: it’s comprehensive, informative, entertaining, and a pleasure to read and re-read.

    I think that Alain Stella’s The Book of Tea, published in 1992, is a very attractive volume and a favorite of mine. A large “coffee table book,” each section is written by a different authority on tea. It’s exquisitely designed and illustrated throughout with beautiful photographs, most of them in color. It’s a real treasure house of tea information and lore.

    These books are easy to find, but I also was fortunate to find another favorite, William H. Ukers’ All About Tea, published in 1935. It is quite scarce and expensive on the rare book market. It’s also very out of date but still one of the most thorough and comprehensive works about tea cultivation, manufacture, history, and culture. Fortunately, reprints have appeared.

    Kyle: What do you look for in tea books (or ephemera)? What makes a piece interesting or special to you?

    Donald: I consider the age of a piece, which often reflects the culture of the time, interesting and unusual designs, and use of color.

    Kyle: I believe many of the pieces of tea advertisement and ephemera you collected appeared in the book “Tea Art” – can you tell us more about how that came about?

    Donald: I had purchased a number of items to place in my catalog. Before selling them, I showed them to Gregory Suriano, a friend who was writing a book about tea graphics and advertising for Schiffer Publishing. He decided to photograph and publish them in the book, which was published in 2008. The full title is Tea Art: A Modern Look at Vintage Tea Graphics.

    Suriano, who lives in western Pennsylvania, is a historian of popular culture with a masters’ degree in art history who worked as author, editor, illustrator, graphics designer, copyeditor, and senior editor at Random House. He is a dealer in rare books, prints, and paper collectibles.

    Kyle: And what was your favorite piece included in that book?

    Donald: A pyramid-shaped folding poster display with colorful illustrations, circa 1880. When opened flat, there are brief descriptions of “Morning Tea,” “Afternoon Tea,” and “After-Dinner Tea.” When folded into a three-dimensional pyramid, the sides read, “The Secret of a Really Good Cup of Tea is Quality as supplied by the Tea Planters & Importers Co., London.”

    Kyle: How do you think the focus of tea books has changed over time? Has it changed, or are we just using contemporary words and context to talk about the same things that have been written about for centuries?

    Donald: The content of many tea books published in the last 20 years tends to be repetitious and a rehashing of what has already been written; but they often provide more information than earlier works about countries—in addition to the obvious ones, China, Japan, and India—where tea plays a significant role in their economies and culture, such as Indonesia, Africa, Russia, and South America.


    As tea lovers and fellow bookworms, it’s been a pleasure to hear Donald’s thoughts and get a glimpse into the interesting tea books and ephemera that have passed through his hands over the years. Thank you, Donald.

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  • Reviving Darjeeling

    Selim Hill
    Selim Hill gets a second chance. Photo courtesy Dorje Tea.

    Brand Appeals to Domestic Consumers to Revive Darjeeling

    Dorje Teas, a Darjeeling brand launched in June, takes its name from the region’s Tibetan origins: Dorje Ling or Land of the Thunderbolt.

    Founders Sparsh Agarwal and Ishaan Kanoria are targeting India’s domestic market and offer a subscription model. The brand’s origins lie in Selim Hill, one of Darjeeling’s tea gardens that belong to the Agarwal family. Alongside the launch of Dorje Teas, Selim Hill is also reviving the Selim Hill Collective. Among other things, it has brought Rajah Banerjee, the man who built Makaibari tea gardens, back as chairperson of the collective and as a mentor to Ishaan and Sparsh.

    The Agarwals’ connection with tea spans four generations to a time when Sparsh’s great grandfather sold tea chests to gardens and became a garden owner himself. About 30 years ago, the family acquired Selim Hill, a tea estate located right below Kurseong. The estate cover 1,000 acres, rising in altitude from 1000 to 4000 ft. The lower division is forest cover, with a rich bio-diversity. “We have a lot of elephants here. Hornbills are spotted regularly. Leopards too,” says Sparsh. The factory is in the upper-division with a bungalow restored and rechristened as the Second Chance Home because Dorje Teas is about second chances.

    Sparsh Agarwal
    Sparsh Agarwal

    Listen to the interview

    Sparsh Agarwal on reviving Darjeeling’s tea gardens.

    Like many of Darjeeling’s tea gardens, Selim Hill has not been profitable for a long time now. The irony of Darjeeling is that despite being a producer of fine teas, its 87 gardens constantly struggle against a barrage of problems, from climate change to socio-political turmoil and, now, the pandemic. Darjeeling’s dependence on exports further compounds this. Sparsh explains that the gardens are run mainly by absentee landlords — referring to the fact that most garden owners do not reside on the estate — which he cites as a problem.

    When the pandemic arrived in 2020, the Agarwal family thought it was time to sell Selim Hill. The loss of the first flush, following the lockdown announcement, seemed like the final straw. “But Selim Hill also occupies a very special place in the hearts of a lot of family members, and also friends of family,” says Sparsh. He had just graduated from Ashoka University with a degree in political science and international relations. He was starting work as a Research Associate at The Centre for Policy Research when he asked his parents if they would be open to exploring ways to keep the garden and not sell it. They agreed.

    When the lockdown was lifted, he drove up to Selim Hill from the family home in Kolkata. From then on, he began spending every other week at Selim Hill.  These trips brought the realization that it needed a structural makeover if he needed to save the garden. He was joined by Ishaan Kanoria, “who also has an intimate connection with the garden,” and they began brainstorming.

    During the next six months, they restored and repaired the assistant manager’s bungalow at the garden, “We needed to live in the tea garden itself if we wanted to revive it. We needed to live with the local community, understand what the problems are. Only then could those problems get solved. So we renovated the house. It’s a heritage structure, built in 1871. We were in contact with the former owners, to keep fidelity to the structure,” he adds. Sparsh’s mother renamed it “Second Chance,” symbolic of what they were trying to achieve when the building was completed.

    During these months, the Agarwals also reached out to Rajah Banerjee, who formerly owned the Makaibari tea estate in Darjeeling. Since sold to Luxmi Tea, the garden is legendary for its teas and for bringing bio-dynamic farming practices into mainstream conversation. Among other things, Banerjee built Makaibari as a formidable brand, one that still works in its favor today.

    Conversations ensued. As they began to articulate the problems that troubled Selim Hill – and indeed, most of Darjeeling’s tea gardens — a business plan for Dorje teas took shape.

    Darjeeling has been “inaccessible, unaffordable, or just unavailable,” to the Indian consumer, says Sparsh. Yet, his research showed that India has been a significant market for Darjeeling tea and that only half of the 10,000 metric tons of Darjeeling is exported. Kolkata has always been a market, but what about the rest of India? was a question that came up. Along with, ‘Why were gardens making losses despite producing excellent and rather expensive teas?’

    “The problem was in the four flush system that exists in Darjeeling,” says Sparsh. “The first and the second flush that gets exported sells for fancy prices. And yet, tea gardens are not able to break even. So obviously the problem lies with the monsoon and the autumn flush, maybe the monsoon more, and the autumn less.”

    Seasonal tea from Darjeeling
    Seasonal Teas from Darjeeling

    The other problem, they found, lay in the complex grading system of tea as whole leaf, brokens, fannings, and dust. The tea that comes out of the dryer or the Dryer Mouth Tea, continues Sparsh, is ready for consumption. But to create a uniform tea favored by the export market, this tea is cut and then graded. “To make the uniform whole leaf grade, we create the residue of the brokens, fannings and dust. Only 30% of the tea is sorted into the whole leaf grade and sold at a profit. So, we are not trying to cover the losses of the monsoon or autumn flush, but we are trying to cover the losses of the residue of the first and second flush themselves.”

    More research showed that this step of breaking the whole leaf tea was a recent addition – no older than 30-40 years, and not how Darjeeling tea has been made traditionally.

    Sparsh’s other dilemma was the hierarchy between the flushes, where the first flush is considered the best flush while the monsoon has suffered as the least preferred. He finds a high-fired monsoon flush tea with its smokey flavor “almost like a lapsang souchong” while friends and family in the tea business pronounced it a defect. Where he thought the tea worked well with a drop of milk, he was told you can’t add milk to a Darjeeling.

    The duo was determined to give every flush its rightful due, celebrating the unique flavour, aroma, and story they carried. They sought inspiration in how vineyards in the 80s created a model that allowed them to showcase every season’s produce but have a ready market for it, with a subscription model. “We don’t have to be dependent on the export market, which requires us to break and cut the teas. The customer gets a better product. The garden gets a better deal. And the best thing about this is that we’re able to make Darjeeling tea affordable,” says Sparsh.

    The pricing has been critical — the subscription costs INRs 2,300 ($31 per year), with four deliveries offered, one every season. Subscribers get 250g of whole leaf tea packed in a custom-sized bag, designed not to break the leaves. This pricing puts them closer to the most affordable Darjeeling in the market, which are Lipton Green Label and Makaibari’s Apoorva tea. At present, Dorje offers a black tea plan and a green tea plan, two tea types that have a ready market in India.

    Sparsh recalls that “many years ago I had the good fortune of working at the Islamic Arts Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. One of our projects was on a Persian carpet. And I remember Navina Haidar, the person I worked under, explaining to me the concept of tawheed and the oneness of God and how that is represented in the Persian carpet. And how the Persian carpet is supposed to be imperfect.” He draws this analogy to talk about the inconsistency of the tea leaves that go into the Dorje packets, insisting that in this inconsistency lies the charm of a fresh farm product.

    Dorje Teas is a new generation tea brand that takes the consumer even closer to the place of origin, recognizing the new-age Indian consumer as its audience while resetting the tea business to place value and quality at its center for both producer and consumer.

    Says Sparsh, “If Darjeeling is to survive, if there is to be a Darjeeling tea Renaissance, it has to be with Indians. Indians need to understand the handicraft of this industry and they need to want to support it, because this is one of the most phenomenal products that India has ever made.” 

    His vision may prove to be a new narrative for Darjeeling tea.

    The view from Selim Hill
    View of the Himalayas from Selim Hill

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  • COVID’s Toll

    COVID's Toll on India's Tea Estates
    India’s tea industry is excempt from lockdowns but there are limits on workers in factories and masks are mandatory.

    COVID-19 2nd Wave Strikes Blow to Rural India

    Rural India is home to 895 million of the nation’s 1.35 billion people, most of whom live in small villages and towns.

    Last year the coronavirus pandemic plunged India’s economy into a recession for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. Domestic consumption decline so severely that the economy contractedd by an estimated 7.7% according to the OECD’s Economic Outlook 2021.

    Agriculture accounts for a third of India’s gross domestic product and tea production, tea exports and tea retail all suffered. Agrarian workers, however, were largely spared the high death counts experienced in the nation’s cities.

    That is no longer the case as the COVID 2nd Wave crests. India’s tea industry employs 3.5 million workers who reside in small homes and are reliant on crowded vans for transport, resulting in much higher rates of infection this spring than in 2020.

    Although the tea industry is designated essential and therefore exempt from the strict lockdowns ordered in 2020, containment zones are in place at more than half of Assam’s 800 registered gardens. A combination of dry weather and reductions in labor due to COVID restrictions depressed harvest totals during the first six months of 2021.

    The situation is less dire in the Nilgiris following a major push by Minister for Medical and Family Welfare Ma. Subramanian. The state ministry prioritized tea workers and reported June 28 that all tea estate workers and factory workers have received a first shot and that 21,500 of 27,500 tea workers in tribal communities had been vaccinated. The ministry has vaccinated 289,000 individuals to date and will soon begin administering booster shots.

    Situation summary

    • Daily wage earners face reduced hours and fewer work days harvesting and processing tea. Declines of INRs 250-500 daily are common. As a result, many now find it difficult to meet daily food and loan obligations. Pay varies by region and there are incentives for the most productive workers, but wages are low at INRs 7,000 ($96) per month.
    • Testing is inadquate. Rapid antigen tests are available but workers, most without vehicles, must travel long distances to testing centers. Traffic restrictions limit travel between districts.
    • Hospitalization is expensive. Sugarcane grower Dattatray Bagal, told The Economic Times that a hospital bill of INRs 820,000 ($11,191) to care for his father, who died of COVID-19, “not only exhausted our savings but also forced us to borrow from relatives.” Some farmers were hit so badly that they don’t have money to buy seeds and fertilizers to plant summer-sown crops such as corn and soybean, according to the newspaper.
    • Accustomed to malaria (6.7 milllion cases in India, 9,620 deaths annually), tuberculosis (440,000 deaths annually) many workers are far more fearful of diseses they know. Mandatory quarantines and isolation during hospitalization lead to rumors that once someone is taken away, COVID victims never return.
    • Hospitals in the tea growing regions are small and generally equipped to provide only first aid and basic medical care. Few are staffed with full-time doctors and nurses. Medicines for fever, headaches, stomachaches are in short supply.
    • Many who fall ill restort to home remedies, fearful they will be sent to a COVID Care Centre (mandatory in Assam). Standard contact tracing often identifies family members who work at the estate, as well as neighbors and friends of those who test positive, leading to 15-day quarantines and loss of wages.
    • Tea workers do not receive paid leave. Central and state governments have issued pandemic guidelines for paid leave. West Bengal’s Department of Personnel and Training instituted its paid leave policy June 7. Categories include commuted leave, special casual leave, earned leave, half-pay leave for any government worker who tests positive for COVID. Tea Estates are asked to consider the same.

    Christian Kharia, who lives at Nagasuree tea garden and is the president of the UBCSS (Uttar Bangal Chai Shramik Sangathan) said that “People in the tea gardens are very casual about COVID. They treat it like any other sickness. People are not following COVID protocols.”

    Workers Face Long Term Financial Setback

    In India, in 2019, there were are an estimated 138 million subsistence households earning $1,000 to $5,000 a year, ($85 to $400 per month), according to Statista. The impact of COVID-19 on household income will slow that growth due to lost hours and a significant decline in commerce due to lockdowns.

    Prior to the pandemic, income growth was projected at 5% in rural India with the lower middle class expected to expand to 131 million households earning $5,000 to $10,000 annually by 2022, up from 92 million households in 2019. The 30 million rural households earning $10,000 to $25,000 were estimated to grow to 48 million by 2022, according to Statista market research.

    The pandemic dashed that promising outlook, taking its toll in every sector.

    Deaths Due to COVID-19

    COVID-19 ImpactAssamWest BengalKarnatakaKeralaTamil Nadu
    Population (2020 in Millions)35.99729696.78684868.809637.9612888.32544
    Population Density (per k2)3971,029 320860550
    Tea Garden Workers (registered)
    Tea Smallholders1.3 million
    Infections (curent)39,837
    Confirmed Cases (total)466,590100,437
    Positives per 100 tests (Positivity)
    COVID Deaths4,0387,663
    Compiled from state and territory COVID websites. Click link to view source for latest updates. | Updated 1 July 2021.


    Update 6-29: Assam is reporting that a high percentage (12%) of those testing positive are young people under 18 with 5,778 under five years of age, according to the National Health Mission. Deaths number 34 since April. During the second wave 280,504 have so far tested positive in Assam. The Deccan Herald writes that 28,851 of those who tested positive were between the ages of 6-18 years.

    Dibrugarh reported 2,430 cases among children, which was 12.19% of total cases. Nagaon was third with 2,288 cases (14.38%) followed by Kamrup (2,023) and Sonitpur (1,839). During the first wave, 8% of those who tested positive were younger than 18 years, according to the National Health Mission.

    Update 6-28: Vaccination sites are active at 415 tea estates as of June 22. In Assam 99,701 tea workers have received a first shot and 6,027 have received a second shot. A total of 508 tea estates reported COVID cases. Those with 20 or more were ordered to designate containment zones and activate COVID Care Centres.

    During the period May 18-28 Assam recorded a 300% spike in COVID cases, according to Bidyananda Barkakoty, adviser at the North Eastern Tea Association (NETA). He said that the number of workers in the factory and fields was reduced by half. Workers who tested positive are forced to stay at Covid Centres to prevent spreading the virus to their families.


    Assam’s 800 registered tea estates and 1.3 million smallholders produced 725,000 metric tons in 2019. Last year Assam’s big gardens produced 336,000 metric tons and smallholders produced 290,0000 metric tons for a combined 626,000 metric tons. Production is expected to decline by 20-25% as a result of dry weather and COVID mandates that reduce the first flush production by 60,000 metric tons. About 18% of Assam’s population works in tea.

    Assam (Tea Estate Workers)

    LocationTea Workers
    Active Cases
    Tea Wokers
    Total Cases
    Tea Workers
    Tea Workers
    DibugrahN/A N/A N/A
    Jorhat N/A N/A N/A
    Guwaharti N/A N/A N/A
    xxxx N/A N/A N/A
    Total2,81713,22910,410 102
    Source: North Eastern Tea Association (NETA) | 2nd Wave March-June

    Tamil Nadu (Nilgiris)

    Updated 6-23 Active cases stand at 6,895 for the Nilgiris. The state government has also placed Nilgiris on the priority list for vaccinations, as the drive continues.

    Mobile vans deployed for vaccination drive in the Nilgiris

    Supriya Sahu (IAS), COVID Monitoring Officer for the Nilgiris said, “The population of tribals in the Nilgiris stands at 27,000 of which 21,500 are 18 years and older. We have so far vaccinated 15,414 tribals. We are involving Primary Health Centres (PHC) and Block Medical Officers completely in the planning. Everyday, they inform the NGOs about the number of vaccine doses that are coming in so that the NGO teams can mobilise people in different villages. The PHCs then follow that list in a true example of bottom up community-owned planning. We had launched an awareness programme with NGOs to break the vaccine hesitancy. Key was to try and mobilise the entire village and not just individuals so that we can achieve 100% coverage in a village.”

    Tamil Nadu (Nilgiris Tea Estate Workers)

    Location Active
    Tea Workers
    Tea Workers
    Source: Supriya Sahu | 2nd Wave March – June 23, 2021


    Updated 6-23: According to the state COVID portal, on 1st April, Kerala had recorded 4,632 deaths from COVID-19 and active cases were at 26,201. The first reported death was 30th March, 2020. On 22nd June, the number of active cases were 100,437 with fatalities between 1st April, 2021 and 22nd June, 2021 reported at 7,663. 

    The main tea-growing districts of Wayanad and Idukki saw slightly lower numbers than other districts in the state. The two districts combined report 331 deaths and have 9019 active cases as of 22nd June 2021. Vaccinations are underway with 28.17% vaccinated at present. Palakkad and Thiruvananthapuram districts on the other hand, were more severely affected. Palakkad reported over 1000 deaths from COVID so far, with 7,320 active cases as of 22nd June, 2021. Thiruvananthapuram was the worst affected district and currently has nearly 100,000 active cases. Reported fatalities stood at 2,562 in this district. 

    Ashok Dugar of Chinnar Tea said that the 2nd Wave saw more cases and the workers were reluctant to shift to the isolation centres. So at their estate, the 30-bed hospital was converted to a District COVID Care Centre in May. They are also preparing for the 3rd Wave now. The disruption in production that came with the first wave was not there in the second wave as tea was exempted from lockdown.

    He added that estate managements who have large infrastructure and ready machinery should come forward to set up and upgrade their facilities to take care of not only their own but neighbouring patients in the remote rural areas, which will be great relief to the government’s much-stressed resources .

    Kerala (Tea Estate Workers)

    Location Active
    Tea Workers
    Tea Workers
    Idukki 5,244 N/A N/A
    Wayanad 3,215 N/A N/A
    Total 8,659 N/A 331
    Source: Kerala COVID Portal | 2nd Wave April 1 – June 23

    West Bengal

    Updated 6-1: In West Bengal, more than 4,500 cases have been recorded across 300 of the state’s 800 tea gardens, according to government data, as reported by Thomas Reuters Foundation.

    West Bengal (Tea Estate Workers)

    Location Active
    Tea Workers
    Tea Workers
    DarjeelingN/A N/A N/A
    Dooars N/A N/A N/A
    Terai N/A N/A N/A
    xxxxx N/A N/A N/A
    Total N/A N/A N/A
    Source: West Bengal

    Regional Updates

    Tea Biz welcomes COVID updates from tea estates, labor unions, tea associations, medical and and government authorities. Write Dan Bolton, Aravinda Anantharaman (Nilgiris), or Roopak Goswami (Assam)

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