Growers fret over tea bush upgrade plan

Calcutta, Dec. 2: Tea growers have conveyed their misgivings to the Tea Board about the central scheme on replanting bushes.

At a board meeting yesterday, the participants approved the recommendations on tea made my the parliamentary standing committee in its report on the plantation sector, but there were dissenting voices on the special purpose tea fund (SPTF) scheme that governed the replanting and rejuvenation of bushes. Industry stakeholders stressed the need to strengthen the SPTF scheme with a focus on ground realities.

"We held a meeting to discuss the recommendations and they have all been accepted. It (the report) had stated that the Board should concentrate on quality and should make efforts so that tea is declared a national drink," Tea Board chairman M. G. V. K. Bhanu said.

However, the industry said the target of replanting and uprooting of the total garden area at an annual rate of 2.5 per cent under SPTF was difficult to meet.

The scheme extends financial support to estates to undertake replanting and rejuvenating of bushes over half a century old.

"For the SPTF to be effective, it has to be not coercive but supportive in nature. This intervention is needed for the industry's good. But a 2.5 per cent rate on an annual basis is difficult to achieve. Uprooting involves crop loss and new bushes require 4-5 years to bloom. We recommend a five-year period for uprooting instead of an annual basis. Some gardens lack buffer crop and cash flow could then be a problem," an industry spokesperson said.

According to him, there was a need for flexibility and common decision-making. "There can be bad years when gardens do not make capital expenditure and there is crop loss. Uprooting bushes then will not be feasible. These will have to be carefully calibrated in an eagerness to promote production. Sufficient flexibility should be allowed."

India has a 16 per cent share in the total 3.6 million hectares under tea cultivation globally. About 38 per cent of the domestic bushes are between 50 and 100 years old, resulting in declining productivity and quality compared with countries such as Kenya and Sri Lanka. India has still not been able to cross the 1,000-million-kg production mark.

The Tea Board had said Rs 350 crore under SPTF would be pumped in to fund replanting in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012-17).

SPTF aims to cover 2.12 lakh hectares of old tea area over a 15-year period, beginning 2007.

Export malpractice

The parliamentary committee has criticised the Tea Board for failing to check unscrupulous exporters importing cheap tea and re-exporting under a false certificate.

The panel said, "The committee is gravely concerned over the unpreparedness of the department (the ministry and Tea Board) to deal with unscrupulous exporters importing cheap tea and re-exporting it without any significant value addition under the false certificate as Tea of Indian Origin".

"The apathy of the department towards such practices has seriously undermined the image as well as the value of Indian tea in the export market," the committee added.