Prices at India auctions
(~/kg) that makes for half the annual hill production,” says Maheshwari. But quality stages a smart comeback in the autumn flush that follows the monsoon. In the strike aftermath, the industry is facing the onerous task of removing the weeds and creepers that have grown wild and pruning the tea bushes that have become free growth plants. Never in the past, had Darjeeling gardens faced a situation like this.
In the middle of the strike, Rajah Banerjee, chairman of Makaibari, told The Times of London that “our tea bushes have turned into forests.” Several planters say by the time the strike was called off, the “forests became only denser.” It’s over a month that the strike ended, but the industry is still finding it “extremely difficult to mobilise labour to clear the access roads to gardens and the ones within. “In normal times we put up with labour shortage of 35 to 40 per cent. But this has now reached 60 per cent, making the task of garden rehabilitation so much more difficult and expensive,” says Maheshwari.
As the rehabilitation work picks up tempo, albeit slowly, what is staring in the face of the industry, particularly its many weak constituents, is finding money for the job to be done. According to Maheshwari, “nothing less than 80 per cent of the hill gardens made losses in the last financial year. In our group’s six gardens, only two were in the black last year. This year, the Darjeeling industry will make losses of over ~150 crore. The industry is facing rough times for the last four years. So, finding money to make the gardens ready for plucking first flush leaves in March remains a challenge.”
With their back to the wall, the growers made a representation to the government for a ~325 crore assistance to make the gardens ready for March first flush plucking. But much to their dismay, the relief package that the Tea Board had forwarded to the commerce ministry was scaled down to ~100 crore based on a damage assessment by the Tea Research Association. According to Tea Board Chairman P K Bezbaruah, government help will be for clearing the weeds and creepers and pruning of bushes that have grown too high to allow plucking and not for compensating the industry’s revenue loss due to the strike.
In the current depressing environment, “the one redeeming thing is the strike sending the bushes, 75 to 80 per cent of which are over a century old, into hibernation. This should make the bushes healthier. The challenge for planters will be to ensure fine plucking of two leaves and a bud from adequately pruned bushes. The already high cost plantations will soon have to contend with revision of minimum wages. This will make a demand on them to improve the quality profile of tea produced in the hills so that better prices could be fetched,” says a leading broker who does not want to be quoted.
The first and second flush tea is mostly sold privately for export instead of being offered on auctions. What is routed through the auctions is the low-quality rain flush tea. This means the better grades are sold without discovering the right price through time-tested auctions. The practice of selling tea through private deals calls for a change.