Prices at In­dia auc­tions

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(~/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.

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