Tea leaves predict a tense future

Written by RajeshRavi | Updated: Aug 10 2012, 08:31am hrs
Tea plantations in south India are facing the twin problem of declining production and inferior quality. Production of tea in the southern parts of the country is on the decline due to a combination of factors like labour shortage and age of plantations. But the most worrisome of them all is an erratic climate.

Production of tea from south India decreased from 246.9 million kg in 2008 to 240.88 million kg in 2011. During 2009, it stood at 244.13 million kg and during 2010 it was at 243.37 million kg. In the same period, tea production from north India increased from 733.93 million kg in 2008 to 747.45 million kg in 2011.

Though tea is not monsoon sensitive, long-term changes in the weather pattern has hit tea producing areas in the southern part of the country. Weather has been unpredictable and adverse in the past few years for tea. Rainfall is less and the dry periods are getting longer. Production is likely to decline in the coming years in south mainly due to the inability to tackle erratic weather and the age of the tea plantations, Harrisons Malayalam executive director N Dharmaraj said. Most of the plantations in south India have tea bushes that are past their prime. The average age would be around 70 years. There are new and better quality clones available but replanting has been slow in the south, he added.

According to the MS Swaminathan commission that studied the farm crisis in Idukki district, environmental factors have changed dramatically and could threaten the livelihood of millions of farmers. The commission studied rain and temperature data for the past few decades and found that number of rainy days has been coming down. The report states that the number of rainy days is decreasing for both the southwest monsoon and the northeast monsoon. The temperature data for the region reveals that maximum temperature is seen rising over the years, while minimum temperature is seen falling. The rate of decrease in the minimum temperature is slightly lower, but very significant.

We feel it is going to be a difficult time for the southern plantation industry. In the last four to five years, weather has become completely unpredictable. We have lost a large area to frost due to cold and dry conditions. The maximum temperature has increased over the years by almost 1.5C, while the minimum has fallen by the same level, said Chacko P Thomas, managing director, Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, the largest tea plantation in south India.

United Planters Association of South India (UPASI) Tea Research Foundation joint director P Mohan Kumar suggests that a combination of factors including erratic weather is to be blamed for the declining production. Take the case of Valaparai, where our institute is located, the maximum temperature has increased to 34C in the last 10 years from around 30C. Similarly, the minimum temperature has also fallen, he added.

Labour shortage is another major concern. Most of the labourers prefer to work in other sectors and harvesting suffers in output and quality, he added. Replanting is a solution, but it has been slow due to crop losses in the initial period and shortage of labour, Thomas said.

Some large estates are not harvesting their complete crop due to non-availability of labour. Machine harvesting is an option but quality of tea suffers when compared to manual harvesting, said Kumar. In some cases the tea bushes are very old resulting in declining yield every year. In south India, more than 50% of the tea bushes are above their prime productive age, he added.

Reports suggest that India consumes about 25% of the worlds tea production, and over 75-80 % of its own output. Domestic tea consumption has grown by 3-3.5 % per annum over the last decade, says a UPASI report. This is obviously a reflection of the economic growth and tea being an income elastic product has benefited by the growth. It is clear that India will have to rely on imports to meet its growing demand for tea. Replanting is a commercial decision and the current market prices are not favorable for it. Currently, the southern plantation sector is in tight spot being a lower quality and lesser productive industry. The business dynamics have changed and we need to focus on either the high productivity league like Vietnam or high quality league like Kenya to survive, N Dharmaraj said.