Tea garden owners of Assam, who are looking forward to resume operation, want a comprehensive safety protocol from the government, though they felt the industry standards were good enough to prevent the risk of spreading coronavirus.
Despite the government’s early initiative to reopen the North Indian tea estates, South India has taken the lead with both Kerala and Tamil Nadu resuming operations with safety protocol in place to prevent spread of coronavirus among workers.
The Union home ministry had issued orders on March 24 that 50% of the workmen in the tea estates can resume their work. The Assam government too on March 31 had issued advisory that the tea estate owners can contact their respective deputy commissioners to resume operations in the tea gardens. Though Kerala and Tamil Nadu issued safety protocols, Assam failed in doing so. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has given clear orders that the gardens of Darjeeling, Terai, and Doars region will remain closed as long as the lockdown continues.
Tea garden owners of Assam, who are looking forward to resume operation, want a comprehensive safety protocol from the government, though they felt the industry standards were good enough to prevent the risk of spreading coronavirus. Pluckers maintained a reasonable distance while plucking and so the government should allow plucking to begin at the earliest.
Kerala has issued safety guidelines prohibiting workers from outside to enter the tea gardens. It has allowed workers only residing in the tea gardens to join work and has allowed plucking and processing within the premises of tea garden only. The guidelines say that employing only one worker for harvesting in a block consisting of half acre and transportation for shifting product is allowed only from factory to warehouses. The guidelines have allowed irrigation and pesticide application while restricting mustering. Space has to be demarcated for weighing tea leaves at a distance of 8 feet and weighing shall be done strictly controlling the employees to maintain distance.
The Indian Tea Associstion felt this protocol could have been easily replicated in the tea gardens of Assam but certain trade unions were coming in the way for which reopening gardens were getting delayed.
Tea Workers Unions have demanded withdrawing the home ministry’s order on the plea that activities like weighing, drying, processing, sorting and packing were done in confined spaces where chances of workmen getting affected to Covid -19 grows. Besides, the home ministry has ordered 50% of the workers to join work, which would be a discrimination. “None of the 400 tea gardens in Dooars and Tarai region will be opened during the lockdown period and salaries cannot be deducted of the 4 lakh odd workers and ration has to be provided since it has been announced from both the state and Centre”, said John Barla of the Bharati Tea Workers Union and also a MP in West Bengal.
But industry sources said there are chances that the gardens of Assam will resume operation from April 10 with the governor issuing fresh orders. So as the tea estates of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam will be in operation from April, Darjeeling will continue to remain closed.
The tea gardens have been closed since December for which the industry has already lost around 120 million kgs of tea.The 55 million kgs of stock pile has already been wiped out and there is likely to be a short supply during May -June. Supplies are likely to become steady from August with prices picking up after a slump of five years. Tea has been selling at an average of Rs 150 a kg and prices have remained stagnant for continuous 5 years. After the long closure of the gardens and market likely witnessing a short supply, prices may spike but India’s export market remains uncertain with Darjeeling remaining closed although Kerala and Tamil Nadu can partly substitute. .
There are demands from Iran and China and tea producing countries like Kenya, Sri Lanka and Nepal might now take a larger market share in the absence of Indian export.
India itself consumes around 1,000 million kgs of tea and produces around 1,100 million kgs. So after already loosing 120 million kgs, the Indian tea industry will first have to look in meeting its own demand.
North India has lost 3% crop in March and 2% more in April. As and when the tea estates reopen in April, a light skiffing has to be done in the unpruned areas where there has been excess leaf growth.