Sometime ago I was running a well established furniture factory. It was then time to retire with my son able to take over the business. With my body physique and past experience, I simply didn’t know how to retire and my silent motto was ‘work till you drop dead’. I mentally scanned through my childhood [...]

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Tea smallholder woes: Incentives, embargos or subsidies


Sometime ago I was running a well established furniture factory. It was then time to retire with my son able to take over the business. With my body physique and past experience, I simply didn’t know how to retire and my silent motto was ‘work till you drop dead’. I mentally scanned through my childhood nature loving fantasies and selected planting (as a new post-retirement avenue). To me coconut would have made me too lazy, rubber seemed too boring. Having found serenity and challenge in tea, I bought a small tea estate from a low country category.

The land is of hilly terrain but I was determined to go ahead to support a compulsory need to do regular exercises. Despite the benefits there are challenges to overcome and I assume they are challenges common to any tea planter.

During the last four years since I acquired it, I planted 25,000 tea plants to fill gaps and vacancies, but due to bad management survival was as low as 25 per cent. I have now decided not to plant more than 3,000 plants per season at a time. On the contrary, I planted 1,500 arecanut plants where the survival is almost 100 per cent. We faced two severe droughts where I lost around 4,000 tea bushes.

To minimise future loss, we will construct 12-15 low cost concrete pits each with 15’ diameter and 3’ depth to collect rain water. To keep the mosquito larvae away, we will breed some Guppies and lay pipes to carry water from pits and utilise manual labour to water the affected plants during the drought. Not only nature poses threats and challenges from time to time but also human resources can become an issue.

Man-made issues
The shortage of properly skilled labour (and any type of labour for that matter) is the biggest impediment. Out of a total 20 on payroll, the average attendance is around 50 per cent. If I fire the worst performing ones, can I find replacements? No, it’s just impossible.

So I walk a tightrope. I have no resident labour and I can’t find replacements. So I walk a tight rope. I have no resident labour although there are two suitable houses. All the workers are from the two adjacent villages. The resident Kangani is from a distant place. Obviously he is overly cautious to be too firm with the workers. Long practised, lazy working hours are from 7 am to 1 pm. The pluckers are assigned a suitable plot of land with known boundaries. The Kangani is expected to do the weeding and manuring, etc using the available sundry labour. The pluckers are paid Rs.32. per kg of green leaves plucked. The average per day is 20 kg per plucker.

The second problem is the fast growing weeds which causes production top drop by at least 30 per cent. Earlier, Glyphosate was used sparingly and the labour requirement was relatively low. With no suitable substitute being found, weed control has become almost impossible. When certain areas get overgrown with weeds, pluckers conveniently skip such areas. Within weeks, tea bushes in the affected area get covered by weeds and even perish. Weeds compete for soil nutrients, water and sun light depriving tea plants their due share.

This not only reduces the harvest but also increases our cost of manure and labour. Pluckers are also reluctant to wade through large weeds due to physical inability and fear of snakes. It is an affordable good practice to fill vacancies amongst tea bushes during every rainy season. But with restricted labour and wild growth in vacant areas, such re-planting and even timely manuring get severely hampered. It’s a pity that the government is not listening to the true stakeholders or competent agro-economists on the use of weedicides. All tea growing countries apply Glyphosate, and there has been no scientific proof to link Glyphosate to CKD (chronic kidney disease) and tea growing areas have showed no signs of CKD.

The third problem is the negative impact from the sudden 213 per cent price increase of manure from Rs 1,300 to Rs. 2,900 by the present government. To my personal knowledge, due to the Glyphosate ban and the price increase on manure, several small holders have neglected their tea estates. I don’t think the tea growers need any government subsidy in routine issues (save the new and re planting subsidies) vis-à-vis the prevailing tea prices. We would rather prefer incentives to motivate green leaf production say, by complete withdrawal of any taxes imposed on tea exports, and full waiver of any duties and taxes on the import of basic fertilisers such as Urea and Muriate of Potash.

Post-harvest dilemmas
For the moment there is no difficulty to sell the green leaves. Lorries from the factory come to the estate, check quality, weigh, stuff the leaves in boxes and take away the full load. Each worker keeps a record of the amount plucked. Any issues on quality are sorted out then and there and also any messages from the factory are notified to the Kangani. Since the leaf delivery is directly to the factory, we get the monthly statement with prices marked and amounts payable having made a certain deduction.

Irrespective of the price paid and impending competition, we continue to maintain good quality tea leaves. The main reason for the drop in quality is when mature leaves are mixed with the tender leaves. These tender leaves have a higher density than a mature leaf. So it is really beneficial for the estate to pluck leaves before they mature. An occasional visit by a technical officer from the leaf buying company to the tea small holdings will be immensely helpful to both parties.

Current market scenario
Farm gate green leaf prices are hovering around Rs 100 per kg (May 2017) and this is good.
While the current political leadership seems committed to the sector, what is worrying is the sudden increase in fertiliser prices and the ban on Glyphosate. The global spread of diabetes has seen people moving away from consuming sugary syrup like beverages. People in the developed countries now tend to prefer herbal related natural products like tea and coffee.

Favourable medical reports endorsing a few cups of tea a day is also in our favour. We are at an advantage to reap the benefits from the globally famous ‘Ceylon Tea’ slogan too. The Government’s decision not to allow import of other cheap tea stocks for blending will certainly augment our claim as bona fide manufacturers of original unblended Ceylon Tea.

Despite tensions in Syria, we see steady civil administrations in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, Libya and mostly all other tea buying nations. Resilience of OPEC countries to hold the oil prices around US$50 a barrel despite threats from a production glut (Iran, Nigeria, US, etc), American Shale Oil, surplus of LNG and alternative energy sources (solar, wind, hydro, etc) and motorists choosing electric and hybrid cars will have a positive impact. When their economies are stable tea will fetch good prices.

Though unfavourable in an economic sense, the rupee depreciation too helped us get a good price for our green leaves. At present we seem to export 35 per cent of total export volumes in value added packs. If this trend is encouraged with tax breaks and other incentives, demand for green leaves will increase further. The norms applied to determine a fair price for green leaves based on monthly average export price of tea deserves a re-visit. The formula looks unfavourable to the grower.
According to Forbes & Walker export data, our tea export volume decreased from 328 million kg in 2014 to 289 million kg in 2016. Thus the reduction in export revenue was a staggering Rs. 60 billion.

I hope the Minister will be generous enough to grant a gift to the tea growers during these 150th anniversary days by lifting the ban on Glyphosate and nullifying the taxes and duties on fertiliser imports.(The writer is a tea smallholder and can be reached at

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