Since colonial times, the districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar and North Dinajpur are well known for tea cultivation. Traditionally, tea was always grown in estates that were typically more than 10 hectares (ha). However, recent data in the Agricultural Census indicates that small and marginal holdings are increasingly changing their cropping pattern in favour of tea cultivation. It is an outcome of substantial government encouragement to prop-up large tea estates with the produce from small growers.
Pattern of tea acreage: 1995-96 to 2010-11
Analysis of Agricultural Census data for the years 1995-96, 2000-01, 2005-06 and 2010-11 reveals the following trend:
- The concentration of area under tea crop continues to remain under estate farming, i.e., in land holdings above 20 ha where very little fluctuation is found across the years (Fig. 1).
- While there was no tea cultivation in land holdings of size below 20 ha in 1995-96, tea cultivation by small and marginal farmers took off from 2000-01 onwards. Tea cultivation by small farms reached around 8341 ha in 2005-06
(Fig. 2). Although in terms of share of gross cropped area, tea claimed less than 1 per cent of the total acreage; the trend is significant enough for us to examine what drives it.
- With respect to the number of holdings adopting tea cultivation, small holders were found to dominate since 2005-06 with more than 8000 holdings making the shift (Fig. 1). This highlights the labour perspective of tea cultivation which is typically female labour dependent, and in case of small holders, involve family labour. Table 1 further suggests that with respect to share of output, small tea growers produce more than 25 per cent of the total, nationally. Hence, it is important that the problems of small tea growers be adequately addressed.
Emergence of small tea growers
It was only in the 8th Five Year Plan that India formally adopted the idea of encouraging small tea growers. This was a reaction to the persistent failure in rejuvenating tea estates despite doling out government subsidies for re-planting bushes and technological upliftment to augment production. The large tea estates were not interested in expanding their area under cultivation, which was imperative to increase the output. Hence, to match the rising demand for tea in the national and international markets, the Tea Board of India sought to promote small tea growers. These growers were to be located around the periphery of the larger estates, such that leaves from the smaller growers would be entirely purchased by the nucleus estate’s factory in lieu of a value declared by the Tea Board. This would thus, amount to a tie-up with the larger estates in terms of technology and sale of leaves. Besides, small tea growers would be entitled to a monthly subsistence allowance of INR 400 for the first three years (Bhowmick, 1991).
Prospects of small tea growers
For a farmer with a small holding, growing tea offers a substantive opportunity for self-employment. As a modern form of cultivation with some government support, it can also emerge as a potent employment provider at the local scale. The Tea Board provides several incentives to encourage small tea growers:
subsidies for purchasing vehicles, setting up leaf collection sheds, supplying fertilisers and other inputs are offered;
- A separate directorate with its headquarters at Dibrugarh (Tea Board Annual Report, 2012-13) has been set up. Also a separate initiative is proposed to be mobilised exclusively for small tea growers in North Bengal region;
- Extending financial assistance towards training on improved methods of tea cultivation to enhance productivity;
- Extending advisory support in non-traditional areas, and setting up of nurseries to provide good quality planting materials;
- Encouraging and assisting small tea growers both financially and technically, particularly in the unorganised small growers sector.
Initiatives such as bought leaf factories to purchase green leaves from small tea growers exclusively, thereby reducing the uncertainty in an unstable market have also been put in place. This has contributed to paddy and potato fields being rapidly transformed into small tea gardens (Biswas et al., 2013).
Problems faced by small tea growers
Firstly, absence of a processing unit within the tea garden of small tea growers and the arrangement of raw leaf purchase by bought leaf factories commonly deprive small tea growers from benefitting from high tea prices. Since prices are often dictated by the attached large estates or bought leaf factories, there are considerable fluctuations. Recently, there was a crash in tea leaf prices of small tea growers in the Dooars region of West Bengal bringing prices down to INR 6-7 per kg against the normal average of INR 15-16 per kg. Devoid of any security net, small tea growers severely suffered (Roychowdhury, 2015).
Secondly, small tea growers entirely depend upon individual financial initiatives as there is little available financial support. Hence, it is challenging to maintain a capital intensive tea farm.
Similar to the small holder plantations in Southeast Asia, small tea farms in India have tremendous potential for growth. If adequate support is extended, small tea growers have the potential to emerge as significant players in the tea economy. Apart from their significant contribution in the total national output, they can serve as good avenues for labour/employment (for women) as tea is primarily a female labour intensive crop.
However, there remains some concern over the phenomenal outflow of paddy land into tea cultivation. Besides, the transformed labour relations that emerge from tea replacing paddy is a fascinating subject that calls for some serious research. The Tea Board, rather than encouraging small tea growers with an output-centric approach must take an all encompassing view to integrate its special provisions for the greater social good.
Bhowmik, S.K. (1991). Small growers to prop up large plantations, Economic and Political Weekly, 26(30), 1789-90.
Biswas, D., & Chandra, N.R. (2013). The problems and prospects of the small tea growers in India with special reference to North Bengal region, Advances in Management, 6(12), 34.
Hazarika, K., & Borah, K. (2013). Small tea cultivation in the process of self-employment: A study on the indigenous people of Assam (India), International Journal of Latest Trends Financial Economic Science, 3(2), 502-507.
Roychowdhury, I. (2015, December 9). Drastic drop in N Bengal tea prices hit small growers hard. The Financial Express. Retrieved from www.financialexpress.com/article/markets/commodities/drastic-drop-in-n-bengal-tea-prices-hits-small-growers-hard/176255.
Tea Board India, Government of India. (2012-13). 59th Annual Report 2012-2013. Retrieved from www.teaboard.gov.in/pdf/bulletin/59-English-AR_12-13.pdf.