Here's why Wayanad's tea plantations are disappearing

Tea plantations. Photo: Special Arrangement

Wayanad: With the prevailing erratic and extreme weather conditions due to the climate emergency, rising production costs, falling prices, and a festering labour shortage, the Wayanad-Nilgiri tea belt, which boasts more-than-a-century-old history, has been struggling for survival.

While the plantation groups are trying to cope by introducing ultra-modern and high-quality production techniques such as automation and expanding marketing networks through brand identity promotion and so on, small and medium farmers are switching to other crops, predominantly coffee and cardamom.

The erratic climate with excessive rainfall during monsoon and extreme heat during summer results in high fluctuations in tea production.

When the monsoon season started this month the production shot up as the summer was the hottest of the last few years; rains after the long summer resulted in high crop yield beyond the carrying capacity of factories.

On the contrary, in October last year, the production had touched an all-time low with many factories shutting down for weeks and many others operating just to ensure the machines did not gather rust.

Tea Board of India data say there has been no significant increase in the price of either processed tea dust or green tea leaf during the last two decades. The price of processed South Indian tea never crossed the Rs 140 mark per kg except for a few brands whereas for the farmers the average price of green tea leaf is Rs 12-14 kg.

According to Kabeer Pottangal, president of Karshakasree Cherukida Theyila Karshaka Sangham based at Vaduvanchal near Ambalavayal, the number of small and medium farmers is depleting at a fast pace as there has been no significant price hike for green tea leaf on par with the hike of farm input costs.

The leaf plucking cost itself is Rs 7-10 per kg and other costs like weed removal, manoeuvring, shade cutting and so forth would cost an additional Rs 5 due to which none of the farmers are ready to promote tea,” said Kabeer.

“Five years ago, our society had more than 100 members whereas at present we have only 70,” he said, adding that in another five years, the small and medium tea farmers will not exist as uprooting tea plants has become the norm.

Hinting at the present crisis of excess production, Kabeer said this month none of the factories needed the green leaf due to high production. “We have to sell the leaf for whatever price the agents and even bought leaf factories fix as we are not in a position to control the market,” he added.

“Along with the price crash, the cost of chemical fertiliser, herbicide, and insecticide registered a 30-40 per cent price increase,” said Shaji Muttappalli, a farmer who is uprooting 1 acre full of tea this year to plant coffee.

“For coffee, the maintenance cost is very low while tea needs round-the-year maintenance,” he said. “Moreover, we are facing acute labour shortage which affects timely harvest as tender tea leaves should be harvested every fifteen days,” he noted. “During the last five years the labour cost almost doubled whereas the price of the tea leaf has remained almost the same,” he pointed out.

Farmer Shaji Muttappalli of Erumad in his farm where tea plants are being uprooted to plant coffee. Photo: Special Arrangement

For a few months during the coronavirus pandemic, there was a price jump as imports were under a strict ban; in the North East region including Assam which contributes to a lion’s share of India’s tea, entire plantations remained closed.

As per the price data submitted by the Kayyunni Small Tea Growers Association, an organisation of tea farmers to the Tea Board of India, during the last five years, the tea farmers received a good price only during the four months when the pandemic hit. Then the prices went beyond the Rs 20 mark.

In 2020-21 during the months of August (Rs 23), September (Rs 27) October (Rs 24), and November (Rs 23), tea farmers received a good price as the Kerala state government directed its agencies to purchase tea dust directly from INDCO, the Tea Co-operative under the Tamil Nadu government.

Going by the data during 2017-2018, the highest price received by the farmers was Rs 15 per kg while the lowest was Rs 9.50.

The wages of labourers were Rs 350 for men and 200 for women in the 2005-2006 period in the Wayanad-Nilgiri region which has now been increased to Rs 600 and Rs 350 respectively.

A recent survey of farm labourers showed that 90 per cent of the labourers are above 50 years of age as all the youths have migrated to cities. Adding to the woes, the educated progeny of the agrarian community has been shifting to overseas destinations like the UK, USA, Canada, Singapore, and Australia.

Most of the youngsters neither want to come back nor invest in agriculture as they feel their parents and forefathers were exploited by the system.

Tea plantation. Photo: Special Arrangement

“Apart from some prime brands, the average tea dust of all other tea factories is sold below Rs 100 per kg,” said TC Varghese, president, Wayanad-Nilgiri Bought Leaf Factories Association. “We received a good price for processed tea only for three months of the year as the major buyers focus on the tea from the North East where the quality is higher due to the comparatively high altitude and low production cost as the wage is Rs 160–200 which is almost double here,” he added.

"We are facing a depletion in tea leaf supply as most of the farmers prefer to keep the plantations unattended," he added. “You will get enough area of tea plantations here for just Rs 10,000 per year on lease,” he added.

Nature plays villain

For the first time in the history of the tea industry, in October last year, the majority of factories in the Wayanad-Nilgiri tea belt suspended operations for many days as incessant rains devastated the plantations.

The tea economy froze for weeks sans any financial activity. The tea factories that used to receive 15,000-20,000 kg of green leaves on average, received only 500-1000 kg of leaves per day in the month which was insufficient to run the factories.

The phenomenon had hit the lives of more than 50,000 farmers, lakhs of daily wagers, tea leaf suppliers and factory staff. The majority of the 292 green leaf processing units (bought leaf factories) of the region were forced to either close down or operate temporarily.

A tea plantation worker. Photo: Special Arrangement

Since then, many of the daily wagers were forced to shift to towns in search of regular jobs resulting in a shortage of healthy hands. Tea Board of India data suggest the combined farmers’ strength in Wayanad -Niligiri region is 50,650.

According to Sajeesh Jan P, assistant professor at the Department of Agricultural Meteorology, Regional Agricultural Research Station Ambalavayal, there has been a shift in rain patterns for the last few years.

“In June there is a dip in average rainfall and there is a trend of incessant showers in a few days causing widespread damages,” he pointed out. “Most of the crops are hit by this unpredictable shift,” he added.

Legacy of Tea

Forest lands in Wayanad were converted to tea plantations only after the fall of Pazhassi Raja in 1805 and after the Martyrdom of Tippu Sultan which helped the East India Company to expand its influence into the region. Many of the army men who had fought in the jungles went back to their lands and became planters who converted virgin forests into tea, coffee and cinchona plantations.

The tea plantations were introduced by 1853 in Wayanad and Nilgiris. By 1859 there were 27 small and medium estates in Wayanad where around 80 British planters concentrated on developing estates.

More than 10,000 acres of land were converted into coffee plantations within two decades.

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