Twenty two years after he first started cultivating tea, Gopal Chakraborty of the Maheshkhola Tea Estate in West Tripura district decided to go organic. This was two years back. “I own Maheshkhola Tea Estate, which comprises two small tea gardens. I started my brand, Manorama Organic Green Tea in 2016 and have since ruled out all chemical intervention in the production process,” Chakraborty told indianexpress.com. He is one of 3,000 small tea growers in the state, who cumulatively grow “16.80 lakh kg made green tea” across 1400 hectare land.
In Tripura, many small tea growers have shifted to organic tea cultivation in the past but Chakraborty and Kalyan Debbarma of Mohanpur in West Tripura have acquired their organic Scope certificates by fulfilling the National Programme for Organic Production Standards.
The Scope certificate allows them to sell their tea as “organic tea” for 3 years, with a tag that says the tea is currently under ‘conversion’ from traditional to organic. A permanent organic certificate is then issued.
Chakraborty started the conversion process by replacing urea, potash and other fertilizers with homemade compost. Soon he realized pesticides have a lot more chemicals than fertilizers. That’s when he met some Rajasthani farmers visiting Tripura.
They visited Chakraborty’s tea gardens and suggested that he use a salve of leaves: neem, papaya, and that of the bitter ‘Vaait’ plant traditionally used as an anti-worm herb. The preparation is used 1:10 with water while gau-mutra (cow urine) is used 1:10 with the mixture.
“The organic pesticide alternative worked miraculously,” said Chakraborty, adding that the salve also helped in combatting the ‘red spider’ disease his plants had developed due to the heat wave this year.
Despite these benefits, organic tea cultivation has, however, dealt a blow of loss to both Chakraborty and Debbarma. The latter, who runs a small tea garden alongside Chakraborty’s estate in Mohanpur sub-division, said only 22 percent of the entire bulk of green tea leaves end up as processed green tea.
Adds Chakraborty, “22 years back I grew 2,800 kg of processed tea in the first year of production. When I last shifted to organic, I was growing over 34 thousand kg green leaf a year. It came down by 4,000 kg last year. I am afraid it will further reduce this time due to bad climatic conditions.”
However, they are very optimistic about the long-term profit that awaits them.
“I took my green tea in simple plastic packets to the Tripura Industrial Fair last year and sold it at Rs 1,500 per kg! That is triple the price traditional tea used to fetch me. I am sure my organic venture will be very profitable. Other small tea growers are also following my lead,” Chakraborty said.
Tripura has 58 operational tea gardens, among which 42 are individually owned, 13 are operated under cooperative societies, and three are run by the Tripura Tea Development Corporation. Around 3,000 small tea growers also run their tea gardens with government support. 6,885 hectare land is now under tea cultivation in the state.
According to estimates, Tripura has registered 3.58 crore kg green tea leaf production annually, among which 88 lakh kg “made tea” or processed tea is manufactured in different processing plants.
Ludhua Cooperative Tea Estate of South Tripura district is among the three tea estates of the state which has gone organic till date. While the others come from the small tea grower sector, Ludhua estate produces 1.25 lakh kg organic tea every year. The price gap between organic variant and traditional tea is huge. The latter is priced at Rs 400 per kilo while organic tea fetches Rs 8,000 at the least.
Tea Board of India Assistant Director (Tea Development) Diganta Barman told indianexpress.com that a logo is being designed to market Tripura Tea in a bid for it to compete with Assam Tea, Darjeeling Tea and other established brands.
Tea cultivation started in Tripura at Hiracherra tea estate in Unakoti district in 1916. But there are many problems which ail it. For one, several estates have gone bankrupt. Yield from from Narendrapur, Mekhlipara tea gardens in West Tripura is now sold under brands like Goodwynn, but lacks proper marketing.
On the issue, Tripura Tea Development Corporation (TTDC) Chairperson Santosh Saha said that the former Left Front government damaged prospects of tea industry by turning most of the gardens ‘sick’. Efforts would be taken to revive them now and an auction centre would be started soon to reduce dependence on Guwahati and Kolkata-based auction markets, he said.
A TTDC official, who did not wish to be named, said bulk of tea grown in Tripura is smuggled into Bangladesh and sold as Assam Tea, Darjeeling Tea etc.
However, with assistance from the government and a few enthusiastic tea growers like Chakraborty, Tripura Tea soon hopes to become a player to reckon with in the regional tea market.