The winding roads in the hill town of Palampur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra slowly take you to the lush green tea gardens dotted with hundreds of men and women, baskets hanging on their backs, plucking the leaves that are then taken to in house processing units.
On the way, comes a ‘Chai Bhawan’, an office of HP government’s tea division, meant to ‘guide’ and help tea growers. Only a caretaker is present. The rooms lie locked.
Soon, the landscape changes – from lush green visibly ‘prosperous’ tea estates to the ones with drooping leaves, rotting plants, and locked gates. One doesn’t need to be the cliched rocket scientist to understand and not all’s well with Kangra’s tea story.
Of around 2,300 hectares (approx) under tea cultivation in Himachal, the maximum 1,400 hectares is in Palampur. But over the past 15 years, tea production in Kangra has dwindled from 17-18 lakh kilos a year to just 8-9 lakh kilos now. Left behind are the neglected tea farms, being abandoned by younger generations of the families that owned them since colonial era.
According to DS Kanwar, technical officer (tea), state agriculture department, an approximate 850 hectares of area under tea is lying neglected or has been abandoned by owners. There are 5,900 tea growers still active, mostly in Kangra, apart from small pockets in Joginder Nagar and Chamba.
The tea growers, both big and small, have little hope of things changing after Lok Sabha polls. Like past many years, they say, they will continue to be neglected and ignored because they are not a ‘votebank’ like apple growers.
No subsidies, poor marketing, erratic processing and no separate policy to promote the product, the Kangra tea growers are fighting all alone to keep their farms and livelihood alive. They ask why no efforts have been made to put Kangra tea on world-map like Assam and Darjeeling tea. They also ask why all facilities being extended to apple growers were not being given to them too.
Of the four government-owned tea processing plants at Palampur, Bir, Baijnath and Sidhbari, three mostly lie closed and do not procure and process regularly.
Rajeev Sood (33), owner of Raipur Tea Estate spread over 50 acres and who runs his own brand ‘Himalayan Brew’, also procures tea leaves from small growers for his processing unit. He is among a few from the younger generation who have revived their tea estate.
“Not all can run plants on their own. Government needs to step in and help small growers. Kangra tea is also a heritage that government needs to take care of and preserve before it is too late. In fact, it is already too late. For instance, apple growers are given packaging, transportation subsidies, anti-hail guns, cold storages and many other facilities. But there is nothing for us. Why? If not us, at least give it to small growers who own farms as small as 2 hectares. They are fighting it all alone. The tea auction centre is in Kolkata, which is too far and we incur expenditure of at least Rs 12 per kilo to send the produce there. There is no government help, not even for warehousing,” says Sood.
“Apple growers are huge in numbers. Area under apple is very large. Tea growers in Himachal are not a votebank,” he explains.
With at least 1.25 lakh hectares under apple cultivation in Himachal, it is said to be Rs 4,000 crore economy for state with at least 1.5 lakh families associated with it. However, the tea industry in Kangra is pegged at Rs 18-20 crore. Apart from growers, a few thousand families of leaf pluckers, daily wagers and other employees in processing units depend on it for livelihood. Also, apple farms is spread across Shimla, Kullu and Mandi whereas tea is limited to Kangra – mainly Palampur.
Yogesh Sood, a small grower with 2-hectare farm, questions, “Why there is no separate policy to promote Kangra Tea? Why are we behind despite our tea being no less than that of Assam and Darjeeling in quality? Earlier we used to get 50 per cent subsidy on tools, fertilizers and manures. Now there is nothing. And then government asks why people are abandoning this business. We get Rs 20-25 per kilo only for green tea leaves. Kangra Tea is not on world map because it is not a priority for any government or any politician. Survival has become difficult for small growers like us.”
The tea growers also ask why tea division has been shifted from industry to agriculture department.
“It is an industry. It is a cash crop and it can bring profits for government and growers both but policies are all wrong. We have failed to package and market Kangra tea the way it should have been,” said another grower.
According to Himachal Pradesh Ceiling of Land Holdings Act, tea estate owners cannot sell inherited farms or use them for any other purpose. As a result, with shrinking profits, younger generations are abandoning them and moving to other businesses. Some even moved courts, got exemptions and sold them off.
DS Kanwar, technical officer (tea), state agriculture department, says that quality of Kangra tea is nowhere inferior to Assam or Darjeeling but there are ‘problems’ which need to be solved. “We agree that product needs better packaging and marketing for international scope. Currently, state government is giving 50 per cent subsidy on inputs (manures, fertilizers etc) but only to SC/ST growers. Farms are being abandoned by younger generations because growers are not getting prices at par with Darjeeling or Assam tea. Three of our four processing plants at Bir, Baijnath and Sidhbari have been leased out to private parties and they are running erratic due to some issues. Landholdings are getting smaller. Tea plants are excellent forests so government needs to promote this cultivation as it also prevents soil erosion. As compared to Assam and Darjeeling, we need to do much more.”