Nilgiris: With a prolonged fall in prices, labour shortage and scaling input costs, unrest is brewing in the Nilgiris, one of the early cradles of tea culture in South India.
Cash-strapped small and medium farmers have been out in the streets for the past three weeks demanding immediate state intervention to ensure a fair price (Rs 35 per kg) for tea.
Ooty, Kothagiri and Coonoor, the major tea towns of Nilgiris are abuzz with the ‘Save Tea Farmer’ slogan.
In the Upper Nilgiris, where tea is the main source of livelihood for the agrarian community, an indefinite relay hunger strike has been on for the last 19 days (from September 1). The protest is against the reluctance of the State and central agencies to ensure a fair price for green tea leaves.
Led by the Baduka Community, the largest community of Nilgiris entirely engaged in tea cultivation and vegetable farming, the villagers participate en masse in the agitation.
The agitation is taking place at three centres, Nattakal in Kothagiri, Ketti and Nanjanadu, both in the suburbs of Ooty. In Ooty alone, over 1,000 small tea growers, including women, regularly gather in protest.
The Nakkubetta Badaga Welfare Association (NBWA), an apex body of tea farmers’ associations in Upper Nilgiris is planning to intensify the agitation in the coming days.
The mood of farmers is not different in the tea belts of Lower Nilgiris constituted by Gudalur and Pandalur taluks. The farmers affiliated to Salisberry Tea Farmers Association organised an agitation in front of the factory at Gudalur the other day and the Federation of Small Tea Growers Association (FESTA), Nilgiris unit, is also planning various protests.
How can you destroy thousands for the sake of a handful?
Thiagaraj Uchi Gowder, vice president of NBWA, told Onmanorama that it is the last battle of the tea growers in Nilgiris and it is essential for them to win.
“When you sip a cup of tea, enjoying the morning, refreshing yourself, we farmers are getting only 9 to 12 paise for it,” Thiagarajan said.
“The ruling regime is dancing to the tunes of a handful of major buyers, leading both tea farmers and tea processing units across the country to a crisis,” he added.
“Afraid of three or four multinational buyers and 12 exporters, the union government is reluctant to fix a fare base price for tea dust and a fair price for the farmer,” he said.
Thiagarajan also opined that for an anti-farmer government, these few MNCs and exporters are more important than the 82,000 small growers in south India, a million in Assam and lakhs of labourers who eke out a living from tea gardens.
“This is the last battle for survival and we will win. Our parents lived through this bitter plight, and we live through this. But we cannot put our children too through it,” said Thiagaraj Uchi Gowder.
Bought for thrown away prices, sold for high profit
The farmers unanimously pointed out that powerful buyers grab tea dust for throwaway prices of Rs 90 to Rs 120 per kg. Tea dust is not available at rates less than Rs 200 per kg even outside auction centres.
Going by the data of leaf factories that purchase green tea leaves from growers and process tea dust, the fall of green leaf prices started two decades ago.
In 1998-1999, the price of green tea leaf was between Rs 16 and Rs 18 per kilogram, which went down to Rs 8-Rs 10 in 2000. Since then, the prices have remained stable at Rs 10-Rs 14, except for four months during the Covid-19 period when the prices went up to Rs 25 per kg as the plantations in the northeast, including major tea producing states like Assam, were shut down and import was also banned.
Rising costs, bottom lying prices
As per the data revealed by Kayyunni Small Tea Growers Association (KSTGA), an organisation of tea farmers affiliated to the Tea Board of India, in the past five years, tea farmers only received a good price for their produce for those four months during Covid-19. 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 government directed its agencies to purchase tea dust directly from INDCOSERVE, the tea cooperative under the Tamil Nadu government.
Earlier, in the 2017-2018 fiscal, the highest price farmers got for their produce was Rs 15 per kilogram, while the lowest was Rs 9.5.
KSTGA secretary Rajeev M told Onmanorama that wages almost doubled during the last decade, and input costs surged, which made life miserable for the ordinary farmer.
In 2005-2006, the wages were Rs 300 for men and Rs 200 for women in the Wayanad-Nilgiri region. Now, it is Rs 600 and Rs 350 respectively.
“A recent KSTGA survey of farm labourers has shown that 90 per cent are above 50 years of age and all youngsters have migrated to cities in search of a better life,” he added.
“With the majority of youngsters migrating to cities and overseas destinations to eke out a living, the ‘tea farmer’ would soon become a thing of the past,” he said, adding that it is high time to act to save the sector.
According to Shaji Chelivayal, a farmer from Gudalur, who is also the president of Federation of Small Tea Growers Association (FESTA), entire villages are out in the streets this time, as people are struggling to make ends meet.
“Today, farm labourers live a better life than farmers. When you receive Rs 11 to Rs 14 per kilogram regularly, input will be cut, labour will be reduced and harvest will happen once a month, causing further dip in the quality of tea, thereby resulting in the production of mediocre tea dust,” he pointed out.
Solution for the crisis
KSTGA bats for reviving the auction system, which at present is in favour of the big industry players.
The government can easily ensure a better price by fixing a base price of Rs 120 to Rs 150 per kg of tea dust. If the buyers are adamant that they will not purchase the produce, the government could support the production units by giving them an advance of 50 per cent for the tea dust they brought in the auction by constituting a price stabilisation fund.
The amount can be returned to the fund once the tea is sold in the market.
Moreover, all government agencies (both Centre and state) should purchase tea straight from the production houses and from INDCOSERVE, which works with 30,000 small tea growers, producing 12 million kilograms of black tea dust annually.
Even major plantation groups are struggling to survive in the situation which also affects lakhs of labourers across the nation. In the 1990s, there were roughly two dozen plantation groups active in the northeast region.
At present, five of the major players are out of the plantation sector or have minimal presence. McLeod Russel, the company that once ruled the tea sector as the world’s largest player, has been reduced to half its original strength and has filed for bankruptcy in court. The company is running pillar to post to sell its tea gardens in the northeast so as to settle its debts.
The situation is not different in the south too where big plantation groups are trying every trick in the book to survive. Many of them have abandoned their tea gardens and the rest are exploring other avenues like ‘plantation tourism’ to keep their heads above the rising tide.