Tea production in the country is likely to fall by 100 million kg this year due to the inevitable lockdown, to tackle the coronavirus crisis. With the nationwide lockdown around lakhs of tea, workers are staring at dark days ahead, as their lives have turned miserable.
North Bengal has almost 287 tea plantations, big and small and 87 among them provide the finest tea in the world for the first and second flush. Unfortunately, the industry has failed to pick the first flush, because of the lockdown, which started in March. Though the first flush season lasts till the first week of May, it has now been extended till May 17. Therefore, it is now impossible to get the first flush, and workers and estate owners are worried about the monsoon, autumn, and winter flush.
The adviser of the Indian Tea Planters Association said that “the tea-estates are going towards darkness; due to the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak we missed the first flush, which contributes nearly 30-35 percent of the annual revenue of the planters”. Tea workers get Rs.176 per day and for some tea estate owners, it has become a challenge to pay the salary. There is a huge loss of revenue that they get from foreign buyers from the first flush. The adviser also requested the government to allow the workers to work under relaxation rules.
The second flush season starts from the first week of May and goes on till the first week of June. Even after the containment of the Covid-19 situation, it will take a couple of months to prepare the gardens for fresh produce. Nearly 65% of tea gardens in the hills are organic fields because producers do not use chemicals as it makes the crop prone to pest attack. Also, the leaves are overgrown and need to be trimmed. So the entire process will take a few days to start afresh.
The locals of the regions said that “the tea estates have already incurred a loss of nearly Rs.90 crore and are expecting a further loss of Rs.160-165 crore in the coming days. If the situation doesn’t improve industry will face further losses in the month of September, October, November, and February.
As a solution the Indian Tea Association had written to the state government on April 4, stating their wish for the “resumption of normal operations in the tea gardens adhering the precautions and safety guidelines”. Based on such requests, work is being resumed in some plantations with permission from the state administrations as early as April 10 and in the latest lockdown phase.
Workers earn very low daily wages and besides in most of the plantations workers do not have access to ration, water, or sanitation facilities regularly. Despite several recommendations from the state and central governments to not deduct wages from the workers at this time, it has been seen that in many plantations, workers did not receive their daily wage or ration for a month after the initial lockdown, which only is increasing the risk.