By: ML Verma
Shimla: There’s a new freshness in hill slopes running parallel to the Dhauladhas, right from Dharamsala in the west to Bir in the east as tea planters look towards their estates with heightened expectations. Decaying under its own strong and unique aroma for nearly half a century as estate owners found it extremely hard to market their produce due to various reasons, Kangra tea today is again set for revival with fresh stimulus from the Union and state governments. While officials appear upbeat about the whole effort, tea growers have enough reasons not to be carried away, knowing well the burden of an unproductive asset.
Introduced in the first half of the nineteenth century by the Britishers, Kangra tea had already seen many ups and downs before permanent decay set in after independence. So the journey from winning gold medal at a London exhibition in 1886, to the devastation of 1905 earthquake, the First World War, the India-Pakistan wars, Land Sealing Act and finally dug-up tea estates, tea in Kangra has seen it all and is set for yet another bloom.
The reasons for the decline of tea in Kangra valley are diverse: lack of enterprise on the part of local owners, lack of planned support from the government, pressure on agricultural land due to housing boom, stiff competition following WTO-initiated open market and not to forget the Land Sealing Act. State government had imposed complete ban on sale of tea holdings in Himachal Pradesh after H.P. Land Sealing Act-1970 was implemented in the state as tea growers with large land holders being allowed to retain excess land than the prescribed limit of 30 acres under the condition that they would not sell it. But as the ban was imposed on all sizes of tea holdings, small growers were caught in a situation where they could not sustain the gardens nor could sell them. On the other hand, influential tea holders somehow have been managing to get rid of estates that have turned a liability. So an active land mafia is working across tea estates and housing colonies, hotels, resorts, etc are fast coming up on green slopes.
After the Union government recently announced an open-ended package to revive tea industry in the state, now the state government has also launching a slew of measures to strengthen the sector and has resolved to produce an annual target of 2.5 million kg tea by extending its cultivation from current the 1,000 hectare scale. Chief secretary Asha Swarup has announced that the state government had taken up effective initiatives to rejuvenate 1,200 hectare of abandoned and neglected area. Earlier, Union commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma had announced a package to rehabilitate the ailing tea industry in Himachal. The center also came out to support organic tea farming in 250-acre areas, besides setting up Himachal office of the Tea Board of India at Palampur.
The center has laid a target to bring 10,000 hectares of area under tea cultivation by reviving it from current 2,300 hectare areas. But the reality is that the state has only around 1,000 hectare under active cultivation whereas about 1200-1300 hectare tea gardens are in state is nearly lost due to lack of interest by the local owners or sold off to the land mafia. In order to stimulate the demand from abroad, the union government conducted a detail survey with help of Experts from Chaudhary Sarwan Kumar Karishi Vishavidayla Palampur and prepared detail expansion and diversification plan to raise organic tea in 250 acre area.
Vice-chancellor of CSKKV Palampur Tajpal Pratap said that with help of Rs 4 crore grant, the university has been producing ‘ Dhauladhar Tea’ as a brand. He said that university has been trying to impart skill of organic tea production and its trading to local people so that the ailing tea industry could be given new shape. The state government too had send a proposal to the Tea Board of India for financial assistance including rejuvenation and replantation, assistance for plantation in new areas, irrigation support, rehabilitation of tea factories, research and development and skill upgradation of tea planters. A tea testing laboratory had also been proposed for Palampur besides strengthening and modernizing tea nurseries at CSKKV.
The government is also emphasizing to explore tea cultivation possibilities in the districts of Chamba and Mandi where climatic conditions were conducive for tea cultivation.
An area of about 7,700 hectares had been estimated by surveyors in all the three potential districts which could be developed into quality organic tea gardens. The government also claims to be making efforts to bring up new companies in partnership with local farmers so that abandoned tea areas could be revived.
All this sounds great, but how much of it is actually implemented remains to be seen. Besides, there seem to be certain technical problems the government is overlooking. Brij Behari Lal Butail, former revenue minister of Himachal who is himself a successful horticulturists having about 100 hectare of tea garden at Palampur told HimVani that about 1,500 farmers, most of them marginal and small, survive on tea industry in the state.
He said that recurrent dry spell and unfavorable weather conditions are affecting the crop to much extent which is diminishing its quality. He said that farmers harvest two crops in one year as first crop came in month of March-April and second foliage spurt up in month of May-June. He said that due to lean season current crop has come down to 30 percent. The first harvest was good for the farmers but current season has come down by 40 to 45 percent.
Claiming that the government was ignoring practical problems, he demanding irrigation schemes for tea gardens saying that reoccurring dry spells have been a major reason for falling quality and quantity of tea produced in the region. Besides, he said that farmers want fresh root stock under the new tea package but only of Kangra tea strain to maintain the unique quality of Kangra tea. Butail said that CSKKV Palampur had tried to supply them new strains of tea to them but it could not maintain the stock quality at par with Kangra tea, as a result farmers now resist replacement of their root stock.