Tea Board of India Faces Uncertain Future

KOLKATA, India

Tea Gardens in South India State Kerala

In decades past the Tea Board of India wielded regulatory powers and marketing might that have since ebbed to ineffective.

During the Tea Association of India’s annual meeting this month Prabhat Kamal Bezboruah, tea board chair in mid-term told The Times of India: “I will, in all probability, be the last chairman of the tea board.”

Winding down the 63-year-old board is already underway at the ministry level. The board has overseas offices, a finance wing and development directorate. There are offices to promote tea and for tea research. There is a licensing department and department devoted to labor welfare. There are information technology, legal, and statistics departments. The board employs 558 of which 312 are in regional offices in all the major tea growing areas. The three-year budget, starting in 2016-17 is INRs 540 crore ($82 million) well below the requested $123 million. Existing employees will soon be transferred to the agriculture ministry. The board’s headquarters in Kolkata will be relocated by the end of the fiscal year with regional offices taking on greater importance.

Prabhat Kamal Bezboruah

Bezboruah predicted a merger with existing commodity boards, creating an umbrella organisation to regulate and provide government support for spices, rubber, sugar cane, tea, and coffee. One hand of government will improve production while the other will promote domestic consumption and the export of plantation crops.

“The Plantation Export Development Agency (PEDA) under the ministry of commerce will look after the marketing-promotions part and a special-sector platform will be formed under the union agricultural ministry to oversee the technical and agricultural aspects of the tea business,” Bezboruah explains. “Creating an umbrella organisation would help improve production and export,” he said, adding that the research functions may be handled by other organisations like the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) or the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

The board could have a more critical role to play if it is merged with the agriculture ministry.

“The Agriculture Ministry is doing good for crops such as sugar cane, rice and wheat. Maybe it will ensure that tea growers get fertilizers at the farm rate and not at the industrial rate,” he said.

There remains a critical set of tasks that ensure India, the world’s second largest tea producing country, advances an industry that employs millions and generates billions in sales.

Rajen Baruah, managing director of Heritage Tea Company in Assam called Bezboruah’s appointment as tea board chair of “one of the boldest and most practical decisions taken by government of India, as only a tea planter would understand the practical problems and ground realities that the tea industry is facing today.”

The list of concerns begins with development of the smallholder sector which now produces 35% of India’s tea. It includes contending with climate change and the replanting of aging bushes. The list addresses labor unrest and encourages health and welfare, and stamps out exploitation. The tea industry depends on establishing incentives that make farmers entrepreneurial stewards of the land.

“The organized sector has lost its unique advantage with entry barriers and low wages becoming a thing of past,” he noted.

“There is a lack of a level-playing field between the organised sector and the small tea growers. If the industry wants to survive, it will have to innovate,” he said. “The share of small tea growers is increasing and it will continue to go up with more and more growers from the north-eastern states of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur getting into tea plantation on forest land,” said Bezboruah.

Ever-increasing overhead and stagnating tea prices create a morass that requires long-term solutions that the tea board can no longer provide.

“It would be a “grave mistake” to look at Tea Board as a “savior” of the industry in future, he said, “That era is past.”

Reporting by Pullock Dutta in Assam.

Sources: Times of India, Tea Board of India,