Tocklai Gathering Signals Renewed Commitment to Tea

From Left Dr. M. Hazarika, D.P. Maheshwari, Joydeep Phukan
Photo courtesy of Samsul Huda Patgiri, President, Photogrphic Society of Assam

JORHAT, Assam

India’s tea industry is in the midst of political rejuvenation and renewal in tandem with the urgent need to replant its aging gardens.

Last week when tea was officially proclaimed the drink of Assam in the opening session of the Tocklai Centenary, it represented a public affirmation of government support for the expensive task ahead.

In March India will initiate its 12th Five-Year Plan, a comprehensive document comparable to America’s Farm Bill.

tocklaiThis year the conversation at Tocklai was energized by the presence of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam who praised tea as a national treasure, the enthusiasm of Assam’s charismatic Chief Minister and the appointment of a new Chair of the powerful India Tea Board.

“The conference has been successful in raising issues for sustainability of the tea industry for the next century,” says M.P. Maheshwari who chairs the Tocklai Board of Directors and is a respected voice for innovation. Frank assessments and the discussions that follow “openly raised” the important issues for the people connected to the tea industry “so that the researchers can formulate strategies to solve them,” says Maheshwari, Managing Director of Jay Shree Tea & Industries, Ltd., a division of B.K. Birla Group, one of India’s largest conglomerates.

India must address both technical challenges and marketing challenges.

The export market is vanity, U.K. Tea Council Director Bill Gorman bluntly told 500 delegates at the closing session. The greatest demand is within India where tea consumption is rising and consumers are looking for convenience, taste and greater variety such as green tea. If each woman in the emerging middle class drank a single extra cup of tea annually, the tea available for export would vanish, says Gorman.

tocklaiExports as a percentage of global production have fallen significantly against African and Sri Lanka’s determined efforts to produce high yields of good quality CTC (cut, tear, curl) teas. These teas are offered at reasonable prices, leaving India to export very low quality “rubbish” or exceptional specialty tea in small quantities, according to Gorman, who challenged the audience to strive for enhanced quality required of both domestic and export customers.

He advocated investment in developing India’s ability to package and process tea to make it more competitive on the world market. Building a strong “value added” capability will also expand an untapped domestic market, says Gorman.

Panelist Sanjay Sethi, director of the Dubai Tea Trading Centre, in Dubai, UAE, endorsed the recommendation, noting the immense benefit his country has gained from investing in the machinery to add value to tea.

The technical challenges to boost India’s tea production are more formidable.

Details are not final but the proposed $1 billion program of crop subsidies, land development initiatives and financing of research efforts is designed to help India reverse the decline of tea production to meet the demand growth of its own citizens.

tocklaiThe program continues the initiatives first described in 2004. In September of that year the Ministry of Commerce & Industry convened all stakeholders from planters and labor unions to exporters, scientists and importers to address a crisis in declining production that continues to this day. The following year India lost its ranking as the world’s largest tea producer. Since that time exports have continued to decline and new threats and opportunities have emerged. The most significant are climate change and the burgeoning domestic market that is growing much faster than the export market and may soon consume all the tea made in the world’s second largest tea producing country.

“Research is the back-end job of the industry and very often when planters do not see visible results, they start complaining. This makes the scientists feel insecure as it is not possible for instant solutions,” Maheshwari explained, “Personally I feel more should have been discussed on the issue of climate change.”

Technical sessions presenting planter issues and those on the broader market helped both planters and scientists better understand the overall challenges, says Maheshwari.

Overall, the WTSC, was a “huge success” he says, citing attendance by more than 400 people with 31 oral papers and 110 poster papers. He praised the work of Dr. M. Hazarika, director of the research station and Joydeep Phukan who runs the Kolkata research office. He credited both principal officers of the TRA and their respective teams at Jorhat and Kolkata for “steering the conference to success.”

Delegates at Tocklai met principally to share their research work at the sprawling Tea Research Station which is the oldest in the world.

new research centerConstruction was recently completed on new offices and laboratories and modern equipment. The modernization is central to the task of the researchers as they must show by example a broad range of techniques that will increase declining yields, replace intensive hand labor in some circumstances and enable more efficient processing of tea.

Research into the development of water-retaining tea bushes is an example of the traditional challenges confronting researchers who in past decades have created numerous hybrids and clonal stock superior to the bushes planted in the 18th Century. Formulating new all-natural ready-to-drink teas is an example of new challenges Tocklai’s researchers are undertaking.

This work was presented in three days of technical sessions with titles such as Optimizing productivity of ageing tea plantations; Vermicompost quality as influenced by different species of earthworms and Comparison of soil and leaf nutrient status under organic and conventional tea.

In processing sessions, India’s researchers took careful notes during a presentation by K. Sakata on New Trends in Tea Manufacturing in Japan, a discussion that included photos of conveyor belts exposing tea to high-energy light, a method that replaces conventional sun drying. Attendees also heard papers on Storage Deterioration of Quality of CTC Black Tea and a paper on Impregnation of Oxygen During Fermentation of CTC Tea.

To review 150 abstracts and learn more about the research there, visit www.tocklai.net

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Dan Bolton

About Dan Bolton

Dan Bolton edits STiR Tea & Coffee Industry International. He was formerly editor and publisher of World Tea News and former editor and publisher of Tea Magazine and former editor-in-chief of Specialty Coffee Retailer. He is a beverage retail consultant and frequent speaker at industry seminars and conferences. His work has appeared in many beverage publications. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years prior to his career in magazines. Dan is the founding editor of Natural Food magazine and has led six publishing ventures since 1995. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada.