Dikom Tea Estate, Assam

DIBRUGARH, Assam, India

At dusk, the powder puff Yellow Grass butterflies flittering about the tea bushes at the Dikom Tea Estate signal the restoration of harmony.

This vast garden of 1,517 hectares (3,749 acres) in the far eastern reaches of Assam is one of the oldest in India. It is situated on the Sessa River, a tributary of the holy Brahmaputra that flows 1,800 miles from the Himalayas to the Ganges. Distinctive and prized Orthodox and CTC is grown on 615 hectares (1,520 acres) yielding 1.4 million kilos annually of made tea.

Samar Jyoti Chaliha manages the estate for Rossell Tea Ltd., a Kolkata-based company that owns six Assam gardens. He and I are bouncing along the service roads in a four-wheel Toyota SUV when we spot the butterflies, (Eurema hecabe) one of several species found in the garden.

The Dikom Tea Estate dates to medieval times. It is home to the native tea of India, Camelia Assamica, and was named by the Bodo-Kacharies tribe. They found the water of Dikom uniquely sweet. In the Bodo language “Di” means water.

Referred to as the “Queen” of the old Jokai (Assam) Tea Company, in the years prior to its 1994 acquisition by Rossell, the garden had relinquished some of its previous luster, resorting to bought leaf and heavy use of inputs to maximize yield. The combined impact of soil depletion, erosion and nitrates with excessive use of pesticides and herbicides was unsustainable.

The beautiful butterflies abandoned their home.

Today they flourish and the reputation of Dikom has never shined brighter, said Chaliha.

The tea produced here is richly colored and malty and beautiful dry with shiny golden flowery tips. The flavor is brisk and bright in the cup and distinctive due to blending that begins with the nimble fingers of tea pluckers.

Chaliha points to a myriad of clones that contribute to this complexity. The garden is planted in 70% clones. Types include S3A3 and TV1 and T3E3. Bushes are replaced on a rigid schedule to insure high yields (2,260 kgs/ha last harvest). Pluckers are instructed to spend part of the day in one field of clonals and the rest of the day in a nearby field planted with different bushes whose leaves compliment the morning plucking. In this way the leaves age from the same time of day, wither together and are processed in a mix that lends character to the cup.

Aerial ViewSustainable tea

C.S. Bedi, CEO at Rossell and chairman of the India Tea Association, is a strong advocate of sustainable cultivation. The conservation, soil enrichment, vermiculture compost and integrated pest management practices at Dikom are central to the company’s demonstration that clean, quality tea can be produced in quantity and bring a good price.

Bedi, who is chairman of the Indian Tea Association, expressed concern that the rising cost of production is inhibiting sustainability.

“Rising input and employment costs are major contributors to the cost of production that can be mitigated through improvement of yields in the long run, but only if prices at the farm gate increase,” he told delegates at the Indian International Tea Convention in Goa.

Climate change and decreasing yields require awareness among importers, buyers, and consumers of the need to support producers with better farm gate prices to enable long term sustainability of the industry and workers, said Bedi.

Assam’s tea soil has been tilled for more than 100 years. Lack of organic support has had an adverse fall out on the organic system of the soil, he said.

Dikom is a model for his approach to sustainable practices.

A Measured Response

The most harmful of all tea-loving insects is the mosquito bug (Helopeltis theivora Waterhouse) which sucks the life from tender buds, leaves and stem and injects toxic saliva at the time of feeding that causes brownish patches to appear. It then deposits thousands of eggs in the plant. An infestation will ruin entire sections in days, explains Chaliha. He stops to show the damage at a bush marked with a small red pennant. The following day workers will pluck undamaged leaves and douse the plant.

A yellow pennant will indicate the application and workers will continue to monitor the plant.

“In the past we might spray half the field or more as a precaution,” says Chaliha. “Now we identify the problem early and use only what is needed to kill the bugs,” he explains. This results in very low levels of residue in the leaves, well below the strict MRLs (minimum residue levels) mandated by Germany and other importing nations.

The garden also plants citronella and neem to ward off insects and is careful to clear drainage ditches of standing water. Portions of the garden are registered as eco-friendly zones due to their rich bio-diversity.

First BushesRenewal

London auctioneers, accustomed to selling China tea in a monopoly that expired in 1833, first obtained 350 pounds from Assam in 1838.

Buyers decided the tea was excellent and Assam subsequently became the largest tea growing region in the world.

The Sessa section of his garden was planted 150 years ago. Bushes were uprooted and replaced at the turn of the century. Time passed and replenishment continued until 50 years ago the original bushes had been uprooted and replaced. Garden workers today uproot 2.5% of the bushes each year so that every 40 years or so the entire plant stock is renewed.

It is time now to once again plant the section.

The most important considerations are drainage and access. Guatemala grass has extended its roots deep into the top soil adding organic material and making an ideal bed for the tea bushes. This tall broad-leaf grass was cut and stacked to be spread over the field once the tea is planted. The barren fields were then leveled and divided into blocks latticed with deep precisely-cut drainage ditches to insure the plants will not be waterlogged. Rainfall in Assam varies from 50 to 150 inches per year.

Thousands of square holes have been dug by hand. Piled near each is soil and fertilizer. There will be 10,000 plants per hectare in this field. Some gardens are planted in a single hedge formation with a triangular setting which gives 12,345 bushes per hectare. Less common is the staggered, double-hedge formation that results in 15,000 bushes per hectare.

Field to plantEach sapling from the nursery is identical and placed at the same depth. Paths for the pluckers are narrow to allow maximum room for the bushes. They lead to wider paths that enable tea pluckers, laden with baskets holding 42 pounds of leaf, to quickly walk to collection points.

Everything is carefully measured and checked by Chaliha. He knows that future planters will have to live with his decisions concerning density, drainage and light interception for 100 years. The combination of these factors, known as photosynthetic efficiency, determines yield and yield is the key to profitability. Higher density planting does not harm quality but leaves in rows that touch invite quicker infestation and paths that are too narrow will slow pluckers.

On this day the pluckers have constructed an altar of banana leaves in the field. They lit incense and are making offerings to gods that oversee the land. Chaliha presents an offering. I kneel to join them, offering the miscellaneous contents of my pockets and my heartfelt prayer for fertility and prosperity.

The planting will take many days and the new bushes will get special care. Some will fail and be replaced but care they receive at this stage is essential to long-term success. In a few years they will begin producing leaves in quantity and in 40 years they reach their peak.

Samar Jyoti Chaliha
Manager Samar Jyoti Chaliha

A Fine Factory

In addition to pure and plentiful water, good soil and bright sun, Dikom sits atop millions of cubic feet of natural gas and oil. The Dikom fields contain 30 wells and produce 6,000 barrels of oil per day. When the oil was discovered the garden cut a deal to pipe the natural gas directly to the factory to fire its furnaces.

The Dikom factory is 104,000 sq. ft. and employs about 70 workers with eight supervisors. There is no bought-leaf, only estate grown teas. It takes about 4.4 kilos of green leaf to yield made tea. Total production was 1.36 million kgs with about 95% exported to the Middle East, Germany, Japan, Iran and the UK. Retailers including Starbucks buy Dikom as does London’s Britannia Tea (Special Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe One) Fortnum & Mason (TGFOP Opulence Assam) and Harrods.

A railhead is nearby and roads and bridges are reasonably good due to heavy investment during the height of World War II. The area served as the main supply base for the China-Burma-India Theater of operations. Pilots of the famed 10th US Air Force flew C-47s from Chabua Air Base adjacent to Dikom to cross the southern Himalayas. The route was treacherous but necessary to avoid fighter planes based in Japanese held Burma. Beginning in April 1942 American and British planes landed daily in Yunnan China to resupply the Chinese Army. It was the first sustained, long range, 24-hour all-weather military aerial supply line in history. The action was costly with 590 lost aircraft littering what came to be known as the “Aluminum Trail.” Weather and enemy fighters claimed the lives of 1,659 crew members by the close of operations in November 1945. Senior officers stayed at the plantation buildings at Dikom, Nahortoli and Hatialli Tea Estate.

Biodiversity

At the manager’s cottage Chaliha shows a home video of a leopard caught last November. It is one of 17 captured at the garden. Elsewhere Leopards have killed several children and mauled workers.

Degradation of forest cover brought these shy animals out of their habitat and into confrontation with human beings, according to wildlife officials. Construction of the Indian Air Force Base in Nudwa disturbed their habitat pushing them closer to gardens where goats are easy prey.

Trapping the big cats was the only way out. Joydhan Pator, who is 60 is one of the garden staff and an expert in caging leopards.

“We in Dikom had never taught our workers to be hostile towards the leopards. In fact, we organize internal awareness drives in our garden quite regularly so our workers too have become totally sensitive about the leopards,” senior factory assistant manager Bhaskar Phukon told Eastern Panorama.

Anurag Singh, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in Dibrugarh complimented the efforts of the Dikom tea estate management and expressed hope that the other tea estates where the man-leopard conflict exists will follow the Dikom example.

“Dikom tea estate had set an excellent example in terms of conservation of wildlife. These kinds of efforts – the interest shown by the management in conservation related issues – will definitely help us in the government led conservation efforts,” Singh said.

Throughout India climate change has led to a sharp rate of species decline, observes C.S. Bedi. There are fewer butterflies in tea gardens, fewer predators and birds, fewer natural flowers and honey bees and the population of snakes and lizards is in decline.There have been sudden outbreaks of pests like Helopeltis and the looper caterpillar and hardy weed species.

Gardens must respond by encouraging natural predators to tea pests, establishing humid conditions in the gardens and using the upper limit (50%) of shade trees. Water conservation needs to improve and reservoirs built and overall the amount of chemical pesticides and fertilizers must diminish.

The challenge is daunting yet it can be done throughout India, he said.

Dikom is a start.

Source: Rossell Tea Ltd.

Halodhiya Pokhila (Yellow Grass Butterfly)Yellow Grass ButterflyAs he undertook a major study of the butterflies of Assam Maan Barua was astounded to discover “local names are not available for even the more common and conspicuous species such as Peacock Pansy.”

“One of the startling results of the attitude survey has been the complete absence of names of specific butterflies in the Assamese language,” he observed in an article published by Horizons Solutions.

As there are no names for butterflies in regional languages, let alone access to detailed information, people’s awareness regarding butterflies and their conservation is almost next to nothing. It is for this reason butterflies have failed to be a part of the environmental debate in the region, according to Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary Magazine.

“The lack of understanding of butterfly natural history and conservation stems from this void,” explains Barua. A team has begun translating Latin names of butterflies (by Ellin Beltz, USA) in order to assist the creation of Assamese names.  The team consists of a litterateur, Latin scholar and biologist to initiate the naming process. The primary aim is to make accessible the entire world of butterflies to local communities and to disseminate information on butterflies amongst the public.

A butterfly identification key is also being prepared.  The key depicts 80 common and important butterflies of the region, showing butterflies Barua photographed in the field. This will help beginners and amateurs with an interest in butterflies, as well as those to be engaged in further fieldwork on butterflies in the region.

Creation of a poster on butterflies will follow.

Sources: Impact of Tea Estates on Butterfly Populations: A major study of the impact of tea estates on butterfly populations by Maan Barua. Maan Barua, Wild Grass, Kaziranga, Assam 785109, India
maanbarua@gmail.com and Conservation of Butterflies in Assam, India: Setting example for worldwide efforts. Horizon Solutions.

 

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Profiles / New Products, Tea Estate and Garden Profiles
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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.

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