The Government of India broke with tradition last week and named the first tea planter to chair the India Tea Board. In announcing the appointment, the Ministry of Commerce & Industry stated that the executive powers formerly held by the chair will be transferred to an executive deputy chairman, a position that remains vacant.
Shri Prabhat Kamal Bezboruah, 58, replaces interim chair Shri Santosh Sarangi, a career Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer serving since last May.
The new chairman’s duties will be more titular, according to knowledgeable observers. M. S. Boje Gowda, a prominent coffee grower from Bangalore, was appointed chairmen of the India Coffee Board in the same posting. Bezboruah will serve until Nov. 1, 2018.
Bezboruah was born in Chennai and lives in Jorhat, Assam where he chairs the Tea Research Association (TRA). He is a Wharton School alumnus who worked for Bank of America in India and the Philippines after getting a post graduate diploma in management from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. He owns the Bokahola Tea Company, Pvt. Ltd., which manages 12 gardens near Jorhat with annual production of 5.5 million kilos.
A.K. Barooah, director of the Tocklai Tea Research Institute, told The (Calcutta) Telegraph, “It is certainly a proud moment for us and it brings lots and lots of hope for Tocklai and the tea industry. He (Bezboruah) is a progressive and dashing leader.”
Krishan Katyal, chairman of J Thomas and Company, called the appointment “an historic milestone, as this position has traditionally been held only by senior bureaucrats. It is most heartening that the ministry has, in its wisdom, chosen a truly exceptional, knowledgeable and experienced industry leader to chair the Board.”
Rajen Baruah, managing director of the Heritage Tea Company in Assam told World Tea News the appointment “is 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.”
“With ever-increasing overheads and tea prices stagnating, only a seasoned planter would be able to pull the industry out of this morass,” he said.
Bezboruah told reporters “it is a huge responsibility. I hope I can work for the interest of all stakeholders and, also all tea-growing states. But of course, other things being equal, the interest of Assam will be a priority for me.”
He told the Times of India “my main job will be to fetch a better primary product price, which will pave the way for the industry’s revival. In 1954, one kilo of tea was priced INRs 7, ($0.10 cents) which is selling at INRs 140 a kg ($2.18) on average ― a 20-times price increase. But look at other agricultural produce like rice. It used to sell at 20 paise ($0.003 cents) a kilo and now commands at least INRs 20 per kg ($0.31 cents) ― a huge 100 times increase on average. So, there must be a structural defect in the way our industry has been functioning. I will try helping the industry overcome this problem,” he said.
Anshuman Kanoria, chairman of the Calcutta Tea Traders Assoc. and vice chair of the Indian Tea Exporters Assoc., told World Tea News “I welcome the appointment of a knowledgeable, seasoned, and balanced tea hand like Prabhat.”
“Having an industry expert even if in a ‘titular’ post of chairman will be helpful, especially in this case due to the excellent choice of Prabhat who can be expected to be neutral and forthright,” said Kanoria, adding that Bezboruah “is known to be a good listener and communicator. I am very optimistic that he will play an active role in making the industry’s voice heard and will hopefully help free the industry from some of the tight regulations that exist.”
The chairman’s term is normally five years. The last full-term appointment was MGKV Bhanu in November 2011 but he left the position mid-term in December 2013. The post remained vacant for some time with an interim chair serving the past year.
The problems faced by India’s tea industry “require long term solutions, hence keeping continuity in mind this post should be for a minimum duration of 5 years instead of 1 year only,” said Baruah.
There was no word on when a full time executive deputy chairman will be named.