The Tea Board of India has been granted access to the Climate Change Adaptation Fund through the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development. As part of this plan, $17 million (INR125 crore) will be available to assist 50,000 small tea growers in five states across India over a four-year period.
The five states are the major tea growing areas of West Bengal (Darjeeling, Dooars and Terai), Tamil Nadu (Nilgiris), Kerala (Munnar and Vandiperiyar), Assam, and Himachal Pradesh (Kangra valley) will be supported in the first phase of its implementation.
Tea Board Director of Tea Development S. Soundararajan said the focus is funding climate adaptations such as improvements to drainage systems, planting shade trees, large scale watershed development by community, building irrigation systems and implementing integrated pest management systems.
“The scheme will focus on improving the income levels of the farmers by focusing on quality and marketing, which will enable the farmers to earn more to follow the climate adaptation measures,” he said.
Bijoy Chakraborty of the Confederation of the Indian Small Tea Growers Association, added, “Small tea growers have been affected with crop loss and an increase in production cost. There is a drastic change in weather conditions over the last ten years and we have seen sudden heavy rains that cause floods, hailstorms, mist, and these invite new pests. We need a new irrigation system but also climate-friendly tea bushes and shade trees. Weather forecast tools at a subsidized rate will be useful for us.”
Here is why the action is considered urgent:
- In the Nilgiris, there are 63,000 small tea growers cultivating more than 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares) of tea. In 2019, production declined nearly 20%. Local planters blame these unusually high losses on climate change. The year began with a severe winter with frost until February. It takes frost-damaged bushes months to recover. April-May brought a severe summer temperature inhibiting leaf production and putting the plants under additional stress. Gardens along the western slopes of the Nilgiris that depend on the southwest monsoon for rain received instead a deluge, causing severe erosion of topsoil. “The region around Avalanchi received almost three years of annual rainfall in only about 3-4 days this year,” said HN Sivan, founder-president of the Nilgiris Nelikolu Micro & Small Tea Growers and Farmers’ Development Society (NSTF). Meanwhile, tea gardens on the eastern slopes that depend on the northeast monsoon faced a drought, with too little rain and too much sun. The average number of rainy days has decreased from 115 to 95 in the last decade.
- In Assam, India’s highest tea producing region flooding in the Brahmaputra River valley resulted in severe waterlogging. According to a report by the FAO (2016), in Assam, “Every year about 15-20% crop is damaged due to surface waterlogging, localized water logging and profile water logging in tea plantation areas of north east India. Bank erosion is another major concern triggered by flood events. There are several tea gardens along the left bank of river Lohit and Brahmaputra from Hatikhuli to Rohmoria in Dibrugarh District of Assam, which are already found to be eroded due to flood events.”
- In Darjeeling, changing weather is changing the flavor of teas. Long time loyalists detect shifting quality in the flavors of Darjeeling tea. Tea bushes thrive in a temperature range of 65o-86oF (18o-30oC). Production is affected when temperatures exceed 90oF (32oC) or drop below 55oF (13oC). Mongabay India reports that Pranab Kumar Biswas, who runs the Centre for Mitigation of Climate Change and Global Warming in Siliguri, said there has been 17.6 percent departure of rainfall from 1901 to 2015, based on his climate study spanning one hundred years.
Increased temperatures make the tea bushes more vulnerable to pests. Infestations of the red spider mite, the tea mosquito bugs (Helopeltis sp.) and looper caterpillars (Achaea janata) have assumed troubling proportions—all attributed to changing climate. One challenge is to prevent indiscriminate use of pesticides to combat these infestations.
Shifting to organic production is one technique for combating climate change. Using pruning litter and vegetative mulch, growing shade trees, rainwater harvesting, and crop diversification are part of this conversation but for small tea growers, the problem can be particularly overwhelming to navigate, both financially and by way of information know-how. Upamanyu Borkakoty of Tea Leaf Theory that works with small tea growers said, “Organic farming could be a model for small farmers who are also manufacturing the processed tea. Those who sell green leaves can’t afford the organic certification.”
In 2016, Tata Global (TGBL) had commissioned the Tea Research Association to study the impact of climate change on Assam’s tea growing regions (Upper Assam, South Bank, North Bank and Cachar). The study predicts that unless adaptation measures were undertaken, the regions will be increasingly less suited to grow tea, giving it until 2050 at best. The North Bank region was particularly vulnerable to climate change. According to the study, “Both minimum and maximum temperatures were found to increase across all the major tea-growing regions of Assam, which will have an impact on the suitability of tea in a particular region. Rainfall is likely to reduce in the first quarter of the year and the amount of precipitation is likely to increase during monsoon in the four major tea-growing regions of Assam. Seasonality of precipitation was found to have the biggest influence the suitability of tea growth in a particular region.”
The wakeup call has long since arrived and the Indian tea industry must respond if it hopes to survive climate change and its consequences.