Assam Small Growers Dump 200,000 kgs of Tea on Highway

JORHAT, Assam, India

The price of bought leaf tea plummeted the past week to the point where growers simply piled 200,000 kgs on a major highway to block traffic in protest.

The open market rate has fallen from INR 25 kg in July to INR 14 kg in September to 12-cents per kilo, the lowest offer in five years. In some instances tea factories have purchased tea for as little as INR 4-5 (8-cents) per kg. Quantities of leaves exceed the capacity of local bought leaf factories (BLFs).

In response the All Assam Small Tea Grower’s Assoc. (AASTGA) sanctioned the dump which stopped traffic on major highway NH 52 for three hours Saturday near Biswanath Chariali. About 3,000 workers took part in the protest.

Karuna Mahanta, general secretary of the AASTGA, blamed the government for failing to approve the construction of BLFs for the past three years. Tea is a perishable commodity and small growers must deliver their tea to factories within a few hours after plucking the leaves or they fall in value.

Mahanta told the Times of India "Due to the lack of proper management policy of the state government and Tea Board of India, over 100,000 small tea farmers in the state have been bearing the brunt of low price rates of tea leaves during the last week in the tea rich state.”

There are currently 600 factories in Assam. Small growers harvest about 30 percent of thel 500 million kg of tea produced annually in the state.

He called for state-wide agitation against the government beginning “to put pressure on the authorities concerned to fulfill our demands." Mahanta suggested Assam’s government immediately distribute a special subsidy for the relief of small growers.

At a press conference Saturday Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to told The Assam Tribune’s reporter “As far as small tea growers are concerned, I have asked the Tea Board to effectively put in place its price control mechanism.”

Rakesh Saini, executive director of the Tea Board said the government's price sharing formula will be strictly enforced. The TMCO, as it is known, is designed to prevent factories from undercutting small growers. Factory visits by a Tea Board appointed team consisting of board members, small growers and district administrators will review transaction records, a move welcomed by AASTGA but one that will take weeks.

During the interim, Assam’s state government is considering fixing a minimum benchmark of INR 15 kg.

Assam growers are pressing for 65 percent of the auction price. Manufacturers are regulated in the sum they compensate growers which is based on the total gross proceeds. The latest price drops mean that growers are collecting pennies for their labor — manufacturers are faring poorly as well.

Growers in upper Assam are hardest hit but planters on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River also have suspended picking leaves. Prices for raw tea grown on the north bank have fallen from INR 21 (43-cents) to IRN 10 (20-cents) per kilo.

Sources: The Economic Times, The Assam Tribune and the Times of India