KOLKATA, India — Government financed tea research centers have done the heavy lifting in basic plant science and more recently in developing drought resistant cultivars but the tea industry has to take on greater responsibility in research according to India’s Commerce Ministry.
Additional Secretary Rajani Ranjan Rashmi with India’s Union Commerce Ministry, told delegates attending the 131st India Tea Association (ITA) annual general meeting that improving productivity and the quality of tea are major challenges should also be addressed by private ventures.
He called for an in-depth study of harvest mechanization to address labor expense (which accounts for 60% of production costs) and he described a new three-tier, real-time, web-based quality checking system.
India’s tea industry is served by several tea research facilities. The largest and most respected work is done in Jorhat, Assam at the Tocklai Tea Research Center, founded in 1911. There are Tea Research Association (TRA) labs in Kolkata, Guwahati and Siliguri. Rahmi told the Times of India the ministry intends to construct two additional tea laboratories in the eastern region to facilitate testing.
Rashmi said that 80% of the existing research in the tea sector is carried out by TRA. “Industry has to pitch in with more research initiatives to handle effects of weather anomalies, drought and subsequent pest attacks to stabilize quality,” he said.
Underlying his comments on quality is concern about food safety brought into focus by Greenpeace India which recently published a report documenting residue on packaged tea from unauthorized and in some instances banned pesticides. Greenpeace found unusually high residue and traces of unnecessarily large numbers of residues in 46 tea brands purchased in stores across the country.
The industry maintains that tea sold at wholesale and retail meets the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSI) norms. There are no reports of injury to consumers drinking these teas.
The concern is less with well-managed plantations; the proposed three-tier system is designed to assist small growers who supply 30% of India’s tea. Not all are well informed in plant husbandry and are more likely to apply unauthorized chemicals to increase yields essential to their livelihood.
Rashmi described a need for three separate places to collect, process, and, analyze tea leaves.
“This would mainly help small growers produce quality tea. Small tea growers (STG) could access the lab-test system through the small tea growers directorate. We need to give them a support system like this to upgrade quality and to trace chemicals,” he told the Times.
The Hindu Business Line quoted Rashmi as saying “On the issue of funding of the Tea Research Association by the government, I would urge the tea industry to get into research. There also is a need for greater transparency and better democracy at India’s tea auctions, according to the newspaper.
“The state government is extremely serious about tea,” State Finance, Commerce and Industries Minister Amit Mitra told the gathering, “Tell me, what kind of assistance is needed from the government. We must brainstorm to aggressively compete with global giants in tea like China. An e-auction centre and a dry port in Siliguri is what the government can come up with to help the sector at the moment,” said Mitra.
Tea executives, in turn, asked for government assistance in three critical areas. Outgoing ITA Chairman AN Singh said that “Poor infrastructure in terms of power and road communication and non-availability of coal is becoming a major stumbling block in improving India’s competitiveness. Assam has been the most hit with around 23 million kg of year-over-year crop loss owing to the erratic rainfall in the past nine months. Darjeeling tea, whose prices are down by around $1.22 per kilo, are affected by unchecked infiltration of Nepal tea these days,” he told the Times.
Singh said the industry also needs higher government spending on re-planting aging tea bushes.
Singh handed the gavel to incoming ITA Chairman Ashok Kumar Bhargava with Apeejay Surendra, Corporate Services.