Six years ago India’s Ministry of Commerce & Industry convened an extraordinary tea industry conference to confront a crisis in production that threatened the country’s dominance. India was then the world’s largest producer of tea. It now ranks second with 980 million kilos and continues to grow one quarter of the world’s tea but declines continue.
Twenty-six recommendations emerged – progress on most has advanced and the pace of change is acceleration. Notable by its absence is the recommendation to make tea the national drink of India.
The timing of the Tocklai Centenary celebration was perfect for Bidyananda Barkakoty, chair of the North East Tea Association. Barkakoty is campaigning tirelessly to make tea the national drink. Assam’s declaration by the charismatic Chief Minister Shri Tarun Gogoi and the presence of the former President of India drew a large press contingent and headlines nationally described the campaign.
“Assam is the place from where the march of the Indian tea industry started,” says Barkakoty, who was speaking on behalf of the Assam Tea Planter’s Assoc. and the Bharatiya Cha Parishad in Dibrugarh. The three organizations constitute the Joint Forum of ATPA, NETA and BCP.
Politically the obstacle is the nation’s growing enthusiasm for coffee. India now produces 300 million kgs annually and the growing middle class is consuming 100 million kgs. The tea is grown in the north and coffee in the south which encourages local politicians to remain in accord with their base.
Coffee may be growing but tea consumption rose 3 percent last year on a much larger base of 980 million kgs.
“Tea is our national heritage and pride,” says Barkakoty.
“D.P. Maheshwari, managing director of Jay Shree Tea & Industries, Ltd., believes the designation “will bring more focus on the problems of the tea industry within the country.”
“The tea industry is one of the largest employers next to the Indian Railways and in some aspects the tea industry is not given the respect it deserves,” he says.
“If tea is made the national drink, it should lead to more focus on generic promotion of tea within India which will inspire younger people to take to tea drinking,” says Maheshwari.
Assam is the largest tea producing region in the world. It is a valley long and wide that was carved by the mighty Brahmaputra River and home to a million tea workers.
The declaration by Minister Gogoi last week was met with rousing applause by an audience of delegates to the Tocklai Centenary celebration and a local crowd of 1000 from Jorhat, drawn by the appearance of former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam who expressed his love for the beverage.
Kalam appealed to the federal government to declare tea the national drink, a call that drew thunderous applause.
Gogoi explained that the declaration of tea as a state drink is to persuade the central government of India to make tea the official beverage just as the Chinese have done, along with Britain, Egypt and Iran.