International Tea Day, celebrated on Dec. 15, was instituted in 2005 in New Delhi to raise awareness of the circumstances and challenges faced by tea workers around the world.
The initial concern was protecting the rights of workers at large tea estates in the major tea producing nations: India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Uganda, and Tanzania. The celebration has evolved over the past 11 years to include issues faced by the fast-growing smallholders that worldwide produce significantly more tea than estates.
Smallholders in India that contributed only 1.1% of tea in 1999 now produce more than a third of the country’s 1.2 million metric tons.
This year the Center for Education and Communications (CEC) is circulating a petition identifying five demands to empower and equip small growers to market their tea. CEC spokesperson Ruhani Sandu writes that “this is a big step to help the people behind our cups of tea and we want to share it with the world. Rejoice with a good cup of tea today, hoping that the Indian government takes some actions and supports our small tea growers. Together we can all make a difference.”
Sandhu explains that “small farmers, though having on an average less than 2 acres of land, are proud to contribute 34% in 2015–16 of the total production of 1.2 million kg of tea.” Smallholders accounted for 417 million kg based on an aggregation of tea manufactured by 568 bought leaf factories, a conservative estimate considering that smallholders also supply estate factories.
“Small farmers’ production is almost twice the quantity of tea exported by India,” according to Sandhu, who noted that during the financial year 2015–16 India exported 232.92 million kg valued at $6.6 million. “We are feeling proud of the fact that we contribute not only to meet the growing domestic demand for tea in India but also to obtain valuable foreign exchange,” Sandhu writes.
Demands include a fair price for better quality tea; subsidies to acquire leaf weighing scales, pruning and plucking machinery, and irrigation equipment; crop insurance; universal social security and health coverage; and support for collectives of 100 acres and more to receive credit and financial assistance in dealing with financial institutions.
In parts of India, as many as 70% of tea workers do not have bank accounts and have not been paid in weeks because the union government will no longer accept large denomination bills (see India Cash Crisis). In Assam, about 600,000 out of 780,000 permanent tea plantation workers have opened accounts in the past seven weeks, according to The Indian Express. Many of those without an account do not know how to sign their names, relying instead on a thumbprint in the payroll register to indicate receipt of cash. Local banks are trying to create a digital alternative to hand signatures.
Organizers one day hope to establish an International Tea Commission to promote and strengthen the tea industry, which will have specific provisions to protect the interests of tea workers and small growers.
International Tea Day “affirms the rights of plantation workers and small growers, building awareness and responsiveness among all the concerned bodies, identifying responsible policy decisions, strengthening advocacy and campaigns, facilitating tea consumption and a ‘just’ trade in tea,” according to the Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers Associations (CISTA).
International Tea Day also represents an opportunity to celebrate the tea culture. The Times of India introduced kokum chai and blue tea in its lifestyle section and the Deccan Chronicle described the growth of tea bars in Hyderabad. First Post wrote a tribute to quotes from famous authors who adored tea.
India has come a long way in accepting tea beyond chai, says tea curator Radhika Batra Shah. Green is better known but “when I do tea ceremonies people are amazed as they realize that tea is also white, oolong, varieties of black and tisanes. And today, there is a tea for each part of the day—you awaken with whole leaf Darjeelings and robust Assams. Luncheon teas aid digestion so here’s where fine tisanes made of fruits, flowers, spices or herbs fit in. In mid-afternoon there is the champagne of teas—wulong, which wipes fatigue away. And soothing whites make for quiet-moment teas.” She also says there is so much innovation in flavors, today. “I recently made a ‘kokum tisane’. It aids digestion,” writes Shah.