Chai pe climate charcha – Why Assam is worried & India should be
Amarjyoti Borah speaks to scientists, large and small tea growers in Assam to bring us up to date on the many troubles brewing in your much loved cup of Assam tea.
Assam tea, loved worldwide, for its strong, bright malty taste and climate change – this combo has tea lovers worried. First, the science.
“The first flush and the second flush are being affected due to uneven rainfall distribution pattern leading to drought like situation. Followed by prolonged period of heavy rainfall and vice versa. The trend analyses reveals that on an average, rainfall in Assam has diminished by 200 mm and the minimum temperature has increased by 1.3°C over the last hundred years,” says RM Bhagat, Dy. Director, Tocklai Tea Research Institute. TTRI is an over one hundred year old tea research institute in India, the oldest and most reputed.
Assam itself produces roughly half of India’s tea. Approximately 630 million kg, out of the total 1210 million kg, produced in India. While images of large tea estates is top of the mind of the public at large, small tea growers in the state, numbering over eighty thousand, produce almost 30 per cent of the tea in Assam. “Most small tea growers are marginal farmers who grow tea in less than 3 acres of land and have limited financial resources. They cannot fund measures to counter drought or flood like situation and induced secondary stresses like pest infestation due to changing rainfall pattern,” reminds Bhagat.
The uniqueness of Assam tea – its rich deep amber color and its brisk, strong and malty character: will this too change? Bhagat observing the possible difference erratic weather conditions, will make to the unique quality of Assam tea, clarifies,“Tea quality is largely determined by the concentration of polyphenolic compounds and a wide range of volatile compounds, so such climatic conditions could impact the quality of tea.”
Tea planters, big and small on the other hand, are already battling increased pest infestation. Newer pests not so common in tea are on the rise. “Over the years there has been a change in the rainfall pattern. It is erratic and pest infestation and incidents of plant diseases have gone up manifold, in the past 6-7 years. This appears to be a major threat to the tea industry,” states Pankaj Gogoi, Director of Khuwa Tea Garden in Assam’s Sibsagar district. “This has happened basically, because the climatic conditions are becoming more conducive to their proliferation. The abrasive weather conditions are becoming more intense over the last 20 years. Too much and too little rainfall, overcast skies are some of the conditions encouraging pest growth. Also, there is a limited choice of chemicals for use on tea, more pest attacks would mean more crop loss and fall in crop production,” says Bhagat.
The use of chemicals is restricted by the plant protection code (PPC), enforced by the Tea Board of India. N. Muraleedharan, TTRI’s Director has appealed to the Central Insecticide Board, the agriculture ministry and other concerned authorities, to allow tea planters to use at least two chemicals – flubendiamide and emamectin benzoate. To help them fight the luper caterpillar, one of the most common pests of the tea bush.
Small tea growers too have petitioned the state government. Bidyananda Barkakoty, Chairman of the North Eastern Tea association (NETA) tells us, “The government must cover the small growers under crop insurance. Tea as a crop is dependent on climatic conditions.” Most agree that the loss of production due to climatic conditions is beyond the control of the small growers, and for this a timely insurance scheme will safeguard from production related risks and price volatility.
The Assam state government had responded by announcing a slew of initiatives for the small tea growers (STGs) in the state budget for 2015-16. This includes the formation of a task force to address the issues they face, in a time-bound manner. What shape and urgency this takes, still remains to be seen. As the world debates climate change and national targets to respond to this challenge, a chai pe climate charcha is indicative of the many troubles brewing on the ground. Will the Central and state government take a more keen interest now that Assam will go to the polls soon?