ALTHOUGH tea was introduced to the Nilgiris by British planters in the mid-19th century, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that tea cultivation took root here. The severe blight that destroyed potato and other vegetable crops in successive years was r esponsible for forcing farmers to shift to tea.
The government played a major role in the propagation of tea in the Nilgiris during this period. Growers recall that they were paid a subsidy of 50 paise per tea sapling planted, meaning that they only had to spend 50 paise. Subsidies and assistance were provided to tea growers also under the Hill Area Development Programme. Newly introduced varieties and vegetatively propagated clones gave higher yields, attained easier and faster maturity and promised more income to the grower. Forests were cleared an d tea planting was actively encouraged by the government.
A tea grower recalls that in the Gudalur area, elephants were used to clear coffee bushes so that they could be replaced by tea. He said that the Tea Board did not even insist on the licence that was mandatory for tea growers. "The personnel of the State Horticulture Department stood in our fields and directed and helped us plant tea," says Suresh, a grower in Meekeri, a hamlet near Udhagamandalam. "The government introduced us to tea, but now looks the other way when we are suffering," he says. Growing tea on a one-acre plot, he typifies a Nilgiris tea farmer.
Suresh has been growing tea for 15 years. His father burnt the undergrowth and used tractors to level it. He recalls that the people of the hamlet gathered to help each other plant tea saplings. He owns a share in the Tamil Nadu Tea Growers' Industrial C ooperative Tea Factories Federation (Indcoserve) and generally supplies leaf to it. He would have supplied about 2,000 kg to the Indcoserve factory near his village last year, but the year was "extremely painful" for his family of five, including his age d parents. His annual costs - for applying manure and pesticides, pruning the bushes, for digging pits to collect rainwater to collect and plucking - amounted to about Rs.9,000. The 2,000 kg of leaves he supplied at an average rate of Rs.7 to Rs.8, would have fetched him about Rs.15,000 - means a net annual income of Rs.6,000.
About the allegation that growers do not observe industry norms that require them to pluck only two leaves and a bud at a time, Suresh says that the labour-intensive nature of the operation makes it difficult to hire workers for plucking. Moreover, he sa ys that during the rush season the factories fix quotas for individual growers. This results in the leaves maturing beyond the stage set by the norms and prevents collection of just two leaves and a bud.
Another tea grower admits that the leaves supplied by small growers cannot be as good as those plucked in the estates. This, he says, is because small growers cannot pluck the leaves at shorter intervals because of the additional labour costs involved.
On the allegation regarding lack of quality, Suresh retorts: "All these years there were no complaints about quality, but now we are blamed for everything."
However, he says that the bought-leaf factories accept "any kind of leaf" and beat down prices in the bargain. He alleges that these factories "gain from our distress."
The collapse in prices threatens the livelihood of small growers because they simply have no resources to maintain the existing crops. Many growers in Kathadimattam, a hamlet near Udhagamandalam, claimed that they are deep in debt and in danger of incurr ing more debts.
Suresh alleges that the government and the police have given an ethnic colour to the agitation of the growers in order to discredit it. He said that the Sri Lankan repatriates, many of whom work in the tea gardens, had offered to participate in the agita tion "because it (the decline in tea leaf prices) affects them as much as it affects us".
In Jakkanari in the Kotagiri area, the youth are even more agitated. They blame the "new economic policies" and the corporate interests in the tea business for their travails. The living standards are visibly higher in Jakkanari. Its residents told Fr ontline that many growers were not able to pay the school fees of their children and settle electricity bills. Silraj, a small grower, says he is unable to fathom "why prices have remained flat for so long". He suspects that tea brokers at the auctio n centres and the factories are "making money" out of their misery.
Jeeva, another grower, asks: "Is the government interested in just protecting a few big players, or is it interested in the welfare of the more than four lakh people in the Nilgiris who depend on tea for their livelihood?"