Inside India: Climate change sparks tension in tea gardens

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Usha Ghatowar smiles wryly when asked about the pay she earns picking leaves at a colonial-era tea garden in India’s Assam.

“Do you think 3,000 rupees ($48) are enough when your monthly expenses can be double that?” she mumbles, as she puts on her “jaapi” hat of woven bamboo and palm leaves and takes a sip of tea from a steel mug. The women workers around Ghatowar nod in agreement.

Unrest is brewing among Assam’s so-called Tea Tribes, whose forefathers were brought here by British planters from neighbouring Bihar and Odisha more than a century ago, as changing weather patterns upset the economics of the industry.

Scientists say climate change is to blame for uneven rainfall that is cutting yields and lifting costs for tea firms such as McLeod Russel, Tata Global Beverages and Jay Shree Tea.

Meanwhile, temperatures have risen - ideal conditions for pests to infest the light green tea shoots. Use of pesticides and fertilisers has nearly doubled in Assam’s 800 big tea plantations and the rising costs are making Indian tea less competitive.

As a result, firms in Assam are resisting calls to lift the daily wage of tea workers from about $2 agreed to recently, blaming weak prices and the doubling of crop expenses.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, whose Congress party was routed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general election, has sided with the workers ahead of state polls due early next year. Modi needs to win most state assembly contests in the next four years to ease the passage of his reform agenda.

Tea tribe members are important swing voters in Assam, the country’s main growing area and the BJP has been making inroads. Gogoi denied an opportunistic motive behind his call for the wage to be raised to about $3 a day. “I had warned the tea planters about climate change,” Gogoi said. “I can’t allow injustice for tea labourers.”

Assam Tea Planters Association (ATPA) chairman Raj Barooah said they would examine Gogoi’s demand. India is the world’s No. 2 tea producer, behind China.

Labour accounts for 60 per cent of the total costs for tea firms in Assam and companies like Aideobarie Tea Estates, owned by ATPA’s Barooah, are exploring greater use of machines to harvest crops and spray nutrients or pesticides.

Barooah, whose company employs 48-year-old leaf plucker Ghatowar, her husband and now her eldest son, is also thinking of expanding into high-margin white tea made from tea buds.

Other tea gardens have moved to cultivating black pepper, vegetables and fruit alongside tea, while Indian scientists are testing tea varieties that can survive in hotter conditions.

But that may not be enough.

“With rain so scarce, a day may come when Assam will not grow tea any more,” said tea scientist Subhash Chandra Barua. “Planting a crop is fine but economic cultivation may not be feasible.”

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