Small Tea Growers in India: A Case from West Bengal Region  

Debasish Biswas 
Asst. Professor, Department of Business Administration, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal, India
Author    Correspondence author
Journal of Tea Science Research, 2016, Vol. 6, No. 3   doi: 10.5376/jtsr.2016.06.0003
Received: 20 Oct., 2015    Accepted: 01 Dec., 2015    Published: 13 Jan., 2016
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Biswas D., 2016, Small Tea Growers in India: A Case from West Bengal Region, Journal of Tea Science Research, 6(3): 1-7 (doi: 10.5376/jtsr.2016.06.0003)

Small Tea Growers (STG) segment accounts for almost 30% of the total tea production in India. The Tea Board of India defines ‘STG’ as a person who has a tea plantation area of up to 25 acres, but most of them own less than 2 acres of cultivated land. It provides ample avenues for self-employment generation of educated as well as uneducated youths besides engaging themselves into their family responsibilities. The high profitability coupled with the prospect of getting steady income with minimum effort has attracted a large number of youths especially in the rural areas. Furthermore, this can be considered as a key force for economic growth of a region. The tea cultivation on small holding which empowering many people in the rural areas is the green revolution of North Bengal. On the contrary, the small tea growers are also confronting a large number of problems because of some legal pitfalls. Tea growers are deprived of getting benefit from different schemes of the Government. Due to absence of the factory of their own, they are deprived of the real price of the green leaves. In this study a deliberate attempt has been made to showcase the future of the small tea growers by interviewing them. For this purpose, 150 respondents from the district of Jalpaiguri, Coach Behar and North Dinajpore in West Bengal will be chosen by stratified random sampling method. Conclusions and recommendations will be made on the basis of the responses from the respondents.
Small tea growers; Self- employment; Economic growth; Empowering; Problems; Futures

Tea is called as the ‘Queen of Beverage’ and tea is consumed after water. India is the largest producer and consumer of tea in the world and the tea industry provides employment for more than 2.5 million farmers and workers. In India, tea industry is one of the oldest agro-based well organized industries. Traditionally one of the important and profitable industries contributes big amount to the national income (Mitra, 2010).
In India, tea industry is one of the mature and oldest agro-based well organized industries. Till date, it is bearing its heritage. Tea industry in India comprises of two components – 1. Set tea estates; and 2. Small tea growers; Set tea estates or Estate Gardens are those tea gardens having an area of plantation beyond 10.12 hectares or 25 acres of land also having factory of their own within the premises of plantation (Tea Board of India). On the other hand, Small tea growers means those having an area of plantation within 10.12 hectares or 25 acres of land; STGs don’t possess its own factory for processing tea from the leaves and they have to depend on the bought leaf factories and others (Hannan, 2006). Small tea growers contribution in India’s total made tea production is 35% (Ananda Bazaar Patrika, 3 rd October, 2015).
The small tea plantation has been considered to be a major source of livelihood and employment for the population of the regional economies. It is located in the backward and rural regions of the major districts of Jalpaiguri, Alipore Duar, Cooach Bhear, North Dinajpore and Darjeeling in West Bengal.
1 Results and discussion
1.1 Origin and growth of small tea plantation
The concept of small tea cultivation came into existence when Kenya (1950’s) had decided to produce tea for export. The experiment taken by Kenya (1950’s) succeeded and a modern trend of small tea holders or growers arose in developing and developed countries to produce cash crop like tea. Since then there has been a steady shift in tea cultivation from big plantation to small holdings (CDPA, 2008). But in India the emergence of Small Tea Plantations is of very recent. This is because whatever suitable land was available for tea cultivation was already occupied by the Large Tea Plantations (LTPs) in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. These can be called the traditional areas of tea cultivation whereas Small Tea Plantations have emerged beyond the traditional tracts of tea cultivation. Though, the Small Tea Plantations emerged in early 1960s in India, their concentration was mainly found in South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. It is only in late 1980s or early 1990s their spread confined in the two leading tea producing states of Northern India of Assam and West Bengal (Hannan, 2006), there are 1,67,353 small tea growers in India and around 30,000 in West Bengal (CISTA, 2010). The Tea Board of India’s emphasis on the promotion of the small tea growers since 1980s is primarily because of the decline in quality and production of tea in the estate sector. Few researchers believed that the rise of small tea growers in India is primarily because of the failure of the tea industry to meet the expected growth target and decline in demand in the international market, quality being one of the factors.
1.2 From paddy, Pineapple, wheat, potato, jute to small tea Cultivation
In the late 1980s, farmers of the northern part of West Bengal resorted to tea cultivation. The farmers in this region earlier engaged with the cultivation of pineapple (North Dinajpore and few parts of Jalpaiguri as well as Darjeeling), wheat, potato, jute and paddy randomly across the entire Dooars. Due to paucity of available market, high cost of cultivation, lack of the genuine prices of the product and on the other hand the pressure of the money lenders makes them vulnerable as a result of that a number of farmers in every year committed to suicide. The bitter experience in crops cultivation is one reason for switch over to small tea cultivation by the farmers in this region. Secondly, the demonstrative effects of the tea as an alternative cash crop in the proximity of the traditional tea growing areas of Drujeeling and Jalpaiguri districts. But unlike the traditional tea plantations, the Small Tea Plantations have come up without any proper planning; consequently their unplanned development has created manifold problems.
1.3 Entrepreneurship and employment opportunities in small tea cultivation
Entrepreneur is an economic agent who plays an important role in the economic development of country. For the purpose of economic development, establishment of small business or small manufacturing units are important in a developing country like India is much more than innovative and invention. It would provide opportunities for the unemployed youth for their self expression. It requires low capital and low level of barriers to entry and even less competition. In the northern part of the Bengal, besides unemployment the economy is depriving many other problems like poverty, illiteracy, poor health, etc. To overcome these unsolved problems tea cultivation in small form is relevant.
Most of Small Tea Plantations in this region are owned by the local people who were farmers and cultivated pineapple, paddy, potato, etc. These farmers are aware of the micro ecological and other environmental conditions of the area, which can be useful in carrying out new experiments like Small Tea Plantations in the region. Moreover, they also provide employment opportunities to the unskilled manual workers throughout the year. Villages become self-sufficient, as owners of small land holdings too are able to raise tea plants on their fields. There is an existence of mixed farming in the region as the small growers also practice paddy cultivation in low-lying areas. Female workforce in the Small Tea Plantations is an added advantage to the family income of workers.
With the increase in the production of green leaf in the state, manufacturing facilities like Bought Leaf Factories (BLFs) has been set up to help processing the green leaf in the tea cluster. There are 167 BLFs in West Bengal with average employment ranges between 20-25 workers in the processing, packaging and a sizable numbers of managerial staff employed in each of these BLFs and the small growers producing nearly 100 million kg, which is around 35 per cent of the total made tea production of the state. Many new business opportunities and services like- supply of garden implements, transportation of green leaf and retailed outlets of agro chemical and manures, leaf agents, essential day-to-day needs, etc. also provide employment several number of workers in the region(Table 1).



Table 1 State-wise number of small growers registered with the Tea Board of India

Note: source: Tea Industry, Annual Report 2009-10.


1.4 Associations and Confederations
The apex body of growers in West Bengal is the United Forum of Small Tea Growers’ Associations (UFSTGA). It is a federation of eight associations in Uttar Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and the Kishanganj District of Bihar. These are:
1) Jalpaiguri Jela Khudro Cha Chasi Samiti,
2) Uttar Banga Khudra Prantik Chasi Samiti,
3) Uttar Dinajpur Small Tea Growers’ Welfare Association,
4) Uttar Dinajpur Small Tea Planters’ Association,
5) Daspara Little Planters Association,
6) Uttar Banga Khudro Cha Chasi Welfare Samiti,
7) Indian Tea Planters Association (New Garden Forum),
8) Bihar Small Tea Planters Association.
The North Bengal Small Tea Planters Association (NBSTPA) is the oldest association in West Bengal having members all across the area. The tea growers’ up to 100 acres are the members of this association and it also has members with less than 10.12 hectares of tea cultivation. The fundamental difference between UFSTGA and NBSTPA is that UFSTGA is having members of less than 10.12 hectares of cultivation, whereas NBSTPA has members with less than 10.12 hectares as well as above 10.12 hectares.
Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers Associations (CISTA) is an autonomous body and represent the small tea grower’s community in India. STGs of four states of Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala joined together to form a national body of smallholders in tea plantations. Initially, the national planning meeting for the formation of a national body of STGs was organized at Centre for Education and Communication, New Delhi partnering with Tradecraft Exchange, UK on 30th and 31st October 2007. There were 12 participants representing the state federal bodies from Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Presently CISTA represents STGs of more than ten states and Special Invitee of Tea Board of India.
1.5 Formation of small tea grower self-help groups (SHGs)
To protect and promote the small tea growers in India the Tea Board of India under the Tenth Plan Program (2002-2007) has introduced the idea of formation of Self-Help Groups among Small Tea Growers. Actually the Tea Board got late realization regarding the contribution of Small Growers in tea industry in India has made some space in policy and planning. Though, it is still in its initial stage and the Tea Board is unaware about the total number of Small Growers as well as area under tea plantation yet it has enormous potentials to some important issues facing the small tea Growers. The formation of Self-Help Groups must be under the guidelines laid down by the Tea Board.
The first Self-Help Group of Small Growers in West Bengal was registered with the Tea Board on 21st August 2004 under the name as Panbari Small Tea Growers’ Society at Panbari of Mainaguri block, Jalpaiguri district.
1.6 The Constraints and the Crisis
The small tea growers are an important and integral part of the tea industry of west Bengal. They are once again affront with same kind of market insecurity, which they experienced before. The small tea growers have been confronted with multiple existential challenges via finance, land problem, labour, lack of training in tea culture and practices, marketing of green leaves, natural disasters like flood, climate change, poor infrastructural facilities, etc. The small growers also face difficulties in the management of the plantations like the present system of technology, modes of cultivation, labour recruitment, processing, marketing, etc.
As per the conversations and opinions by the sample small tea growers, the problems can be categorized into two and are as follows:
1.The present problems:
ⅰ.Fluctuation in prices
ⅱ.Exploitations of middlemen
ⅲ.Lack of irrigations
ⅳ.Lack of trainings
ⅴ.Recognitions of Government
ⅵ.Loans  from banking institutions
2.The problems may arise in the days to come:
ⅰ.Oversupply or limit in processing capacity of green leaves
ⅱ.Demand and supply of efficient labor
ⅲ.Technological know how
ⅳ.Raising cost of production
1.7 The present problems
1.7.1 Prices fluctuation of green tea leaves
As per the common features of the small tea cultivation is that the growers do not posses factories of their own and they have to depend mainly on the BLFs, Estate Factories and fewer on the SHGs factory of STGs, to sell their green tea leaves. Till now in West Bengal, only one SHGs factory and it is first such factory in India, located in Panbari of Maynaguri block. The growers reported high oscillation of the prices of leaves supplied to the factories (Table 2). The small growers have poor negotiable power and the oscillations and downward trend even in a month create constraints to meet the operational costs of the plantations. It has found that three verities of factory offer different level of prices.



Table 2  Average price of Green Leaves (2011-2015) (Price as per sold to middle men)

Note: **the price has taken till September, 2015; Source: Growers’ diary (Maya Tea, from Rakhalhat, Maynaguri Block), figures are in Rs.


Small growers discontent over the prices offered by the tea factories often visible in the state. It has been found that only around 30 percent of the respondent growers are selling their green leaves through the SHGs. Rest of them are selling leaves through the middle men. On the other hand, BLFs are better organized and can manage the terms and conditions while purchasing green leaves.
1.7.2 Exploitation of the middlemen
As the price of the green leaves fluctuates over the years and the non-members of any growers association suffer a lot because of the middlemen. The exploitation of the middlemen is one of the serious concerns as they are sharing a part of profit while such non-member growers don’t have any information about the actual price determined by the Tea Board of India. As a result whatever price is offering by the middlemen such growers have to satisfy with this.
1.7.3 Lack of irrigation
One hectare standing mature tea plants requires about 10,000 liters of water per day which is equivalent to 2.5 mm rainfall (Barua, 2008). Tea plants also need water after pruning which is generally done during the months of December and January. This period is generally dry in this region, receives a few showers of retreating monsoon, eventually fruitful for the growth of tea plants after pruning.
However, irregular nature of rainfall in recent years, especially in the non-monsoon period, forces the growers to make arrangements for irrigation infrastructure. Arranging the irrigation infrastructure in the foothills area of Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Dinajpore is costly as well as difficult.
1.7.4 Lack of Training
The tea growers in this region deprived from the Formal institutional training facilities. Basically this is the responsibility of the Tea Board to train the small growers. To avail the training, membership of SHGs of small growers’ necessary or the grower must have registered with the tea board. It has been observed that only around 25-30 percent of respondents are either members of small grower’s society or they are registered with.
Training is necessary for the small growers as tea is a perennial crop and the leaf is plucked almost thorough out the year. It has seasonal occurrence of pest and diseases, additional water requirement, scientific ways of pruning, plucking and bush management, optimal use of manure and fertilizer, leaf procurement and proper shading etc. All these activities require extensive farming knowledge and STGs are lacking all such skills.
1.8 Recognitions of Government
To avail many benefit schemes, these STGs must have recognition of Tea Board of India (TBI). To get recognition with TBI, a STG from West Bengal must produce a No Objection Certificate (NOC) issued by the State Govt.
But West Bengal Government gives NOC to STGs established before 30th June 2001 only. Naturally, over 100 000 plantations developed afterward were deprived of all benefits, even bank loans. This NOC system is not there in Tamil Nadu or Kerala. Some of the official of TBI stated that regarding the NOC issue that it is as per the West Bengal governments request to TBI not to recognize any STG without this land related NOC as land is a state subject.
The STGs are adopting alternative way by forming SHGs. A group of not less than 50 members, if registered under the West Bengal societies Registration Act, gets recognized by the TBI and that makes the SHG eligible for all benefit as a single entity.
1.9 The problems may arise in future
1.9.1 Oversupply or limit in processing capacity of green leaves
The present practices is that the processing factories set the limits on the supply of the quantity of green tea leaves during peak season adding to the woes of the small growers. The processing units (both the estates and BLTFs) fixed a maximum amount to be transported and purchased for every ‘carrier’ and refuse to take any extra leaves beyond the pre-determined quantity. Furthermore, without any prior intimation, the processing units sometimes refuse to take leaf from the growers. Then they have to approach factory to factory and finally the matter goes on the mercy of the factory manager. Based on the growth rate of the small tea plant in the region it is expected that the demand and supply of green leaves would lead the imbalance.
Aijar Ali, a middleman from Jalpaiguri, collects leaves from the Chalchalia Danga and sells these to different factory told that during the peak session we could mentally prepared for such a situation and last year during the peak period I faced huge financial loss, my account holder often asked for 1800-2000 kg leaves in a day but my suppliers plucked more because of the monsoon and the factory refused to procure more. I approached different factory and they also refused to buy, finally dumped the full lorry on the road side, several times in a year we could faced the same problem, he added. According to him all these problems arising due to random increase of small plant and comparatively less number of factory, the problem would be fatal in the days to come.
1.9.2 Demand and supply of efficient labour
It has been observed that most of the small tea growing areas face labour shortages during peak seasons. It is expected that the mushroom growing new plantations will be confronted with the source of manpower. The labours in this area are not supposed to work as day basis because by this system the amount of earnings will be much lower than work as Thika (contract). More numbers of plantation opens this opportunity for them. In many cases, STGs cannot keep and maintain a regular workforce. They depend on Thika (contract) workers. In this kind of practice, there are serious problems of maintaining quality of green leaf. A Thika worker is hired on Rs.3.00-4.00/per kg of green leaf plucking and the primary task of a worker is to increase plucking.
Maya Roy, a 44 years old woman, owned around 3 acres of plantation from Rakhalhat told “I hire average number of 3-4 labours daily but during the peak season it requires more labours. Particularly that time the labour crises swilling us and this problem will be more danger in future, in the village earlier the number of tea planters were 8 but now almost everyone planting tea even in their kitchen garden, she added.
1.10 Technical know-how
Comparatively the technical know-how is low among the small tea growers in India. Recently most of the tea importing country denied to import tea from India due to several issues that are relates to blanket use chemical fertilizer issues. Tea is a perennial crop and the leaf is plucked almost thorough out the year. It has seasonal occurrence of pest and diseases, additional water requirement, scientific ways of pruning, plucking and bush management, optimal use of manure and fertilizer, leaf procurement and proper shading, etc. All these activities require extensive farming knowledge and STGs are lacking all such skills. It has a serious implication on production, quality management, and cost of production and profit margin of a grower. It is expected that within two- three years the Indian tea industries strong pillar i.e. STGs will be in a situation of turmoil due to technical know-how. It is suggested that further research is needed to evolve region-specific guidelines on agricultural practices and other relevant factors involves with small tea cultivation. The small growers of this region also face difficulties in the management of the plantations. Since there was no concept of Small Tea Plantations in the historical past so, the present system of technology, modes of cultivation, labour recruitment, processing, marketing, land policy, etc.
1.11 Raising cost of production
The tea plants have to feed and nurtured well in the form of manure, irrigation, spraying foliar, control of pest and disease, pruning and so on almost all over the year. The chemical pest control, manure are specific and specialized nature. These days the prices of such specialist and specialist chemical fertilizer are much high. Arranging for irrigation is another costly dimension in this region. As it is labour intensive in nature round the year expert labour is also required. Consequently, cultivation of the small tea is costly affair.
This is interesting to note that the price level of the tea leave is in decreasing trend on the other hand the cost of production is in increasing trend. Regarding the price of chemical fertilizer issue the action of the appropriate governments’ action is passive. If this trend of cost and price remain unchanged, the STGs will be confronted on a question of existence in the future.
The production cost per kilogram of the green leaf has presented here- the puckers have to paid Rs.3 to Rs.4 per kilogram, the collectors or middlemen’s share Rs.1.50 to Rs.2, for manure and pesticides Rs.2 to Rs.2.50 per kilogram and other associated cost is around Rs.2, including all the cost varied Rs.10 to Rs.12 per kilogram of green leaf in this region.
2 Materials and methods
The present conditions of the small tea growers in West Bengal due to the absence operational infrastructure more over regulatory supports have to depend on the variety of external factors. The erratic nature of rainfall in the recent years and lack of irrigation facilities affect the yield in their plantations. On the other hand, the absence of regulations on price front creates anxiety to sell their produces.
The training supports are required in the areas of pesticide residue and overuse of fertilizers, know-how of growing tea, shade trees, etc. because at present the question is being raised on the quality of tea plucked in the small tea gardens. It is often reported that, the small growers do not use fertilizers and pesticides rationally, largely because of lack of knowledge. The buyers at the international as well as national markets are now quality conscious, look for organic products and test the presence of residuals of fertilizers and pesticides.
The paramount emphasis should be given on the formation of the Self Help Groups. The schemes of the Tea Board of India are confined only to the registered growers and only a small fraction of the small growers in West Bengal are registered with the Tea Board. Tea Board has provisions of subsidy for setting up of leaf collection centers, purchase of weighting scales, leaf carrying bags, plastic crates, purchase of transport vehicles, and purchase of field inputs like fertilizers, plant protection chemicals, pruning machines, etc. Moreover, relaxation of land holding policy should be done by the state government of West Bengal.
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