Less taste for tea tests India's growers

Weak markets, low prices buffet northeast region.

Like his father, his grandfather, and all his forebears going back seven generations, Rana Tanti's life revolves around leaves of tea.

A worker at a 130-hectare tea plantation in the verdant upper Assam valley, in India's remote northeast, Mr. Tanti was born in a plantation hospital, educated in tea-company schools, and now earns his keep spraying pesticide on the knee-high bushes that are his state's largest industry.

But his children? "They will study, go to university, and take a job somewhere else," Tanti asserts.'

Young people's changing choices

Times are changing in Assam's tea country. Buffeted by sagging global markets and the growing preference of urbane young Indians for coffee and cola, wholesale tea prices have sunk to $1.33 per kilogram from$1.77 in 2000.

It's a crisis that could throw thousands out of work - and threatens the economy and the volatile social fabric of this neglected corner of India, struggling to recover from decades of insurgency, corruption, and underdevelopment.

The industry is "passing through the worst crisis in 170 years," says K.K. Saharia, who heads the Bharatiya Cha Parishad, a teagrowers group, at its annual meeting. "The fear of thousands of workers and employees facing unemployment has become very real."

For decades, India did a brisk trade in Assam tea with the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation, selling more than 100 million kilograms a year. "The Russians weren't quality conscious,'' says L.P. Chaliha, a tea broker in Assam's commercial capital, Guwahati. Bulk sales encouraged a focus on volume over quality. But the good times ended with Russia's economic crash of 2000. When it resumed buying, it was from a cheaper source: government- subsidized plantations in Sri Lanka.

"Because of our overdependence on the former USSR, a lot of things fell behind in research and development,'' Mr. Chaliha says. "When 54 percent of your population is under 25 you need to find a new way to attract them to tea.''

But coffee bars modeled on Starbucks have proliferated in most Indian cities and are packed with teens and service-industry workers. Top movie stars hawk Coca-Cola while tea hardly merits a mention.

Fallout from the Iraq war

Last year, the industry lost another bulwark: Iraq. Assam exported 43 million kilos to Iraq in 2002 under the UN food-for-oil program. The US-led war stopped that, at least for now. Planters are now pinning their hopes on possible deals with India's rival Pakistan - home to an estimated 100 million tea drinkers - as part of the nascent peace process.

The vast majority of Assam's tea laborers are the descendants of "tribals'' - indigenous forest people from other Indian states who were pressed into migrating to Assam after British plant- ers found Assamese difficult to control.

They worked as virtual slaves until India's independence, when new laws and a strong union mandated a range of benefits unique in the developing world - free housing, primary and some secondary education, medical care, subsidized food, and an annual bonus.

But planters now grouse about higher labor costs than those of rivals in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Vietnam, and China. A strike was narrowly averted last year after planters said they couldn't afford a customary 20 percent annual bonus to the laborers. They settled at 15 percent.

"I'd love to try mechanization but the government isn't going to allow it. [Workers constitute] a huge voting block and mechanization is like a time bomb," says Siddharth Chaliha, manager of Assam's oldest locally owned plantation.

There are darker concerns as well. Many tea plantations make extortion payments to separatist militants, say industry and union officials. Insurgents kidnapped scores of planters for ransom during the 1980s and 1990s.

"When things go bad, you become the devil,'' says tea estate manager Alok Mahabir. In 2002, workers at a plantation near Tezpur, about 200 miles away, lynched two managers after the government cut illegal electricity connections to their homes. No one was charged.

Such conflagrations are rare in Assam. Most tea plantations retain shades of British colonial manners. Mahabir's assistants won't come to his house without a necktie. Older laborers will stand at attention when he drives by.

The son of an Army officer, Mahabir was lured to the tea industry by visions of country leisure, unaware, he says, of the vast responsibility. "You're running a small township,'' he says. The plantation has a 30-bed hospital, two schools, a Hindu temple, and two small churches. "You're responsible for everything, from birth to sickness to death.''

Back in Dibrugarh, the Bharatiya Cha Parishad has ended its gloomy annual meeting, and it's time for refreshments, including plastic cups of cola. There's not a glass of iced tea in sight.

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