Sanjita Chetry indicating tea garden in Pilobari village
Beyond the Horizon
By Pradeep Kumar
Assam was once famous for its tea economy. Still Assam, lying on either side of Brahmaputra River and bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar, is the world’s largest tea-growing region in the world. Tea cultivation is more profitable than other crops.
Tinsukia city whose ancient name was Bengmara or Changmai Pathar but the district once an integral part of the Chutiya Kingdom during the medieval period of Assam is mind-blowing. Rural areas of Assam experienced a phenomenal growth of tea cultivation during last two decades. The number of tea gardens increased mostly during 996 to 2005 to emerge as an economic force for the state. Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sivsagar, Golaghat and Jorhat districts in upper Assam saw highest growth which contributes more than 82% of total production of the small growers sector.
But Tinsukia district has highest number of growers. The highest concentration of plantation is due to already available infrastructure with existing big tea gardens (market, planting materials, skilled workers and un-used or under exploited suitable high land). There are more than 1, 44, 222 small tea growers (STGs) with about 80,948 ha of land, according to All Assam Small Growers’ Association. The STGs have become a big force by contributing 42.17% of state’s total tea production (as in 2017-18). The Saha group tea gardens in around 1,000 ha with own factory had around 5,000 full time and part time employees.
If one travels by road from Doom Dooma en-route Rangpur and Pilobari villages for 30-km in Tinsukia district in Assam vast stretches of tea gardens on both sides are seen till horizon. When asked, Rajen Medhi, owner of 2 ha tea garden, said that thousands of inhabitants, above 70% of these areas, earn their livelihood mostly by plucking tea leaves and selling them to agents of various tea factories. Most villagers are STGs.
Interaction with family of STG Khem Bahadur Chetry, who came to Rangpur village 49 years ago, was mind blowing. He grows tea, sells them to agents by transporting in own two mini trucks but too conscious of education. His son Sanjay and daughter Sanjita are students of nearby Philobari Junior college while younger daughter is studying in school. Sanjita is too brilliant as she had prompt reply very every question whether on economics or personal.
The tea leaves rates offered by agents are whimsical but not uniform, said many tea growers including educated ones as STGs are not organized. This is the greatest weakness of this sector. They are fully dependent on other factories for processing their leaves for not having their own tea processing factory.
In addition to the existing big factories owned by different tea companies, there are some 272 bought leaf factories (BLF) in Assam which process green leaves of small tea growers. However, in many of such factories the quality of the made tea is not properly maintained and for which such teas are not sold in good price in auction market. Thus, owners of these factories are unable to pay reasonable price to STGs for their green leaves.
Notably, Scottish adventurer Robert Bruce is credited with introducing Assam tea bush in Europe. He reportedly found tea plant growing wildly in Assam in 1823 while trading in the region when Maniram Dewan directed him to local Singpho chief Bessa Gam. Bruce noticed local Singhpo tribesmen brewing tea from the leaves of the bush and arranged with the tribal chiefs to provide him with samples of the leaves and seeds, which he planned and scientifically examined. Bruce died shortly thereafter, without having seen the plant properly classified. It was not until early 1830s that Robert’s brother, Charles, arranged for a few leaves from the Assam tea bush to be sent to the botanical gardens in Calcutta for proper examination. There, the plant was finally identified as a variety of tea or Camellia sinensis var assamica, but different from the Chinese version.
Tea is an aromatic beverage commonly prepared by pouring hot or boiling water over cured leaves of Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub (bush) native to East Asia. After water, it is the most widely consumed drink in the world. There are different types of tea; like Darjeeling and Chinese greens, have a cooling, slightly bitter, and astringent flavour, while others have vastly different profiles that include sweet, nutty, floral or grassy notes. Tea has a stimulating effect in humans primarily due to its caffeine content.
Assam tea is a black tea named after the region of its production. Assam tea is manufactured specifically from the plant Camellia sinensis var assamica (Masters). The same tea plant is also traditionally used in Yunnan province in China. Assam tea is mostly grown at or near sea level and is known for its body, briskness, malty flavour, and strong, bright colour. Assam teas, or blends containing Assam, are often sold as “breakfast” teas. For instance, Irish breakfast tea, a maltier and stronger breakfast tea, consists of small-sized Assam tea leaves.
Though Assam generally denotes the distinctive black teas from Assam, the region produces smaller quantities of green and white teas as well with their own distinctive characteristics. Historically, Assam has been the second commercial tea production region after southern China, the only two regions in the world with native tea plants.