Poll worry for parties, not for shut gardens

Workers of the closed tea estates and their families will exercise their franchise this time too, but political parties are at a loss to calculate the expected votes.

One of the reasons is that the garden electorate has refused to be swayed by promises from candidates to reopen the estates stalked by poverty and malnutrition once they get elected to the Lok Sabha.

“Ever since our garden was closed down, we have seen four polls and the coming general election is the fifth one. Every time, leaders come in convoys, spell out their parties’ policies, make commitments and leave. Nothing has, however, changed in the estate and we continue to be unemployed. We depend on the meagre amount doled out by the government and the odd jobs that we do now and then,” said Rajen Murmu, a worker of Kanthalguri Tea Estate that has been closed since July 2002.

The labourer said the residents of the garden had grown accustomed to the false promises. “Actually, none of us believe what these candidates say. We ignore them.”

The CPM, which claims to have a strong base in the Dooars brew belt, has been facing unpleasant questions even from its cadres in closed estates.

“We are depending on alternative means to earn money. We do not have the slightest hope that our garden will reopen even if the CPM candidate wins. In the past five-six years, people in closed tea estates have learnt the truth that the only interest of the parties is in the number of votes they can garner,” said Sania Bhumij, a worker of Raipur Tea Estate and a member of the Citu, the CPM’s labour wing.

Dejected though they may be, the workers are, however, not ready to boycott the polls. The election day has other appeals for them.

“It might sound funny but tea estates wear a festive look on that day. Several people flock the booths; children run around; elders take a puff and sip tea; women visit the makeshift shops in their best saris. This has been a practice for many years. It is more of a festival. It is a relief from the mundane life. The only difference this time is the lack of enthusiasm among labourers to work for any political party,” said Phanindranath Das, an employee of the closed Sikarpur and Bhandapur Tea Estate.

A Congress leader admitted that the workers were not much interested in attending meetings and listening to the leaders talk.

Besides empty promises, two other factors — the assertion of the Terai-Dooars co-ordination committee of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad that it will boycott polls and the growing clout of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in tea estates — have made the electoral results unpredictable.

“Considering the present situation, it is indeed tough for parties like the CPM and even the Congress (the Intuc, the Congress labour wing, has bases in some tea estates) to calculate the approximate votes they will get from the tea estates,” a CPM leader said in Jalpaiguri.

“Although campaigns are going on and responses are good, the Parishad’s call for poll boycott and the inclination of a section towards the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha have made equations complicated. The Citu may have a strong base in the gardens, but it is difficult for the CPM to predict who will win this time,” he added.

Cubs found in garden

The workers of the closed Bamundanga Tea Estate came upon a litter of three cubs in a ditch in the garden within 24 hours of an adult female leopard being trapped in a cage in the area by the forest department.

The foresters said the cubs were not of the leopard trapped in the garden early yesterday morning.

Bhagabandas Orao, a tea garden worker, said he had seen some movement in a ditch meant to drain rainwater this morning. He went closer and spotted the three cubs. “I thought that they would not survive as their mother had been trapped and released elsewhere. So I took the cubs out of the ditch and brought them to the garden factory,” said the labourer.

Yesterday morning, the estate dwellers were relieved that a female leopard that had been preying on domesticated animals and livestock for a few months had been trapped. The workers had been supplementing whatever income they had by selling tea leaves by raising and selling cows, goats and pigs.

The convener of the operating and maintenance committee of the garden, Shankar Guha Roy, had said yesterday that the adult leopard had preyed on nearly 50 domesticated animals in the garden and had been spreading panic in the area.

The workers’ belief that the garden had been rid of the big cat was dashed as the forest officers said the cubs belonged to a leopard still at large.

Tapas Das, the divisional forest officer of the Jalpaiguri wildlife division, said the cubs were all female and the leopard trapped yesterday was not their mother. “The leopard we released in the Gorumara National Park yesterday was not a lactating mother as she should have been as the cubs found today are just about two weeks old,” Das said.

The officer said the cubs would be placed in the ditch so that the mother found them and relocated them elsewhere. “If there are more predators in the area, we will lay the trap once again.”

The Bamundanga tea estate is surrounded by forested tracts and wild animals are bound to be found there.

Leopard bites garden bait

An adult female leopard was trapped in the closed Bamundanga Tea Estate this morning after the animal had killed and devoured at least 40 heads of livestock owned by the workers.

The convener of the operating and maintenance committee of the garden, Shankar Guha Roy, said the forest department’s Khuni office had placed a trap about a fortnight back. “The guards kept a live goat inside the cage last evening and this morning, the leopard was discovered inside,” said Guha Roy.

Pradip Sau, a garden worker, said he had woken up around 4am hearing the leopard growling. “I took a stick and went where the trap was laid. The animal was trying to break out. I immediately raised the alarm and all the workers staying nearby came,” said Sau.

“We have lost 40 to 50 animals — cows, goats and pigs — to the leopard. We had been requesting the forest department to come to our aid for the past few months, but they remained aloof,” the labourer said.

Roy said the garden had 1,174 workers who subsisted by selling plucked tea leaves.

The ranger of Khunia, N. Saha, said the female leopard that was trapped seemed to be about five-year-old. “The garden is surrounded by Nathua, Gorumara, Khairkata and Diana forests and it is only natural that wild animals will stray into the area. It is not true that we are unaware of the problems faced by the garden dwellers.”

The officer said the leopard had been checked by a vet and released into the forest later in the afternoon.

Workers block road for tea dues

More than 1,000 workers of Bharnobari Tea Estate blocked the Jaigaon road at Hasimara for eight hours, demanding their dues. The protesters positioned bicycles and benches on which women workers sat.

The blockade was lifted at 4pm after the garden management sent a part of the dues to the SBI’s Hasimara branch and promised to pay the rest by the middle of this month.

The agitation that began at 8am did not allow any Indian and Bhutan army vehicles to cross Hasimara, 40km from Alipurduar. More than 100 vehicles were stranded on both sides of the blockade.

Nearly 40 students off to appear for their second year BA exams were held up because of the blockade. “The examinees had to walk for more than a kilometre and then reached the Jaigaon college in two pick-up vans we arranged for them,” said Haider Ansari, the general secretary of the students’ union of the college.

The protesters threatened to block NH31C and also hold up railway movement if their salaries for February and March along with 10 installments of rations were not distributed by Sunday.

The tea garden in Jaigaon had reopened on April 28 last year after being closed for three years. However, payment problems cropped up from January. The management paid a portion of the workers’ wages for February on Saturday and assured that the rest would be paid by the middle of this week. But the dues were not cleared till yesterday.

At 11am today, Kalchini block development officer Rajendra Raj Sundas arrived at the spot but failed to convince the protesters.

“When the garden was reopened, the buyers assured told on timely payment of our wages. But the salaries of two months and rations for 10 weeks are due,” said Nilmani Kheria, a worker participating in the agitation.

The workers said they would chase out any politician who would come to campaign in the garden. “No one cares for us. We have no doctor, no power. We will boycott the elections,” Nilmani said.

Surojit Basu, an owner of Bharnobari, cited the bank closure for the past few days for the non-payment. “We are facing funds crunch because of the poor tea market,” he said over the phone from Delhi.

Hailstorm runs havoc in estates

A hailstorm accompanied by rain flattened tea bushes and damaged property in four tea gardens of the Alipurduar subdivision last night.

The calamity hit the Tasati, Mujnai Subhasini and Ethelbari tea estates around 10.15pm and left a trail of devastation in just 15 minutes.

The worst-hit was the Tasati tea estate where the bushes were completely shaved off and the management feared that production would not be possible before June.

“Of the 400 hectares, bushes in about 120 hectares have been very badly damaged. The loss, according to our preliminary estimates, will be around Rs 50-60 lakh. The roofs of about 80 houses of our workers had been blown off,” said Tasati manager V.K. Goyel.

Chemicals were being sprayed on the damaged bushes to prevent them from pest attacks and diseases.

An estimated Rs 20 lakh would be required to repair the damaged houses, Goyel said and added a similar hailstorm had destroyed the property in April 2005.

“The hailstones were at least an inch in diameter and inflicted heavy damage on the bushes. We will be hard put to compensate for the loss,” the Tasati manager said.

In Mujnai, a portion of the factory shed was destroyed in the storm. The management had just repaired the shed after it was damaged last year. “We had planned to reopen the factory from today, but last night’s storm damaged the wall as well as the factory shed. We will have to carry out repair work again and need at least Rs 5 lakh which will be hard on us at a time of financial crisis,” said N.N. Chakrabarty, a senior manager of the garden.

At the Subhasini tea garden, at least 100 feet of the factory wall collapsed. The management said it would have to erect a fencing after removing the rubble.

Debarghya Guha, the manager of Ethelbari Tea Estate in Falakata, said 1.59 lakh kg of green leaves worth Rs 2.8 crore were destroyed in the hailstorm last night.

Tea workers plan stir against non-payment

Workers of the Bharnobari Tea Estate at Kalchini in the Dooars today blocked the National Highway 31 near Old Hasimara bus stand demanding immediate clearance of alleged pending wages and last 10 rations.
Mrs Debi Lohar, a protester said that the workers were unpaid for the months of February and March. Following a workers’ stir, the plantation manager Mr Jayanto Banarjee had assured to clear all the dues by last Saturday but the management has failed to do so. "We were told that we would be paid on Wednesday but were not. The manager is not here, and finding no other way to voice our problems, we blocked the highway,” she said.
Another agitating worker Mr Raju Biswakarma alleged the workers had not received ration for the past ten weeks. “We have run out of our resources and yet the management is unconcerned. Most of our co-workers are starving and they have no money to buy food. If the plantation management does not clear our dues by Saturday we could disrupt train services in the area and also boycott the Lok Sabha polls,” said Mr Biswakarma.
The agitators withdrew following intervention by the BDO Kalchini, OC Jaigaon police station and OC Hasimara police out post.
The BDO Kalchini Mr Rajendraraj Somdas said that the Bharnobarie management has sent Rs 10 lakh for the workers’ payment for the month of February. “We are also trying to clear their dues for the month of March by 13 April but we cannot assure anything about ration,” the BDO said.

India Tea Exports Down 25%

India's tea exports fell by a quarter on year in February due to low availability and weak demand from Russia, Basudeb Banerjee, chairman of the Tea Board of India, said Wednesday.

Exports in February totaled 12.0 million kilograms compared with 16.1 million kg a year earlier, according to the state-run board.

Production problems in southern India have impacted the availability of orthodox tea, Mr. Banerjee told Dow Jones Newswires. "Also, because of the economic slowdown, the demand has come down from Russia and most of the Western markets," he added.

Russia imports mostly orthodox tea - premium tea that is selectively processed.

India, the world's second-largest tea producer and exporter, is shifting its focus to Middle East markets to make up for lower exports to other regions, Banerjee said.

Mr. Banerjee said he expects tea exports in the financial year ended March 31 to be above the previous year's level of 185.3 million kg.

February output fell to 15.3 million kg from 17.8 million kg a year earlier.

Mr. Banerjee said the first flush teas - India's early season tea crop, generally considered to be of the highest quality - have been affected by drought-like conditions in the northeastern state of Assam.

"So the season has been delayed a bit - and certainly the first flush crop will be down," he said, adding that rain in the last week has provided some relief.

Picking of flush teas usually begins in March.

Production will likely be slightly lower in 2008-09 compared with the 2007-08 level of 945.3 million kg.

Tropical climate and Gen X support growth drivers in Indian beverage industry

India's tropical climatic weather conditions and the growing youth population are the biggest drivers for the beverage industry to climb a new high, according to beverage manufacturers like MTR, B Natural, Parle Agro, UB Group and Coffee Day.

The beverage sector in the country covers fruit drinks in tetra packs, mineral water, alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, coffee and tea.

"The two factors that drive the beverage market are convenience of a ready-to-drink concept, easy availability, high thirst factor and disposable incomes," says IR Ramalinge Gowda, managing director of Karnataka Milk Federation which also vends a range of milk-based beverages which finds sales booming in summer months.

While it is difficult to estimate the size of the sector because each sector itself provides a dedicated range of customers, the industry estimates it as a
Rs 10,000-crore segment for fruit drinks and the soft drinks alone. The industry sources in Karnataka representing MTR Jagdale, KMF, B Natural, stated that the market was growing at over 30% annually.

"Since beverages are indispensable, companies are looking at novel packaging concepts to woo customers. In terms of flavour the demand is more for light and nutritional versions with better taste," says Dr Mridul Salgame, managing director, Institute for Analysis of Dairy Food & Cultures (IADFAC) Laboratories.

Says Dr A S Bawa, director, Defence Food Laboratory, Mysore, "We are looking at simple-to-carry and easy-to-digest versions which include highly nutritious drinks. This is because we are catering to the services sector. But the private entrepreneurs can approach us for technology transfer for any fruit-vegetable and cereal drink of their choice. Our range has millet beverage mixes, which are rich in calcium. The beetroot juice serves as a good beverage for personnel suffering from anaemic conditions. There are also beverages to increase the appetite of personnel stationed in high altitudes. All these can be conveniently reconstituted in water prior to consumption.

Soft Drinks are a preferred option in summer
The leading soft and aerated players in the country are Coco-Cola and PepsiCo. The soft and aerated drink varieties include carbonated and non-carbonated versions available in bottles, family packs, cans and fountain dispensers. Apart from the range of cola drinks like Pepsi, Coca- Cola, Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, there are fizzy flavours like orange, cloudy lime, clear lime and mango which are preferred as any time and any season options.

PepsiCo India, which is the country's leading food & beverage company, launched its packaged nimbu paani, Nimbooz by 7Up early this month. "The lemon juice in a convenient pack has been developed to suit Indian tastes and preferences," says Punita Lal, executive director- marketing, PepsiCo India.

In order to maximise its summer sales and en-cash on the king of fruits demand, the company also added a new 'Aamsutra' concept for its much important drink 'Slice' mango drink. "Slice is the fastest growing mango drink brand in the country, "says Homi Battiwalla, business head, juice & juice drinks, PepsiCo India.

South India is the lead market for mango drinks in the country. Andhra Pradesh is the biggest mango market and also the fastest growing market for Slice and mango drinks in the country. Tamil Nadu is amongst the top three states and Slice is the market-leader in Tamil Nadu, he added

Tea, much sought after beverage:
Apart from the major tea players in the country like Brooke Bond, Lipton to name a few, now Metro Cash and Carry India, the international leader in self-service wholesale, is also offering its range of premium teabags under its H-Line and HORECA select brands to cater to the table and kitchen needs of the hospitality industry. Competitively priced, these premium tea bags are available exclusively at Metro Cash & Carry wholesale centers in Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata.

Tea bags from the H-Line brand come in 9 popular flavours - Cardamom, Lemon, Earl Grey, English breakfast, Masala, Ginger, Darjeeling, Assam Tea and Green Tea. Each tea bag is individually wrapped in envelopes to protect the flavour and hygiene of the product. Available in convenient pack sizes of 50 and 100s, the range is priced between Rs 62 and Rs 215.

Coffee: The growing demand
India is the sixth prime producer of coffee in the world after Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia and Ethiopia. The country accounts for around 4.5% of the global coffee production.

Much of all production takes place in the southern states of the country with hilly scapes of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and North Eastern region (Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh0. India is famed for its Monsoon Malabar variety.
Coffee is a much preferred drink in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Coffee bars like Cafe Coffee Day and Barista are thronged with enthusiasm along with the traditional filter coffee serving outlets.

Goodricke sees 5% rise in tea prices on global shortage

The Goodricke Group Limited is expecting tea prices to increase by five per cent this year, on the back of the global shortage and strong internal demand.

A N Singh, managing director and CEO, GGL said, prices should increase by five per cent. "There is a drought in Kenya and Sri Lanka, coupled with a strong internal demand, prices should appreciate," he said. Singh was speaking on the sidelines of the company's annual general meeting.

Last year, GGL clocked in an average price of Rs 228.51 per kg for its Darjeeling teas compared to the auction average of Rs 175.36 per kg. Goodricke Dooars sold at Rs 99.70 per kg against the auction average of Rs 91.9 per kg while the company's Assam teas averaged at Rs 120.27 per kg against auction price of Rs 104.59 per kg.

Singh clarified that the five per cent appreciation was the expectation for teas in general and specific to Goodricke's teas. Total manufactured crop for the company was at 21.52 million kg for the year ended December 31, 2008, compared to 21.17 million kg in the previous year. This is the highest manufactured crop of the company.

P A Legatta, chairman, said, although the crop marginally declined the increase had been achieved from outsourced leaf.

Goodricke to launch ready-to-drink products by December

Tea plantation company Goodricke Group Ltd is gearing up to launch ready-to-drink cold beverage product by December this year, a top official said here Tuesday.

'Over 250 million bottles of our ready-to-drink variety will be available in three flavours - peach, lemon and orange,' company managing director A.N. Singh told reporters on the sidelines of the annual general meeting.

Goodricke, whose gardens are spread over Darjeeling and Dooars in West Bengal, and Assam, would use the Goodricke brand owned by the UK-based parent company Camellia Plc as an umbrella brand for the ready-to-drink segment till the exact name is finalised.

Country's largest tea company Tata Tea had last month announced its foray into the tea and fruit-based cold beverage market with the launch of T!ON brand.

Talking about Goodricke's tea business, Singh said the company has plans to reduce sale of tea from its Darjeeling gardens through the auction route and shift more quantity to the retail market.

'By reducing the share of sale through auction from the present 70 percent to 50 percent within the next three years, we would be saving on costs incurred in putting the tea to auction,' Singh said.

In a bid to increase retail sale, the company has recently opened a tea lounge and has entered into distribution tie-ups with shopping malls, he added.

The share of packet tea sales, which currently stands at 5 percent of 21.52 million kg tea manufactured in 2008, would be doubled to 10 percent in three years, Singh said.

The profit after tax of the company for 2008 was Rs.l7.58 crore, up from Rs.7.74 crore in 2007.

Push to direct supply of fertiliser

The ministry of fertilisers has asked the tea industry to examine the possibility of procuring muriate of potash directly to ensure that the gardens get the fertiliser on time.

At present, the gardens get the fertiliser through the distributors, which often leads to a delay in delivery.

The proposal, mooted at a recent meeting in Darjeeling, came in the wake of the problems faced by the industry last year because of the erratic supply of the fertiliser.

An industry official said the ministry has asked the tea industry to look into the matter, as there is no nodal agency in Assam, which wants to take up the responsibility of procuring the fertiliser.

The muriate of potash is a vital fertiliser for both the CTC and orthodox varieties of tea. It helps tea bushes to battle certain fungal infections and to improve the water content in the tea leaf. The India Potash Ltd (IPL) is the sole agency for the fertiliser and bulk mover of the product but does not have any stocking point in Assam and is supplied through the distributors.

“Supplies of the fertiliser did not reach on time last year and there were reports of unfair deals,” the official said.

He added that the ministry was ready to give a no-objection certificate if the tea industry wanted to take up the responsibility of procuring the fertiliser directly from the IPL, through its associations.

The tea industry is now discussing the proposal with its member gardens.

The requirement of fertilisers in the tea gardens of Assam is estimated at 40,000 tonnes a year.

“The scarcity of fertiliser had affected the gardens badly last year. The season has just started this year and hence ways and means have to be thought of to procure the fertiliser on time,” the official said. The shortage last year was attributed to the suspension of fresh imports by IPL because of the sharp rise in global prices and the inadequate coverage of the transportation costs under the freight reimbursement scheme.

10% loss in tea yield feared for dry spell

The tea gardens in the Dooars are apprehending at least 10 per cent loss in its annual production of 160 million kg because of a drought-like situation in the region over the past six months.

“About 15 per cent of the annual crop is produced by the middle of this month every year. We are worried that half of it has already been lost because of the absence of rain,” said Prabir Bhattacharya, the secretary of the Dooars Branch of the Indian Tea Association (DBITA).

According to him, the tea gardens of the region had experienced a similar situation in 1984 and 1989, when production was hampered because of the drought.

“Usually, we get at least 200 inches of rainfall every year and at least four to five inches of shower at this time of the season, that is from December-January to March-April. But this year there was hardly half-an-inch of rain which is quite unnatural,” Bhattacharya said.

There are 153 tea gardens in the Dooars and all are facing a drop in production not only because of the scarcity of rain, but for some other problems as well, said the DBITA secretary.

“The dry climate helps several pests to grow which are considered harmful for tea bushes. Red spider and red caterpillar are some of the insects which are threats to the gardens,” Bhattacharya said.

In the past couple of days, there were occasional drizzles in the region but Bhattacharya felt that the amount of rain was too less to make any impact on the tea industry. The drought-like situation and the pest attack on the bushes would escalate the cost of production, he said.

The weather observation centre of North Bengal University has, however, brought some good news to the stakeholders of the industry in the region.

The centre has forecast that a low pressure axis from the Bay of Bengal has entered the north-eastern region of the country including the sub-Himalayan Bengal and Sikkim. A thunderstorm and rain is expected because of the phenomenon, which will help remove the dry spell in the gardens.

Dry spell to hit tea production

Absence of rain has hit the tea industry hard in north Bengal.

Ruing the dry spell in Jalpaiguri today, the Dooars Branch Indian Tea Association secretary, Mr Prabir Bhattacharya, said that the planters had not experienced such conditions in many years. “We did not experience such drought after 1984. The dry spell has scorched tea bushes in most plantations and we fear a severe drop in production this year,” he said.

“We fear production would be down by 10 per cent this year. The industry has already lost 50 per cent of the first flush crop normally realized between 15 March and 15 April. The Dooars receive about 250 inch rainfall a year but the region has received a paltry 1/2 inch rain in the past six moths spoiling the first flush tea, which is the best quality,” he said. According to him, the Dooars requires 6-7 inch rainfall in the next few days or the conditions would become irreversible.In addition to wilting for lack of rain, the tea bushes are coming under relentless pest attack. “Spiders, caterpillars and the lot are taking toll of the tea bushes. Both the drought and pest would increase the production cost this year by a considerable degree,” he said. According to him, the Dooars has an average annual production of 160 million kg tea. “We fear about 12 million kg shortfall this year. The industry has informed the state government of the situation and we are waiting for a response,” the secretary said.

Deadline to pay tea dues

Workers of the limping Bharnobari Tea Estate today set a deadline of April 7 for the management to pay them the February wages and clear the ration dues of five months, failing which they would block the road connecting Jaigaon to NH31C.

The warning came in the form of a memorandum the labourers submitted to the Kalchini block development officer today.

The garden, located 42km from Alipurduar town, was re-opened on April 28 last year and ever since, the management had been paying the workers their wages as well as providing them with rations on time till the end of November. Although there was no power connection to the factory in the estate, generators were used to produce tea.

But with the beginning of the lean season in December, the management stopped meeting the financial obligations.

The workers were paid the wages for December in the first week of February this year only. The payments were made in parts. Permanent workers were paid first, temporary workers then and the staff and sub-staff members were the last to receive the wages.

The people living in the garden faced other problems too. The employees of electricity department had come in the first week of March to disconnect power lines to garden quarters when Madhyamik examinations were going on. At the request of the parents, the employees left the garden without snapping the power lines.

As the workers were living without wages, two persons allegedly starved to death in the estate. The BDO, S. Sundas, contacted Surojit Basu, one of the buyers of the garden, and the wages for January were paid in the first week of March.

Biplab Sarkar, a leader of the Intuc-affiliated National Union for Plantation Workers in the garden, said: “Provident fund dues are running to almost Rs 52 lakh. We are yet to receive the February wages. Rations for five months are also pending. The management had collected power bills for January from us, but did not deposit the amount with the electricity department.”

Sarkar said if chemicals were not sprayed on bushes, tea plants were bound to be eaten away by insects. “The situation in the garden is grave and the future of our children is uncertain. So, we have told the authorities that if the wages for February are not paid by April 7, we will block the road from Jaigaon to Hashimara.”

Basu said over the phone from Calcutta that the management was trying its best to clear the dues. “We have contacted labour commissioner and he will arrange for a meeting after the elections to resolve the issue.”