Extreme climate casts a long shadow on tea production in TN's Nilgiris

Worst summer in past seven decades hits yield of thousands of small tea planters in Nilgiris valley; red spider mites add to woes
Natarajan, a small tea grower, at his garden in Balacola village in Kundha taluk
Natarajan, a small tea grower, at his garden in Balacola village in Kundha taluk(Photo | Express)

COIMBATORE: A record high temperature during the summer, highest in seven decades, has cast a long shadow on the Nilgiris. What made it a double whammy for tea plantations is that it came close on the heels of the frost-ridden December. Thousands of micro and small tea planters in the valley are spending sleepless nights, worried about a significant production loss this year.

S Raman, who owns a seven-acre plantation in Kundha near Coonur, believes that annual production is likely to drop by 40% this year.

“Our tea leaves were badly affected by frost in December and once again by this summer heat which touched a new high after 72 years. The district usually receives summer showers. However, that has also not happened so far this year, leading to almost drought-like conditions in Nilgiris which is the water source for Coimbatore, Tiruppur and Erode districts.”

Raman is also president of Nelikolu micro and small tea growers’ development association. He said tea growers have been handing over tea leaves to factories at Rs 16 per kg, which is a meagre sum. They have consistently been demanding the union government to increase the price to Rs 30 a kg for improving their livelihood. “A significant drop in cultivation this year is sure to affect cultivators in a bad way. Despite our repeated appeals, the union government has not considered the demand,” he said.

There are a total of 46,610 registered small tea growers and 19,000 unregistered tea growers in the state. They get a green leaf yield of 5,000 to 6,000 kg per acre every year and send it to government agencies like Tamil Nadu Small Tea Growers Industrial Cooperative Tea Factories Federation (Indcoserve) and private players to manufacture tea dust.

Though tea plantations are also found in Valparai and Theni, Nilgiris is considered the tea belt of Tamil Nadu.

Tea gardens have also been affected by red spider mites owing to the heat. The small tea growers whom TNIE spoke to are worried about the infestation and the continental climate. Labour shortage is another limiting factor for tea cultivation.

B Thathan, a small tea grower at Kundha, said, “The tea board should provide battery-operated harvesting machines at 75% subsidy to overcome labour shortage. The cost of a machine is Rs 16,000.”

A large number of silver oak trees that were grown inside tea plantations have been axed and sold by farmers over the last 15 years to meet expenses such as education and marriage of children.

I Bhojan, who owns a six-acre plantation in Kothagiri, said, “The plantations have lost the shadow offered by these trees, exposing tea leaves to intense heat. This year, summer temperature has touched a new high and led to red spider mites attack on over 70% fields across Nilgiris. Major tea growers can afford pesticide, which is out of our bounds,” Bhojan said.

Manjai V Mohan, founder and president of Badaga Desa Party, said considering the current situation, the state government should announce Nilgiris as a disaster-hit area and compensate all farmers.

“The government should form a team and conduct study in tea fields since over one lakh farmers are directly dependant on tea leaf cultivation and another one lakh who are indirectly dependant. Compensation should be given to small tea growers like delta farmers and the amount should be credited into their bank accounts,” he said.

Rajesh Gupta, managing director of Global Tea Auctioneers Private Limited, acknowledged a dip in production while also expressing concern over the quality of tea leaves getting affected.

“Usually, we auction a variety of tea produced at 170 factories in and around Coonoor every week. We received 10 lakh kg of tea at last week’s auction, but it is likely to drop to nine lakh kg, and the situation is getting worse,” he said.

M Muthukumar, executive director of the tea board (south-India zonal office), told TNIE that they have not received any complaint from small tea growers in Nilgiris about crops being badly affected so far. “We will immediately look into any issue they raise. We are also trying to ascertain whether tea production this year is likely to be lower than last year. A report will be readied soon,” Muthukumar said.

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