When Subhash Sarkar retired from his government job in Siliguri, a town in North Bengal, in 2012, he put most of his money in five acres of what appeared to be barren land in Phansidewa block, 15 km away. His plan was to raise a tea plantation there. Four years on, this small estate is helping him recover some of that investment.

From such small beginnings, Sarkar has now ventured into tea tourism, adding a banquet area and accommodations to his plantation, which he has named Tea Leaf Resort. And it is doing brisk business.

Subhash Sarkar in his small tea garden.
Subhash Sarkar in his small tea garden.

As it was in the case of Sarkar, the lure of tea and better economic returns – in comparison to, say, paddy – has also caught the eye of thousands of farmland owners in Siliguri, the adjoining towns of Jalpaiguri and Islampur, and the Terai. While this region in North Bengal has always been associated with tea, small gardens like that of Sardar, measuring between an acre and 25 acres, are a relatively new feature and are rapidly coming up. Their owners say that if an acre of paddy yields Rs 6,000 a year, a tea plantation of the same size fetches them at least double the amount if not more, excluding expenses on labour, fertilisers and pesticides.

A small tea garden in North Bengal.
A small tea garden in North Bengal.

According to the Confederation of India Small Tea Growers Association, the region has seen the addition of over 120,000 acres in new tea plantations in the past decade. Of this, 20% of the land was initially under paddy cultivation. Most of the individual gardens are members of some 70 self-help groups, which grow tea and sell the produce to tea manufacturing factories. These, in turn, are called “bought leaf factories” – they do not have any captive gardens and thrive on a supply chain of small tea growers.

A view inside a bought-leaf factory.
A view inside a bought-leaf factory.

Nearly 7,500 small tea growers are registered with the association, its secretary Bijoy Gopal Chakraborty said. He added that these gardens engage a direct and indirect workforce of around 500,000 – almost equal to or more than the big gardens. The small growers and the bought leaf factories produce about 165 million kg, or 46%, of the 365 million kg of tea produced in the region every year.

The tea industry provides employment to a large number of people.
The tea industry provides employment to a large number of people.

Holding their own

Travelling in this region, it is hard to miss the kitchen garden-sized tea plantations sprouting green leaves in the backyards of small and marginal farmers. It is a unique new feature that is changing the landscape here. The orthodox, old world view of the 1,000-plus acres of rolling, majestic tea gardens with shade trees are still there. But by their side exist these small ventures. Where once there were British tea planters, now there are farmers-turned-tea growers.

And their influence is growing. Chakraborty said that a delegation of new-generation tea growers, with the patronage of the Tea Board, had participated in a fair in Russia and managed to procure good export orders.

But in the past month, this sector faced its biggest challenge yet – demonetisation. “Our weekly payment requirements are to the tune of Rs 20 lakhs but in the last one month, we have received only one instalment of Rs 11 lakhs and our supply chains are totally dry of liquid cash,” said Rajat Roy Karjee, president of the Joy Jalpesh Small Tea Growers Society, the largest self-help group in the sector with 522 member growers. “I don’t rule out a closure if the money flow does not improve,” he added.

All photos by Subrata Nagchoudhury.