A taste of Bengal

In North Bengal, tea estates now come in the size of kitchen gardens

The small growers are producing nearly half of the region's annual tea output.

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.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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