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Court upholds ban on Kangra tea estates' land use change

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The High has upheld the state government's ban on changing the land use of tea estates in the picturesque Kangra Valley, which are exempted from the land ceiling act.

The landmark judgment justifies the execution of the Himachal Pradesh Ceiling on Land Holdings (Amendment) Act of 1999, which empowers the government to acquire the land if it's put to some other purpose, other than raising Kangra tea, known for its unique flavour and quality.

Upholding the amendments carried out to the Himachal Pradesh Ceiling on Land Holdings Act of 1972, a division bench of Chief Justice A.M. Khanwilkar and Justice R.B. Misra said: "Taking an overall view of the matter, we find no merits in the challenge to the validity of the amended provisions."

Dismissing the petitions of the Kangra Valley Small Tea Planters Association, the bench in its order July 19, the copies of which were made available to the media Monday, said the amended provisions were neither unconstitutional nor arbitrary.

Section 6-A of the amendment act stipulates that if the tea estate is put to other use than raising or maintenance of tea plantation or a purpose subservient to tea plantation, irrespective of the fact as to whether such land is in excess of the permissible area prescribed under Section 4 of the principal act or otherwise, it is treated as surplus area and deemed to have been acquired by the government.

Likewise, Section 7-A seeks to impose a complete ban on transfer of whole or even part of the land under a tea estate by way of contract, agreement, custom or usage.

"Transfer in respect of land under a tea estate has been declared to be void ab initio, notwithstanding the fact that the transfer is effected in favour of a third party before coming into force of the amendment act March 29, 2000," it says.

The state has contended that the amended provisions are intended not only to preserve the tea estates but also to promote and encourage tea estate activity in the state, which is on downhill for quite some time.

Kangra tea is an orthodox variety, close to Darjeeling tea, and it has been registered under the Geographical Indications (GI) of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999.

Tea cultivation was introduced in and around the Palampur foothills in the Kangra valley in the mid 19th century. The Camellia tea, planted by the British in 1849, grew so popular that tea from Kangra won a gold medal at an exhibition in London in 1886 for its superb flavour and quality.

However, a major earthquake that hit the area in 1905 destroyed a large number of tea gardens and tea factories. Thereafter, most of the European planters left, handing over their tea estates to the Indians.

Horticulture experts told IANS that a severe drought in 1999 and lifting of trade barriers, which allowed other countries to push their supplies at a much lower cost, adversely affected the Kangra tea industry.

They say tea production in Kangra has seen a drastic fall in the past 15 years with only small producers, with an average holding of around 0.6 acres, engaging in tea plantation.

Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, who in April last year visited Palampur town for laying the foundation stone of a Tea Board of India regional office, said the government of India was aiming to revive the Kangra tea industry by taking its annual production up to 20 lakh kg from 900,000 kg.

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