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Kanika Datta: In the drink

Tea will be declared a National Drink on April 17, 2013.What does 'national' status imply in terms of hard benefits? Tax breaks, maybe?

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The raised a cup to Deputy Chairman last week for offering to have tea declared a on April 17, 2013. This date will coincide with the 212th birth anniversary of the first Assamese tea planter and leader Maniram Dewan.

That would put tea on a par with the tiger (India’s national animal), the peacock (bird), banyan (tree) and hockey (sport) not to forget the 22 national languages specified in the Constitution.

What does “national” status imply in terms of hard benefits? No one could specify beyond saying that it would help tea producers earn remunerative prices. How, they could not say. Tax breaks, maybe?

The industry thinks tea warrants this label because India is the largest producer of black tea at 988 million kg a year, and the beverage is widely consumed domestically. Plus, there are supposedly many health benefits associated with tea consumption.

Predictably, argumentative Indians have challenged these assumptions. Why not milk, says one lobby; how about coffee, claims another. What about lassi or coconut water, demand naturopaths. Why promote a beverage with colonial links, demands one muscular nationalist (no one has questioned why a minor figure in the Revolt of 1857 is entitled to national commemoration, but that’s a minor quibble).

Perhaps the issue was best expressed in this bewildered if ungrammatical and over-punctuated question on the Net: “why diff countries have different national things?? is that only to differ from another country or any explanation to it???”

Good question, when you consider the fate of most “national things” in India. The tiger faces extinction with just over 1,400 left in the wild. The banyan tree is conspicuously disappearing, even in rural India, as contractors clear land for buildings and roads. The peacock, too, is in danger. As for hockey, Indians have an oddly indifferent relationship with a sport that has won the country more global plaudits than cricket, the national obsession. And national languages are being subsumed by English and Hindi, the two official languages of communication.

Even if we assume the label “national drink” has some meaning, does the tea industry really deserve it? Unlike the beautiful tiger, peacock and banyan tree, or the rich variety of national languages, the tea industry has done little to enhance India’s global image. Through its centuries-old history, the industry has been one of the most exploitative of labour and resources, its tea estates with their vast bungalows institutionalising an inequality matched only by the pre-Civil War cotton plantations in southern USA. In that sense, the milk lobby certainly has a stronger case, since Operation Flood changed the fortunes of thousands of poor, small producers and made India the world’s largest milk producer.

Then again, the management lifestyle of the tea industry was sustained by a protected domestic market. It was only after the nineties, when import restrictions were lifted and the Soviet Union, then India’s biggest export market, collapsed that the chronic uncompetitiveness of this industry was exposed. The dangers of prolonged protectionism can be gauged from the fact that the industry rarely felt the need to innovate. The last significant technological breakthrough was in the thirties with the advent of “crush, tear and curl”, or CTC, which dramatically increased productivity.

Also, despite being the world’s largest producer with a geographical indicator all to itself (Darjeeling Tea), India has been losing share to other aggressive players like Kenya and Sri Lanka. In 2006, India’s global market share was 14 per cent. Last year, it was 11 per cent. The biggest global value-added tea companies were not Indian — and Dilmah. The other two packet tea majors, Tetley and Typhoo, were British companies acquired, respectively, by and the Apeejay Surendra group. Even the term chai was appropriated and globalised by the West.

The tea industry says it deserves special status because it employs about 1.1 million people. India’s software industry employs more than double that at 2.8 million, and in the global sourcing industry India has a 58 per cent market share. Should it be declared a national industry and given tax breaks forever and after?

Indeed, the Indian tea industry may be better off cheering Dr Ahluwalia’s meaningless declaration with a glass of scotch or champagne. As Scotland and France’s national drinks, respectively, they’ve done far better for themselves through the ages than Indian tea.

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