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Climate change makes the going tough for Assam tea sector

Crop loss due to extreme weather conditions has become a normal feature

Tea Industry

Supratim Dey  |  Guwahati 

Tea garden in Assam

Assam’s tea sector has, of late, been facing the brunt of climate change in the form of extreme weather conditions — either a drought-like situation or high-intensity rainfall.

The state’s tea sector, which had a good start this year with “above-normal” crop harvest in March, saw a dip in production the next month due to excessive rainfall. Industry sources say the dip in April’s production could be as high as 30-35 per cent and production of first flush (generally till April or mid-May) could be 34 million kg against 44 million kg produced in 2015. Many tea gardens in Brahmaputra valley battle the problem of water logging due to high intensity rainfall.

Tea crop loss for a short duration of time every year due to extreme weather conditions has more or less become a normal feature of late. If it is excessive rainfall this year, it was drought-like condition in past three years which affected tea production in Assam. In 2012, excessive rainfall coupled with pest attacks made the going tough for the state’s tea sector.

Studies indicate that Assam, particularly the Brahmaputra valley, has been witnessing ‘significant’ changes in rainfall pattern and temperature in recent years.

A study on climate change, done by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati, found the state has been witnessing long rainless spells or high intensity rainfall of short duration in recent years. The study, conducted by Arup Kumar Sarma, found that water logging and soil erosion in tea gardens — due to short-duration, high-intensity rainfall — were the two major challenges of ‘alarming nature’ for the state’s tea sector.

“A significant variation in total yearly rainfall with time has been seen in almost all districts (of Assam). Such variation in rainfall will definitely have some impact on various sectors of economy,” the study noted.

An earlier study conducted by the Tocklai Experimental Station of Tea Research Association, based in Jorhat in Upper Assam, to gauge the impact of climatic changes on the tea sector, too, had revealed similar details. The study had found the average minimum temperature in Assam had risen by one degree Celsius in the past 90 years. Besides, the region lost around 200 mm rainfall because of climatic changes.

Another study by the Centre for Environment Social and Policy Research, and Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi in collaboration with Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change found that six districts of Assam — Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur, Morigaon and Baksa - spread across the Brahmaputra valley have already started experiencing the impact of climate change.

“We in the tea industry do not want to talk about climate change and its impact on us. It might be due to business considerations. But, it is true that it is affecting us and we have to find remedial measures to tackle it. We cannot let the quality of Assam tea go down,” said Dipanjol Deka, secretary of Tea Association of India.

However, if one goes by the annual production figures of the Assam tea sector, it throws baffling details. Figures say production has been on an upswing in recent years. The tea sector, which was struggling to touch the 500 million kg annual production mark till 2010, has been posting annual production figures above 600 million kg since 2013.

The state’s tea sector puts forth the ‘make-up in later months’ theory. This means, after the extreme weather phase subsides, production picks up and the industry catches up with the loss. However, some have a different take as they believe the increase in production could be possible due to the recent growth in number of small tea growers.

“It is only because of the growth in the number of small tea growers that we are able to post bumper production figures these days. The production graph has been more or less stagnant for large and medium sized tea estates. Had there been no small tea growers, the production scenario would have been very different,” said an industry insider. Assam has nearly 70,000 small tea growers and they contribute around 25 per cent of the total tea produced in the state and 14 per cent of total tea produced in India.

Pranab Kumar Sarma, a tea expert who formerly worked with Tezpore Tea Company, said climate change could affect the quality, if not quantity, of tea. “Tea industry is affected by climate change and there is no denying the fact. There is no drastic dip in production, but the changes in weather can bring down the quality of Assam tea.”

However, Sarma added modernising tea factories and extensive use of technology in factories could help retain Assam tea’s distinct quality.

The IIT study, cited above, found that Golaghat district, which is often considered the world’s best tea producing area, has of late been suffering from long spells of drought-like conditions. On the other hand, it also often experiences high-intensity rainfall, leading to erosion or water logging. The study also revealed that both maximum and minimum temperature has an increasing trend in Tinsukia, Golaghat and Karbi Anglong districts.

According to Deka, many of the big tea gardens in areas that are often hit by rainless weather condition have woken up to the climate change challenge. They have begun investing on irrigation facilities and in acquiring new technologies for tea factories. The tea industry has been demanding the state government to come up with an irrigation scheme for it and also partly subsidise it. “What appeared a distant need some years back has now almost become a necessity for survival for us,” Deka added.

Bidyananda Barkakoty, advisor to North Eastern Tea Association, said the state government should commission a study to ascertain which irrigation system is better for tea gardens. He said some studies have shown drip irrigation — which is also less expensive — to be suitable for tea gardens.

Sarma, who believes water logging in gardens is a bigger threat than rainless weather conditions, cited a study to say that around 70 per cent of the tea gardens in Sivasagar, Dibrugarh, Darrang, Sonitpur and North Lakhimpur districts were prone to this problem.

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First Published: Sat, May 07 2016. 21:56 IST