South Indian tea output has dropped by around 10 per cent to 225 million kg and is unlikely to recover this year. Planters say they are going through a stressful period due to climate change and their inability to fetch remunerative prices for their produce.
According to United Planters' Association of Southern India (Upasi), the apex body of planters of tea, coffee, rubber, cardamom and pepper in the southern states, production of tea is estimated to be around 225 million kg as against an average output of 240-250 million kg.
The decline in output was attributed more to climate issues than to area under tea and other factors. For example, the Nilgiris, one of the largest tea hubs, received rain for 20 days last month but less than four hours a day of sunshine on average.
Upasi data shows South Indian tea has a share of 17 per cent in overall Indian production and a 40 per cent share in exports.
While South India fared better than the north on these metrics, wages in the south are very high compared to other plantation states. To make matters worse, the remuneration has also been muted. The average price in southern auction centres in the first nine months of the current calendar year rose to Rs 102.87 a kg from Rs 98.75 in the same period of 2018.
Confirming the stress that planters are going through, AL RM Nagappan, President, UPASI said most of the estates are making huge losses and struggling to carry out day-to-day operations and make timely wage payments. They have also sought immediate government intervention, as prospects of an improvement in prices in the near future appear bleak.
Substantial amounts are outstanding to the growers from approved schemes of the commodity boards. In tea alone, Rs 55 crore is owed currently to south Indian planters. Allocations to the commodity boards have been curtailed year after year and the meagre additional amount set aside in the current Budget will not be sufficient to clear even the pending dues. The outlay for tea production, for instance, dropped to Rs 150 crore in 2019-20 from Rs 189.05 crore in 2017-18.
Upasi has requested the Government of India to sanction additional funds for the commodity boards to enable them to disburse the overdue amounts to southern plantations immediately. This would go a long way in helping them tide over the financial mess they are in today.
"Climatic conditions aren't conducive for crop production. April-May, the peak production season, is gone and recouping the crop is difficult,” Nagappan added.