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Tripura’s tea on revival tracks

Ratnadeep Choudhury
It was in 1996 - the militants kidnapped Jogabrata Chakrabarty, owner of the Megliban tea estate in Tripura, for ransom. His family is supposed to have paid a huge ransom – an astronomical sum – but he never returned nor did his dead body. His family went through endless trauma - for legal reasons his wife needed proof of her husband's death. The ultras reportedly agreed to send her husband’s ‘skeletal remains’ but asked for another Rs 1 lakh for it. The hapless widow paid up but she could never get back the ‘skeleton’.

It was the flash point – this incident shook the very root of more than 90 years old tea industry of this landlocked state, bordered by Bangladesh on three sides. In the mid nineties, insurgents unleashed a reign of terror in the tea gardens across Tripura - Militants raided the gardens at will, abducted Managers and killed them, profit making gardens were shut down, those who survived the bullets – ran for life, and the state government remained a mere spectator. These days, with insurgency on a sharp decline, tea industry in Tripura is up for a major face-lift. While tea from Tripura has found buyers outside the country, the state government has come up with a master plan to rejuvenate this ailing industry, which still produces bulk of Northeast’s revenue.

The banned insurgent outfits -National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) virtually broke the backbone of Tripura’s tea industry, the second organized industry in the state after rubber. Nearly 14 planters have been killed and more than 30 tea garden executives kidnapped for ransom in the past one and a half decade. Sources say that the industry has paid more than Rs 30 million as ransom to secure the release of abducted executives. A large chunk of the tea gardens in Tripura are located near the Indo-Bangladesh border, thus the ultras found them soft targets. Tripura shares an 856 KM long international border with Bangladesh and the banned militant outfits are supposed to be operating from that country. The Tripura insurgents have always followed ‘hit and run’ technique where they launch their offensives in remote areas close to the international border and quickly returned to their bases in Bangladesh.   

“The Maharajas of Tripura were the first to lease out land to Bengali entrepreneurs from East Bengal (Undivided Bengal) to start tea plantations in erstwhile princely state of Tripura. After merger with India, local non-tribal entrepreneurs looked after the gardens in Tripura. Experts had opined that Tripura could have been the second tea hub of Northeast after Assam but insurgency simply ruined it,” Said T.K Roy, an octogenarian who retired from a tea garden in North Tripura district. If insurgency had shattered the dreams of the tea industrialists of this ‘economically feeble’ state, the shoddy attitude of the state government has only added salt to wound. Financial aid, when required, did not turn up for this industry, thus gardens were shut down and workers were not paid for month - all in a left ruled state where the government swears by the most downtrodden.

Over the past few years, Tripura has seen de-escalation in long sustained tribal insurgency. This has revolved the wheel of fortunes on the brighter side for the state’s tea industry. While numerous surrenders by ultras have reduced striking capacity of both NLFT and ATTF, the erection of barbed-wire fence along the Indo-Bangladesh border has reduced infiltration like never before. This spell of peace has given development a deserving chance to set foot in Tripura. The bonhomie between peace and development has acted as manna from the heaven for the Tripura’s dying tea industry. Waking up from its slumber - The state government has taken up a master plan to revive the tea industry. As many as 14 gardens have again started their operations after closure for years. Tripura has sought help from Centre, Tea Board, Tea Association of India and local entrepreneurs.

Tripura now produces near about 7.7 million kg of tea every year from an area of 6,430 hectares and is the fifth largest among 14 tea-producing states in the country after Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The tea produced in Tripura is mostly of CTC variety. There are 58 gardens in the state, of which 56 are now operational. There are also hundreds of small gardens. Tripura Tea Development Corporation (TTDC), a State Government organization, runs fourteen gardens. An estimated 20,000 people are employed in these gardens.  “Tripura has all possibilities of earning good revenue from tea, but production and quality has been adversely hit in most gardens. Insurgency has taken its toll but now the peace has returned to some extent, efforts are on to rejuvenate the industry,” Says a top official of the Tea Association of India.

The rush of adrenalin - to the ‘under the weather’ tea industry - came last year. Manu Valley tea estate of Tripura created history by exporting the beverage for the first time. The garden exported 58,000 kg of tea named Jewel Tips to Iran and also got orders from Russia as well. “We exported 58,000 kg of tea named Jewel Tips to Iran and now preparing to meet up orders from Russia. This is the first time ever that Tripura's tea has been exported,” said D.C. Das, an elated manager of the Manu Valley Tea Estate. Manu Valley’s success had inspired young entrepreneur who are now planning to invest in tea along with rubber. “We are encouraging entrepreneurs and we have also taken up an action plan for sustainable development of the tea industry”, Jitendra Choudhury, Tripura's industry and commerce minister said.

The state government has recently requested the central government and Indian Tea Council to revive the sick tea gardens in order to increase the production of tea in Tripura. At present five tea gardens are found sick in the state.  TTDC, set up in 1980, for development of tea industry in the state, now manages these five sick tea gardens. The state Government has planned to make these tea gardens again money spinning. New tea nurseries have been set up and the land of tea gardens has been increased to take these five distressed tea gardens back on profit-making tracks. For the re-establishment and to develop the infrastructure of the tea gardens, new room for the stock of tea leafs, leaf-weighing machines have been arranged, and different medicines are being used to destroy the insects.

Apart from this, the Tea Research Association is taking the necessary measures to develop the gardens. The workers of the tea gardens are sent to the out stations for the technical training. 9,249 workers are dependent on these five tea gardens for livelihood.

There are around 2,146 small and marginal tea farmers in the state. According to Indian Tea Council sources, the average yield per hectare in Tripura is 1,100 kg against the national average of 1,900 kg, though there are gardens whose yield is as high as 3,000 kg per hectare.

The state government has also tied up knot with the Tea Board. “The thrust of the multi-faced strategy will be to bring more areas under tea plantation to boost production, improve productivity of the gardens as well as the quality of tea being produced, revamp the marketing network and, capping it all, to create more jobs for the local people and ensure a better standard of living for those employed in the production and sale of tea”, Mr Jitendra Choudhury, Tripura’s, Minister of Industry & Commerce Minister added.    September 2008