Once considered the pride of Himachal Pradesh, Kangra tea has suffered a hard blow from the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. The lockdown, which was followed by a subsequent crash at the Kolkata wholesale market, has left nearly 900 tea planters from Kangra and Mandi – the two tea growing districts, totally devastated.
“ The lockdown hit the tea industry of Kangra not just in the terms of labour shortage at the crucial time of first flush, which begins in April,” said Ashish Butail , a local MLA who belong to a family of tea growers. “Thus, a premium quality of tea went un-plucked. And by the time labour returned, though in very small numbers, transportation became an issue.”
Already facing a crisis due to the high cost of inputs, shrinking area under tea cultivation and tough market competition, Kangra tea sold both as ‘green tea’ and ‘black tea’, is fast turning unviable .There was a time when the Kangra tea used to have a big demand in Europe, Central Asia and Australia, and even Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Despite the efforts of the state government to incentivise the tea growers and revive the glory of Kangra tea, several tea planters went out of business. The number of tea growers has come down sharply from 5,000 to about 1100 since 2010. The area under tea cultivation has also declined from 4000 hectares in the early 80s to 2300 hectares today.
K G Butail, a tea veteran whose family has been into cultivation and marketing of Kangra tea for five generations, expressed both hope and despair as he waxed eloquent about Kangra tea. “The global pandemic and lockdown was the worst thing to happen to the declining tea business, which my forefathers inherited from the Britishers. I am still making profits, despite family division of land, but the future doesn't look so bright,” he told Outlook.
The tea gardens were brimming with first flush -which has the most flavour, quality and value-- when the first lockdown was imposed in March. As the labourers left for their homes, the crop could not be harvested.
“There was a time when only two sectors used to bring money to Himachal Pradesh .One was Kangra tea, and the second were Himachalis working outside the state, sending money back home,” said Butail, a former member of the Tea Board of India. “Even the apple revolution and tourism acted only as add-ons to the primary tea sector, which the Britishers developed in Kangra, finding the climate and lands most suitable to tea cultivation,” he said.
Tea was first grown in the Kangra region in the mid-19th century. In 1848, a Chinese variety of Camellia sinensis was planted in Palampur and Dharamshala. By the 1880s, Kangra tea became popular internationally. The tea received gold and silver medals at international conventions held in London in 1886 and Amsterdam in 1895.
The 1905 Kangra earthquake, which claimed thousands of lives, left a trail of destruction among the gardens and forced the British to sell the plantations. But that did not mark the end of Kangra tea, which soon regained its lost glory.
The role of the Palampur-based Institute of Himalayan Bio -resource Technology (IHBT), a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) centre, came as a much-needed shot in the arm for the industry. Its first Coordinating Director, Dr N K Jain, who was a specialist on tea, managed to revive several abandoned tea gardens and introduced new technologies and innovations, helping Kangra tea to step back from the brink of extinction.
“It was the result of his efforts that Kangra tea witnessed significant improvements in productivity ,quality and production. Dr Jain got demonstration plots set-up in tea gardens for tea cultivators. He also got a lot of value additions done inducing tea wines and a lot of flavours, which helped increase the market demand of Kangra tea,”says Sishu Patial, a journalist turned farm-entrepreneur.
K G Butail admits that had IHBT not been established at Palampur, Kangra tea could have become a history by now. The production at one stage was almost 19 lakh kg, but current product is a mere eight lakh kg and 60 per cent of the tea gardens have either become defunct or are on the verge of being abandoned. But now that there is a ban on sale of the tea garden lands, the owners have no option but to carry on with tea cultivation.
“Hopes are not lost,” said Butail, pointing out that despite all challenges which Kangra tea faced, his family still made profits from the business that his ancestors had chosen and earned glory in it.
“The loss caused by the pandemic and lock down should act as catalyst to survive,” concurs G S Bali, a former tourism minister who had mooted the idea of tea –tourism to popularise Kangra tea in the world.