Northern tea culture shriveled by unfair prices

Tea workers in Panchagarh, like this man, use scythes to harvest tea leaves, instead of the traditional way of picking them by hand. PHOTO: MOSTAFA SHABUJ

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Tea workers in Panchagarh, like this man, use scythes to harvest tea leaves, instead of the traditional way of picking them by hand. PHOTO: MOSTAFA SHABUJ

Just three decades ago, Panchagarh was a poor district in northern Bangladesh. Sugar cane, paddy and some seasonal vegetables were the main crops grown there. During the off seasons, many people spent days without work. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the poverty rate in Rangpur division was 47.2% in 2016.

Although the poverty rate has not decreased much in other districts of Rangpur, it has significantly decreased in Panchagarh. One of the reasons for this is the rapid growth of the tea industry.

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Currently, more than 100,000 men and women are regularly employed in stone quarries and tea plantations with a daily wage of 400-700 Tk. Between 2000 and 2021, approximately 11,433 acres of plains have been cultivated with tea in five northern districts – out of 50,000 acres of suitable land. Tea board officials in Panchagarh said there was a shortage of around 25,000 to 30,000 workers for the rapidly expanding tea cultivation in the region.

Initially, the tea industry seemed like a boon to all, but irregularities and mismanagement seem to have turned it into a curse. One of the main concerns is that tea producers have not been getting fair prices for years. If the problems are not solved quickly, the industry will face long-term problems.

According to the tea board, producing plain tea leaves costs about Tk 8-10 per kg. Currently, farmers can sell tea leaves for only Tk 14-16 per kg. When they bring their products to tea processing factories, 20-40% of the leaves are discarded for various reasons – wet leaves, poor quality, etc. So, if a farmer sells 100 kg (or one quintal) of tea leaves at the rate of Tk 15 per kg, instead of getting Tk 1,500, they would actually get at best Tk 1,200, which is the price of 80 kg of leaves.

They have to pay the tea workers Tk 300 (Tk 3 per kg) to pick each quintal of tea leaves. To this is added the cost of transport of 100 Tk per quintal. Thus, a farmer actually suffers a loss of Tk 200 per quintal.

Tea board officials say that if tea leaves are wet during the monsoon season, tea factories can discard a maximum of 10% of the total harvest. But in reality, factory owners reject more than 20%, which is unethical. Tea board officials claimed factories were routinely raided and fined to end excessive deductions.

On the contrary, tea growers complain that not only during the monsoon season, but factory owners throw away 20-40% of the tea leaves brought to them throughout the year, and the council of the tea and the local administration play a silent role in this regard. Protests make no difference.

Although the district administration has set the price of tea leaves at Tk 18 per kg this year, tea factories do not buy tea at this price. The farmers also complained that the owners of the factory had formed a union and did not want to buy tea leaves during peak hours. Thus, factory owners make profits by driving farmers away from fair prices. To mitigate the losses, many tea growers have started planting mango trees in their tea plantations.

On the other hand, tea factory owners have claimed that they will incur losses if they do not discard the “bad” tea leaves because growers harvest wet leaves all the time. The tea leaves are picked using scythes rather than by hand, which explains the poor quality of the leaves. Moreover, they claim that due to low prices in the auction markets, they are unable to pay good prices to tea growers.

While visiting Panchagarh recently, I discovered that tea farmers are cultivating relatively fast growing and poor quality Indian varieties instead of the 23 good quality varieties developed by the Bangladesh Tea Board. Most of the marginal farmers in Panchagarh cultivate new tea gardens on their cultivated land without any prior experience. As a result, they distribute fertilizers inappropriately, thereby affecting soil fertility. The cost of tea production can be further reduced if fertilizers are applied after testing the soil, as advised by agricultural officials.

Hard working tea workers in one of the tea gardens in Tetulia, Panchagarh, Bangladesh. PHOTO: MOSTAFA SHABUJ

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Hard working tea workers in one of the tea gardens in Tetulia, Panchagarh, Bangladesh. PHOTO: MOSTAFA SHABUJ

According to regional tea council officials, there are more than 7,000 smallholder tea producers in Panchagarh, Thakurgaon, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari and Dinajpur districts. Last year, the production of tea (finished products) from the northern districts was over 14.5 million kg, with a market value of around Tk 225 crore. The government earned an income of Tk 34 crore and the tea board also received about Tk 2 crore from the tea grown in this region.

In the northern region, tea plantations increased by about 12.4% and production increased by 41% in 2021 compared to 2020. Today, these plains tea plantations provide 15% of production national total, just behind Sylhet.

While the government, tea board and factory owners have benefited, farmers have suffered losses for years.

If farmers do not get a fair price for their products, they cannot make any profit after investing a lot of money year after year. They also need proper training and technical skills to be able to grow good quality tea, which the government is responsible for. If they cannot grow quality tea, exports will not increase, which will affect local market prices.

Ultimately, the tea board should train the farmers and the government should ensure fair prices by monitoring the tea factory owners in Panchagarh. They can also establish state-run tea processing factories and auction centers in Panchagarh. It can save the plains tea industry.

Mostafa Shabuj is the Bogura correspondent for the Daily Star.

About Keneth T. Graves

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