Pinak Priya Bhattacharya  & Subhro Maitra TNN, Apr 17, 2016, Jalpaiguri/ North Dinajpur: The ailing status of north Bengal tea gardens notwithstanding, the small estates mushrooming across the regions are eating into other agriculture land, posing a threat to crops, especially paddy.
Going by current figures, over 40,000 small tea gardens in north Bengal-most of them in North Dinajpur and Jalpaiguri districts-stretch over 1,25,000 acres. Merely 15 years ago in 2001, the number of gardens was 7,500, covering 24,000 acres only. This means, over the past decade, tea gardens have flourished at over 500%, taking over 1 lakh acres, and rising. “It is the steady average price of tea leaves that is alluring more farmers to switch to tea gardening. For every kg of tea leaves, a farmer gets Rs 15, earning a higher profit than from any other crop,” said Bijoy Gopal Chakraborty, president of the Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers’ Associations (CISTA).
“For immediate profit, small farmers sell their agrarian land to big tea companies. The practice affects our agricultural production and even culture,” said MLA Karim Choudhury. He had forced the state to resolve against further procurement of land, but can do little when it came to private land.
A tea estate covering an area less than 15 acres is given the “small garden”. The state had ruled that any such estate coming up after March 31, 2001, would be considered illegal. But giving in to pressure, the deadline was first extended to 2006, then 2009 and now, considering a further date. “There are at least 24,000 small tea gardens in North Dinajpur, which are yet to get the legal stamp from the Tea Board. Without the no-objection certificate, they can’t get subsidy or bank loans. Only 5,800-odd gardens have been listed as legal,” said Debashis Paul, CISTA secretary. “Being left out of government benefits, these growers face problems but they do not have to pay tax and they are more than happy about it. They earn a huge amount from the leaves, which they wouldn’t have had they followed the law,” said Sudipta Das, a garden owner.
Those who have switched from other agriculture sectir to tea plantation, like to call themselves “tea farmers” and not the traditional “tea growers”. A case in point is Tarun Singha from Islampur, who made a foray into tea industry just a year ago. “I grew paddy and wheat on my small land. Uncertainty over returns and labour crisis were problems.”
As tea estates grow, production of other crops vanish. Rice varieties, such as kalo nania, kalam, aguripak, swarna, arikalam, chunakathi, jashoa and mala, are no more available in local markets. The little that is still cultivated is not enough to meet the demand. The agriculture department record shows even till 2002, rice was cultivated on 40% of land, now it has dwindled to less than 13%, giving in to the demands of the cash crop. “With tea, farmers are sure of a return, the crop can endure natural calamity and elephants do not eat it. These qualities make them attractive to the farmers,” a department official said. A case in point is Sudhir Biswas of Kalamati village in Maynaguri. “I have only one bigha of land where I could grow 20kg paddy. The paddy rate was Rs 250-300 for 40kg. After I shifted to tea, I earn Rs 300 from 20kg,” said Sudhir Biswas of Kalamati village in Maynaguri. Once known for only bazra and kaon (poor crops), this part now houses thriving small gardens. “It has changed our economy,” Kamrul Alam of Barivit said. “Once people didn’t want to give their daughters to our village grooms, in fear of being fed with kaon.”Although the agriculture department is trying to ensure that no more farmer take into tea gardening, the allure of tea trade is unavoidable, especially for those farmers who have small patches of agricultural land.
But the Tea Board is worried about the poor quality of tea from small gardens. These estates, which account for 36% of the total production in the country, allegedly do not maintain the minimum quality check, and the leaves are not fit for export. But, as industry insiders said, the tea scene is not exactly rosy. “Leaf prices have not risen, cost has,” said Ashok Samaddar. “Besides the high pesticide price and irregular rains, labour cost has gone up. These unauthorized small estates depend on agents of Bought Leaf Factories. During crisis, the tea price drops to Rs 4-5 per kg.” Changing to tea industry has another pitfall: Switching back is almost impossible owing to the astronomical cost.
“Once planted with tea plants, the lands can never be converted to paddy field. It involves huge cost which we can hardly afford”, conceded Harsha Sarkar of Kamlapur.
After all how many like lawyer Mansur Ali could afford to uproot tea plants to sow crops again? It is learnt that three in Islampur have uprooted tea plants this year.
According to the agriculture department even till 2002 local rice was cultivated in 40 percent of land. Now it has reduced to below 13 percent. Traditional agriculture has changed to commercial agriculture over the past decade