However, the Tea Board’s role is limited within the advisory framework under which it operates. “Ultimately, the gardens, individually, have to take a call if they will heed to our advice,” Sarangi said.
The Tea Board has advised the owners of these gardens to visit the best-performing tea plantations to understand how they can implement best practices in their gardens, too.
Out of the 745 gardens in Assam, which accounts for over 55 per cent of total tea production, the alert has been sounded for 88 gardens, while for West Bengal, out of the 377 gardens, 65 have been cautioned.
In Tamil Nadu, 31 estates, out of 117, have been issued advisories. Three gardens that produce Darjeeling tea, considered the flag-bearer of Indian orthodox tea, have also been identified as potentially sick.
A few months ago, the Tea Board had come up with a garden gradation system aimed at probing the health of each of the country’s 1,413 gardens. While most of the gardens fared in the mid-grades after the Board identified problems related to agricultural practices, sustainability and labour issues, it sounded caution for 252 gardens. While field practices were given 55 per cent weightage, labour welfare was given 40 per cent weightage. The remainder went towards environmental certifications.
The gardens that failed to meet at least 40 per cent of the agency’s parameters were categoried as acute, while the potentially sick gardens failed to meet at least half of the parameters.
The Tea Board’s initiative came in the wake of alleged hunger deaths of tea workers in closed tea gardens in West Bengal. In January 2016, the Tea Board had taken over the managerial control of seven tea gardens of the Duncan group in West Bengal after the group failed to reopen them. The agency, however, did not wish to run the gardens itself and invited bids to sell them off.
According to the Tea Act, 1953, only the Centre has the power to install a caretaker management in tea estates.
“Problems in the gardens range from replantation to environmental sustainability to the management’s policies to look after the workers. After analysing them carefully, we were able to narrow down on the exact problem each of the garden faces,” a Tea Board official told this newspaper.
Sarangi is of the view that since the Tea Board, after the gradation exercise, has cognitive data about tea gardens, it is in a better position to understand the exact stress and can formulate policies accordingly and advise the Union commerce ministry.