Citizenship Amendment Bill: 50% of tea estates remain closed in Assam

A tea garden worker plucks tea leaves inside Aideobarie Tea Estate in Jorhat in Assam, India. Photo: Reuters
The ongoing protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act have severely hit the tea industry in Assam, as nearly half of the tea estates have remained closed for the past few days owing to a large number of workers joining the stir. 

Although the Indian Tea Association (ITA) or the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), the largest tea workers’ union in India, could not provide any official estimates, sources in the know suggested that over 60 per cent of the tea workforce in Assam, or 660,000 of the total 1.1 million, has joined the protest. This has led to the halting of work in around 50 per cent of the 800-odd tea gardens in the state. The effect on small tea growers (STG), numbering around 85,000, is not known. 

Assam accounts for nearly 50 per cent of the tea supply in the country.

According to Paban Singh Ghatowar, president of the Congress-affiliated ACMS, which is opposing the citizenship law, areas around Tinsukia, Lakhimpur, Sunitpur, and Margharita were worst-affected.

“We haven’t called a strike or protests, but individual workers’ unions have opted for strikes or some sort of protests. Some workers are siding with the local population against the Bill,” Ghatowar told Business Standard.

December is usually a lean season for tea cultivation, but tea bushes need to be pruned and maintained to be readied for the harvest in March-April. Industry officials said failure to do so could affect the quality of the forthcoming produce, pulling down prices. “There have been some garden closures in Assam, but it is very difficult to arrive at a number. Protests over the law have affected the tea industry badly,” Vivek Goenka, chairman of the ITA, said. 

Usually, 15-16 million kg (mkg) of tea is produced in December in Assam, accounting for only 2.15 per cent of the total produce from this state. Assam produces more than 700 mkg of tea in a year. According to Goenka, apart from lack of labourers in the estates, curfew and various other measures taken by the authorities to curb violence and protests had led to a complete halt on tea trade. “Owing to the curfew, there have been problems over logistics and transportation as well”, he said. 

“Moreover, workers are also refraining from work whenever a strike or bandh is declared. The condition is very bad and has affected the functioning of estates,” Atul Asthana, managing director at the Goodricke Group, said. 

An industry official said that owing to the current state of affairs, potential buyers were not risking coming to the state to buy the produce, and that unless the situation was contained, the stock of tea, estimated around 23 mkg, would increase.  In December, auctions are put on hold and most of the buyers come in either to procure the tea privately or sign forward contracts. In effect, the stockpile haemorrhages the prices in the auctions.

The Tea Board has also extended the garden closure date by a week, with the last date of plucking being December 19, the last date for sorting and packing the tea being January 1 for the CTC variant, and January 6 for the Orthodox variant.

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