Covid-19: Norms relaxed, plantations see hope for tea and rubber processing

Tea plantations have suffered huge crop damage and are waiting for the auctions to begin so that they can sell whatever they could save.
The government's decision to relax norms on the processing and marketing of plantation crops should help salvage produce that would otherwise have been wasted, though marketing efforts will face a demand hurdle till lockdown is withdrawn completely.

Planters say that the relaxations would enable them to be prepared to meet a likely surge in demand once the lockdown is lifted. But as of now, demand is very low for tea, rubber products, and coffee as shops, hotels, retail stores, offices and other commercial establishments are shut.

Tea plantations have suffered huge crop damage and are waiting for the auctions to begin so that they can sell whatever they could save. So far, all auctions save Kochi have been deferred indefinitely.

Rubber planters will increase tapping and processors will process more to be ready to meet demand whenever lockdown is withdrawn. Earlier, 25 per cent of the workforce was permitted to carry out all these activities, including processing. That has now that has been raised to maximum 50 per cent.

The relaxations will come into force from April 20.

The circular issued today by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs says, “Processing, packaging and sale and marketing of tea, coffee, rubber and cashew with maximum of 50 per cent workers will be permitted.” As a result, the supply chain of these crops will resume.

With around six million kg (mkg) of tea available for sale, the seven tea auction committees in east India are keen to commence operations but are awaiting approval from their respective state governments. The last tea auction happened in Cochin on April 6-7 where the state’s PDS procuring agency, the largest buyer in Cochin auctions, picked up the entire lot. Auctions are yet to commence at all other centres.

“We have already approached the state government to commence auctions and awaiting their approval,” said Kalyan Sundaram, secretary, Calcutta Tea Traders’ Association.

Plantation companies, with a capped workforce of 50 per cent in Assam and 25 per cent in West Bengal, are currently busy skiffing the bushes to prepare for the harvest.

Small tea growers have sought clarifications from the state governments on whether or not they will be able to sell their produce to leaf factories and operations at the factories can commence.

Tea leaves need to be processed within 48 hours of plucking or they will go waste, while the shelf life of packed tea is around six months.

Ajith Balakrishnan, secretary, Association of Planters of Kerala (APK) said, “In the case of tea, the crop is going to go up after the first rainfall and we may have to work with only 50 per cent workforce as per todays guidelines. However, “in the case of rubber, we have to finish the rain guarding before the pre-monsoon showers. We are already behind by almost 21 days. With 50 per cent workforce we don’t know if we will be able to complete operations before the pre-monsoon showers."

For coffee, relaxations are late since the harvesting season got over in February, says Rohan Colaco, a planter from Karnataka and a member of Karnataka Planters Association.

AL RM Nagappan, president, The United Planters' Association (UPASI) said, "With the opening up plantation activities, it is very critical that the entire supply chain activities get restored. This is important as tea being listed as one of the essential item for mass consumption. It is necessary that the marketing channels should be brought back to normalcy. The plantation sector doesn’t have issues of migrant workers."

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