TALE OF A TEA LEAF
It has been revered as a medicinal wonder in ancient china and destroyed as a symbol of colonial rule in 18th century Boston in America. Merchants have braved pirate-infested oceans seeking it; empires have endured wars in a bid to seize it. It has seduced royalty and riffraff alike. This is no talisman of good fortune, or unimaginable, hidden treasure. This is the unassuming concoction that prompted Milton to declare, ‘One sip of this will bathe the drooping spirits in delight, beyond the bliss of dreams.’
The tea industry in India is one of the largest in the world with over 13,000 gardens, and a total workforce of over two million people. Monojit Dasgupta, Secretary General, Indian Tea Association says, “The tea industry in India is a 160-year-old industry and it’s still ticking. We remain among the largest producers of tea in the world. There is a thriving market within the country, and although our exports continue to be under some pressure, mainly because of the high cost of production in the country, there is a large market for tea in India as well as abroad. The market is being more rarified and India needs to concentrate on its strengths. The large production and employment base that it supports is reason enough to ensure that this industry keeps ticking.”
There is a wide range of teas cultivated in India, the three main types being orthodox black, green and oolong. From the more robust-bodied black tea, most popular in India due to its cost-effectiveness, to the more delicate Darjeeling bouquet, renowned the world over as the ‘champagne of teas,’ all tea is grown indigenously in the plantations dotting the Northeast and Southern landscapes.
Work in the sprawling, green tea estates in the country revolves around cultivating and nurturing tea plants in the plantations. This includes preparing the soil with fertilisers and determining, the most viable tea strain to be planted based on the prevailing climate and soil conditions. A major part of the work on estates also includes supervising the pinching and plucking of the leaves.
Processing involves manufacturing the green tea leaf in factories run by gas or coal on the estate. Tea is manufactured in two ways – the orthodox method involves rolling the tea in a machine to break and release its chemicals, and the ere (crush-tear-curl) method. Which require machine to crush and break the leaves without waste?
“Plantations are spread over northeast India, largely in Assam and West Bengal, and in South India, in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka to a smaller degree,” explains Dasgupta.”The average size of a tea plantation is approximately 300 – 350 hectares. These are lands historically leased out by the state governments to individual plantation holders, or public or private tea companies. The managerial strength in these tea plantations comprises a garden manager, the person at the most senior position, with approximately 20-28 years of experience behind him. A garden manager can have four or five assistant managers under him, depending on the size of the estate. A large estate of about 1 000 hectares could very well have four assistant managers and two to three factory assistants. Managerial positions at plantations are today concentrated with personnel that have a back ground in agricultural sciences with 11 specialization in botany.
“Additionally, under a statutory provision in the Plantation Labour Act, a garden with a 1000 labourers must have one welfare officer a welfare officer,” adds Dasgupta.
Research is a critical area in the tea industry focusing on the cultivation, production and processing of tea. Scientists pursue research on aspects like agronomy, biofertilisers, biotechnology, plant pathology, plant physiology and entomology. “The two primary objectives are to provide an impetus to productivity and improving the quality of the tea plant.” says Dr N Muraleedharan, Director, UPASI Tea Research Foundation, adding, “Quality is influenced right from the raw material used for manufacture. The green tea leaf that is plucked passes through a series of processes, and research plays a role in determining what precautions must be taken at every step and the improvements that can be made in the process’’. As per Dr Murale-dharan, to be employed as a scientist or researcher one must have a postgraduate degree or a PhD in botanical sciences.
Brokering and auctioning
Once the tea is processed and packed, it is sent to the various auction centres. The samples of tea from different plantations are tested, blended, evaluated, branded and priced by the tea tasters in the auction centres. Tea brokers essentially act as a link between the planter-producer and the buyer and most tea brokers have a background in plantation management. They are familiar with market trends and. prices and have well-developed tea-tasting skills. They are involved in selling and brokering teas on behalf of the seller, and get commissions, from both the buyer and seller, on the value of the tea sold. “There are entry points for aspirants in the various auction houses or broking houses,” says Dasgupta, adding, “There are about ten auction houses registered under the tea marketing control order and they cannot function without a registration from the Tea Board.
Although tea tasting as a profession attracts several youngsters, it is a skill that takes several years and extensive specialized training to develop. A person with years of experience in a tea plantation can be employed as a tea taster in a brokerage. It is said that tasters are born, not made, but aspirants do need basic training to develop their palates to discern the mildest of differences in aroma, colour or flavour. Tasters must sensitize themselves to the point where the senses of smell, sight, touch and taste merge seamlessly to make an informed evaluation although hundreds of teas may be cupped or tasted in a single day. Dasgupta elucidates, “Tea tasters are essentially part of the broking community, but tea companies also have in-house tea tasting from a cadre of people they have developed themselves. They could be tea plantation managers, tea executives, or youngsters, who have developed a knack for tea tasting:’
People with several years of work experience are generally sought after in this area offering plantations advice on which strains of tea would prove most viable, new varieties, and areas relating to MR like recruitment, remuneration, benefits and incentives to labour. Dasgupta elaborates, “Many tea estates have development plans, and given the fact that a large number of management personnel in estates are hard-pressed to manage large properties, it sometimes makes sense for estates going in for plantation or factory expansion, using new technologies, to employ these consultants on a need-based basis, to make their plantations more receptive to challenges.”