Kochi: Many of the closed tea estates in Kerala are set to reopen soon, according to minister of state for commerce Jairam Ramesh.
The state currently has 16 closed tea estates covering more than 3,800 hectares. Four of the nine closed estates of the Ram Bahadur Thakur (RBT) Group in Idukki district will open on Thursday in Ramesh’s presence. The other RBT Group estates, along with two of the MMJ Group, are expected to reopen in mid-June.
A total of 22 estates that employed about 5,000 labourers had been closed down in Kerala between 2000 and 2003 as they had become unviable. Six of them were reopened in 2003.
After a gap of four years, another tea estate—the Bonaccord estate of Mahaveer Plantations in Thiruvananthapuram district—was reopened in April this year.
Helping hand: Bengal’s next, says minister of state for commerce?Ramesh.
According to Ramesh, it took nearly eight months of discussions and deliberations with estate owners, trade unions and the state government to chalk out a strategy to reopen the tea estates.
The government discussed several strategies, including the taking over of some of the estates by other estate owners and remodelling some of them on the lines of the Tata Tea estates in Munnar. The Tatas had handed over its estates to the workers two years back, forming the Kanan Devan Hills Produce Co. However, these initiatives were dropped since the original owners themselves were willing to reopen them.
Under the proposed package, all dues to be paid to the Tea Board, the government body for tea trade promotion, will be waived. Moreover, the tenure of the Rs58 crore of loans taken by these estates will be extended, and they will be given an interest subsidy by the government for two years.
Kerala accounted for 68.8 million kg tea production in calendar 2006 when India’s total production was 955.9 million kg. Between January and March 2007, Kerala produced 12.9 million kg, roughly one-seventh of the national output of 86.7 million kg.
Ramakrishna Sharma of Peermedu Tea Co., which has two closed estates, says the company will look at reopening the gardens after the package is announced.
He feels that the high wages, forced arbitrarily upon the estate owners, have been the bane of the industry. The wages must be linked to productivity, he says. Sharma adds that while the package deals with restructuring the liabilities, assured returns from the estates should sustain the gardens. This can be done by increasing productivity, cutting down production costs and ensuring a steady market, he says.
J.K. Thomas, president of the growers’ body United Planters Association of South India, says that reopening of the estates should be beneficial not just to the workers, but also to the industry.
Countrywide, a total of 32 tea gardens were closed: 16 in Kerala, 14 in West Bengal and two in Assam.
A Rs60 crore special financial restructuring package for these closed gardens is now awaiting the approval of the cabinet committee on economic affairs.
Ramesh has said West Bengal would be where the government would next look at reopening closed estates. He has held the first round of discussions with the estate owners in the state.