Kochi: The government-owned trade promotion body Tea Board, which officially launched the Rs4,761 crore special purpose tea fund (SPTF) in Assam earlier this week to revive the tea industry by replacing old tea bushes with new ones, will use the services of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to track replanting activities, says board development director G. Boriah.
Satellite imaging will be used to keep tabs on replantation and rejuvenation of tea bushes across India, he adds. Studies by the Tea Board show that 38% of all tea bushes have crossed the economic life of 50 years with another 9% in the age group of 40-50 years.
The board is finalizing an agreement with ISRO for satellite imaging of the area to be replanted. The images will present a clear picture of the scene on the ground and reduce the work of the board to physically verify the replantation and growth of tea bushes.
ISRO will shoot satellite images of the area from as close as 0.88 metre at frequent intervals before and after the replanting. The images will be used to build a database of tea belts in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Boriah says. This comprehensive mapping is being done first time for any commodity. It has traditionally been used to track forest cover.
The Tea Board kicked off the project in Assam to tackle the ‘senility’ of bushes through massive replantation covering 1,925 hectares (ha). According to the board, 82 loan agreements worth Rs24 crore and involving 24 tea companies have been signed. In Assam, 59 tea companies have sought Rs66.15 crore loans.
According to minister of state for commerce Jairam Ramesh, 130 companies running 262 gardens covering 7637ha have applied for loans worth Rs109 crore.
The government wants to cover the entire tea-growing area over the next 15 years in phases. The programme will be launched in West Bengal on Friday. The tea industry had gone through a long recession since mid-1999. After scaling a peak of Rs76 per kg in 1998, national average auction prices fell to as low Rs56 during 2002 and 2003. Though tea prices started recovering since 2006, they are still far below the peak of Rs76 per kg in 1998.
Ramesh blames the ageing of tea bushes for the decline in productivity. A fallout of this is the high cost of production and deterioration in quality. Since the 1970s, the board has been following the replantation and rejuvenation scheme.
Despite providing 25% of replantation cost as subsidy, on an average 1,789ha have been covered every year taking the total area under replantation to 63,000ha. It is against this backdrop that the SPTF has been conceived to cover 2.13 lakh ha. Of this, 46% is in Assam, 28% in West Bengal and the rest is in South India. Of the total estimated cost of Rs4,761 crore, Rs 4,360 crore will be invested in replantation and Rs401 crore in rejuvenation. Money will be borrowed from banks and financial institutions for 15 years at 1% above the comparable maturity government bond rate and passed on to the growers keeping a margin of 0.5%.
According to D.P. Maheswari, chairman of the tea committee of United Planters Association of South India, the programme may not receive an enthusiastic response in South India.
This is because growers in the South do not hold more than two acres of land and in hilly terrains replanting is a difficult exercise.