Kochi: The massive replantation and rejuvenation programme for tea gardens in India under the Rs4,700 crore Special Purpose Tea Fund (SPTF), which would be spread over 15 years, has so far reached 60% of the targeted 11,000 ha for the first year.
With several conditions to be relaxed further, there should be more applications for the initiative in the days ahead, hopes Basudev Banerjee, chairperson of the government trade promotion body, Tea Board.
Banerjee, who was in Kochi on Saturday, in connection with the launch of the initiative for south India, comprising the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, says the board had taken into consideration the views of the industry and has decided to do away with the provision fixing an upper limit of 2.5% of the total area to be replanted by an estate in a year. The board would soon be allowing tea gardens to undertake replantation of up to 12% in a year.
In addition, for the rejuvenation part of the initiative, where tea bushes are pruned, the earlier rule of permitting pruning the bushes up to 8 inches, would be raised to 12 inches (1 foot), and for some varieties, from 12-18 inches because the industry says the pruning tea bushes to very low levels will literally leave nothing of the plant.
When these changes are implemented, there will be more takers for the programme. So far, there have been applications for 433 tea gardens with Assam, which leads with 255, followed by West Bengal 132, Tamil Nadu 24, Kerala 18, and Karnataka three, covering an area of more than 6,000 ha.
Banerjee says more than 30% of the tea bushes in the country were more than 50 years old and that led to a lower yield and higher cost of production. While the SPTF programme was kicked off in Assam and Bengal by July, it was delayed in the south because the tea industry says that because of high labour costs and the hilly terrain, the cost for replantation calculated at Rs2.74 lakh was on the lower side. Another reason was the large number of small growers with less than 25 acres of garden, which would be ineligible for the fund. The south has more than 40% small growers, when the national average is just 20%,
The Tea Board revised the cost to Rs3.44 lakh, which has now seen 34 gardens get government nod for the initiative, approvals for which were distributed by Jairam Ramesh, minister for state for commerce, and P.K. Gurudasan, Kerala labour minister.
Under the initiative, 50% of the cost would come as loan, 25% as subsidy from the Tea Board and the rest will have to be borne by the estate owner. Technical support for the replanting and rejuvenation programme would come from the Tea Research Institute of the Tea Board and Tea Research Foundation of the United Planters Association of Southern India (Upasi).
The 11th Plan outlay for the Tea Board has been more than doubled to Rs800 crore from, Rs350 crore under the 10th Plan. A good part of this amount will be spent on research and development and qualitative upgrades of the tea factories.
“The replantation exercise being undertaken is the last hope for the industry, which has a social relevance, providing employment to over three million people, of which 50% are women,” Ramesh says.
About the efforts to open closed tea estates, he says Section 16(e) of the Tea Act, which states that gardens, which are closed for more than three months, can be taken over by the government and handed over to new owners, is being invoked. While 17 of the 158 gardens in Kerala were closed, the board has succeeded in opening nine of them in the last one year.
In the case of the remaining closed eight gardens, the board would invite expressions of interest (EoI) on 15 January for new bids.
Already some of the estate owners are in talks for takeover of some of the closed gardens. In West Bengal,, which has 302 estates, EoIs had been invited for two of the 13 closed gardens.
The Union government proposes to spend Rs75 crore to improve the infrastructure in on the Wagah border with Pakistan and that is expected to help road transport of goods, including tea, whose export is estimated to be down to 10 million kg in 2007, from 16 million kg in 2006.
Discussions would also be held sometime in March to bring down the import duty in Pakistan for Indian teas from the current level of more 25%, Ramesh adds.
The government has taken up the issue of non-payment for nearly 42 million kg tea, which was shipped out during 2006-07with the Iraqi government.
Ramesh says more than $7 million (Rs27.51 crore) in revenue is unrealized and since there is practically no export to Iraq so far, India’s exports are being hurt—estimated to be down by 25-40 million kg in fiscal 2008, from 218.2 million kg in the previous year.