Jorhat, Assam: The Tea Board of India’s attempt to help small tea planters in Assam by organizing them into self-help groups, or SHGs, and providing training and funding appears to have failed.
This also stymies its larger aim of rehabilitating and providing jobs to surrendered activists of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa).
With the price of tea firming up globally, the numbers of small growers swelled. Surrendered Ulfa cadres turned tea growers. Adept at jungle warfare and living off the land, they quickly fanned out into forests and began to grow tea.
Reaping no benefits: A worker at a tea garden in Jorhat, Assam. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
“Suddenly everyone wanted to grow tea,” says Prabhat Bezbaruah, former chairman of the Assam Tea Planters’ Association.
The board offered incentives such as training in plucking and pooling tea leaves at collection centres, and subsidies to buy trucks and weighing machines.
“Conducting training programmes for 40,000-odd farmers would be impractical and hence we asked them to form SHGs who would in turn nominate a person for training,” says G. Boriah, director for tea development at the board.
But during the past five years, only 1,700 out of 40,000-odd small tea growers in Assam have availed of the incentive scheme, according to Boriah. Assam’s small growers produce around 80 million kg of tea a year, whereas the state’s total production is around 450 million kg, approximately 45% of India’s total production of 1 billion kg.
The board has so far lost around Rs5 crore on planters in Assam. Many of the SHGs that availed of the scheme diverted trucks bought with the board’s subsidy to other businesses and bought capital goods at inflated prices.
The board’s incentives, however, found a lot of takers in the southern states and north ern West Bengal. At least 40 SHGs, each comprising at least 50 tea growers, were formed in south India and 15 such groups in West Bengal, according to Boriah.