Kolkata: Plantations, in general, have resumed activity to an extent as deployment of workforce has been permitted by the respective state administrations. This was done following Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla’s order of April 3, which allowed utilisation of a maximum of 50% of the workforce. However, for rubber plantations, stiffer restrictions are in place as tapping of only the gloves-grade produce is permissible, sector sources here and in Dibrugarh, Guwahati and Coonoor told NewsClick.
As for permissions by state administrations, two examples are relevant: the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Assam Government has followed the Centre’s order. But in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee initially allowed up to 15% deployment and later raised it to 25%. Sources in Coonoor said the state governments in South India were acting on the assessment of the district administrations for workforce deployment.
Simultaneously, the stage is set for holding tea auctions, taking into account the catalogues that were already prepared before the lockdown began and related to those, trade samples had been distributed.
Special COVID-19 Bulletin Released by TRA
But, one step that stands out and tea sources cannot immediately recall when circumstances had necessitated the same type of step last is the lockdown-specific special bulletin issued by the Tocklai Tea Resesarch Institute at Jorhat in Assam of the Tea Research Association (TRA). As plantation activity involves delicate agricultural practices to a very significant measure, the special Corona bulletin focused on several critical ‘dos’ after the lockdown phase. In the normal course, TRA had issued bulletins for the January-March and April-June quarters.
Also read: COVID-19 in Rural India - IX: Tamuli Gaon Stares at Long-Term Uncertainty as Tea Plucking Grinds to Halt
The special bulletin, on which a team of 12 scientists worked, followed requests from plantation owners. Tocklai director Dr A K Borooah has, in his foreword, said, “The prevailing conditions make tea plantations susceptible to the incidence of pests and diseases. Nutrition management is another critical area and any delay in the application of the first doses of manure makes the plants deficient. It is, therefore, imperative..... to adopt a set of scientific and practical measures ... to retain productivity.”
March-April marks the start of the tea production season in the region as the typical climatic conditions induce new growth in the plants. Bushes which were pruned or skiffed in the winter months produce new shoots which need special care for generating a productive frame and plucking table to ensure sustained productivity. In the absence of regular plucking during lockdown, the plucking table will be uneven, unmanageable due to creep and overshoots which will reduce productivity. Therefore, a scientific package to be strictly followed after the lockdown ends has been laid down, with priority on restoration of the plucking table at the earliest.
Asked whether plantations were following the advisory, TRA secretary Joydeep Phukan told NewsClick that there were requests on how the situation should be tackled. After all, the objective is to minimise damage to the plants and ensure quality leaf growth. TRA advisories were awaited by plantations elsewhere in the country and those in Nepal and Bangladesh too, Phukan added.
As for auctions, Calcutta Tea Traders’ Association secretary J Kalyana Sundaram and Guwahati Tea Auction Committee secretary Priyanuj Dutta said in view of the disrupted schedule, resumption was warranting certain modifications in sale number / clubbing. All remaining 2019 season teas had been catalogued and the sale 14 that is to take place in the next few days will have new season tea produced in March before the lockdown. Sale beyond what is scheduled now will hinge on fresh arrivals at auction centres from estates and bought leaf factories (BLFs), Kalyana Sundaram and Dutta added. In South India, a few auctions had already taken place, sources informed.
India produced 1,389.7 million kg (mkg) in 2019 and 1,338.63 mkg in 2018. Imports stood at 15.85 mkg and 24.92 mkg, respectively. Exports were placed at 248.29 mkg and 256.06 mkg, respectively. Apparent domestic consumption has been placed at 1084 mkg in 2018. Estimate for 2019 is not available.
Asked whether some shortage is likely in the given situation, informed quarters said, “Possible, but then the situation needs to be watched carefully and much will depend on the August-October heavy cropping period.”
“Brokers are better placed to size up the situation,” said another source.
Plantation Owners Demand Relaxation in Principal Payment and Interest Obligations.
Plantation owners are in serious trouble because of cash flow problems, president of the United Planters’ Association of Southern India (UPASI), AL. RM. Nagappan told NewsClick from Coorg. “We do not want freebies, we want substantial relief in the form of moratorium on principal repayment and interest obligations. Here, we had to face three years of drought and two years of floods. Now, we have this COVID-19.
An estimated 21,000 tonnes of coffee valued at Rs 400 crore were stuck at curing works. Exports were held up. Banks act fast when it comes to reducing interest rates for term deposits. But they take unduly long to effect lending rate cuts whenever Reserve Bank of India facilitates that action by them,” Nagappan observed.
UPASI secretary R Sanjith said they have urged the authorities to formulate a relief package akin to Special Coffee Term Loan 2004, which took effect in August that year and which inter alia included relaxation in asset classification norms for advances availed by the growers from banks, subject to certain conditions.
It is seen from the reply given by the then Minister of State for Commerce & Industry EVKS Elangovan to an unstarred question on March 22, 2005 in Lok Sabha that interest subsidy to coffee growers on working capital loans was allowed. Also, the minister added that banks had agreed to extend crop loans up to a maximum of Rs 50 lakh at 9% interest so as to benefit growers with holdings up to 60 hectares.
Secretary of Indian Tea Association Sujit Patra urged the Union government to take note of the fact that tea plantations were engaged in agricultural activity in a very significant measure and they had to take care of a welfare component for the garden population under the Plantation Labour Act 1951. Costs were rising and realisations were not keeping pace, Patra said while speaking to NewsClick.
Also read: COVID-19: TN Tea Plantation Workers Forced to Work Without Preventive Measures and Reliefs
Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh general secretary Rupesh Gowala confirmed that in terms of an ‘understanding’ with the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations, workers had received an ad hoc payment against due wages of Rs 500 each where there is weekly payment system and Rs 1,000 where it is on fortnightly basis. He also confirmed that subsidised ration had been supplied in full. The union had told the management that it would fall in line with the state government’s worker deployment decisions but guidelines formulated by the state government and World Health Organisation for protection of workers against health hazards must be strictly followed, Gowala added.
Tamil Nadu state secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), K C Gopikumar, told NewsClick from Chennai that work had resumed in the state’s plantations on April 3. Workers in the Nilgiries and Coimbatore districts had been paid their wages for 22 days of March. Which means they have not been paid for the lockdown period. CITU general secretary Tapan Sen has in a letter sought the intervention of the Tamil Nadu government to see that the management of 11 large groups, who have not followed the advisory of the Union home and labour secretaries in this regard, should be told to pay in full the wages to workers. Workers are experiencing great hardship, Gopikumar pointed out.
T Balakrishnan of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and member of Plantation Labour Advisory Committee of Tamil Nadu said workers and supervisors in many private entities were paid advances of Rs 200 and Rs 300 each, respectively as an ad hoc measure. Workers in Tan Tea, a TN government enterprise, had received full payment for March. INCOSERVE, a cooperative in the Nilgiries under which there are 16 factories, too, had honoured its wage commitments.
In the context of price realisation often being below the cost of production, a point often made by producers, Balakrishnan said the Centre should set a floor mechanism under Section 30 of the Tea Act of 1953 to safeguard the interest of producers.