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Bengal brews tea garden elixir

Calcutta, Oct. 12: The tea committee, set up by the Bengal government, will shortly visit north Bengal tea estates to carry out a case-to-case study and come up with a revival package.

The committee, headed by commerce and industry secretary Sabyasachi Sen, comprises representatives of the state labour department and officials of the Tea Board.

Bengal has over one lakh hectares of tea growing area, the second largest in the country, and produces about 300 million kg of tea annually. The industry employs around four lakh people directly and sustains around four times this number. It has also created indirect jobs for a sizeable number in remote and economically backward rural areas of north Bengal.

Senior officials of the state commerce and industry department said the revival package would mainly centre on productivity, bank finances and social cost. “We are aware of the problems of the tea industry,” they added.

For the past four years, the tea industry has been reeling under the twin pressure of falling prices and rising costs. As north Bengal produces plainer varieties of tea in its Dooars and Terai regions, the fall in prices are steeper. The price has come down from Rs 68.67 per kg in 1998 to Rs 51.20 per kg in 2002.

Tea Association of India (TAI) has already made a submission to the tea committee on issues which need to be addressed. The submission has been made by Shashank Prasad, chairman, north Bengal sub-committee and association vice-president, and Kalyan Basu, secretary general of TAI.

The industry feels that the state cess on green leaf production at 12 paise per kg is having an adverse impact on the profitability of the Bengal tea industry where tea auction prices are continuing in a depressed state for the past four years.

Social cost also needs to be addressed immediately. The inter-ministerial group has submitted its recommendations proposing that the Centre and state governments bear 50 per cent of social costs in the following manner — the Centre bears 40 per cent and the state government 10 per cent.

An official of the state commerce and industry department said, “The state is going through a financial crisis. We do not know how far we will be able to meet this proposal.”

The tea industry has also demanded to allow them to decide on the actual labour requirements and remove the shackles of agreements and other existing practices.

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