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Border trouble in brew belt

Siliguri, July 19: Regular smuggling of green tealeaves and roasted tea from the bordering districts of Nepal is affecting the small tea sector in north Bengal.

Small tea growers across the region have expressed resentment over this continuous incursion and blamed government inaction for its steady increase in the last two years. The small planters, who cater to the 70-odd bought-leaf factories (BLFs) here, allege that 50,000 kg of green tealeaves and 10,000 kg of roasted tea are smuggled in from Nepal every day. In fact, the illegal supply is reportedly disturbing the equilibrium in tea prices across the brew belt.

According to industry sources, plantations and factories have cropped up in areas like Biratnagar, Jhapa, Ilam and Bhadrapur, in Nepal, to cater to this illegal trade. Every day, carriages loaded with tealeaves enter Naxalbari and Khoribari and dump the illegal consignments in these areas, they added.

'A section of BLF owners, especially those having manufacturing units in the Naxalbari and Khoribari blocks, purchase these inferior quality leaves at a low price,' said Nitai Majumdar, the secretary of North Bengal Small Tea Planters' Association. 'This is affecting our sales to a great extent and we are losing clients.' The small growers added that despite assurances by officials of the state commerce and industry department and the Tea Board, no steps had been taken in this direction.

'At a meeting on February 2 this year at Writers' Buildings, we raised the issue and it was noted in the minutes,' said Bijoygopal Chakrobarty, the convener of United Forum of Small Tea Growers' Association. 'We even brought it to the notice of Union commerce and industries minister Jairam Ramesh at a meeting in Siliguri a few days ago. But nothing has resulted from it.'

Representatives of tea estates and BLF owners, too, admitted to the existence of such a racket that sells smuggled tea through Indian sellers. 'We have heard of such smuggling from Nepal but so far no concrete evidence has reached us,' said Mohini Das, the secretary of the Terai Tea Planters' Association.

'It is not possible for us to confirm that not a single BLF is involved in this trade,' said Bijon Das, the assistant secretary of North Bengal Tea Producers' Association ' which represents the BLFs.

Amal Roychoudhury, the deputy director of the Tea Board's Siliguri office, denied any knowledge on this count.

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