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The verdant hills of the Nilgiris, rimmed with flowering hedges, and workers with baskets strapped to their heads amid blue skies and tall eucalyptus trees have been the background for umpteen romantic duets, sparking love and longing. But the green slopes of manicured tea bushes hide the harsh reality of Nilgiris farmers of tea today —the skyrocketing production costs of tea leaf due to price hike of manure, pesticides and fungicides, migration of farm labour, hostile climatic conditions, conflicts with wildlife and an utterly unsustainable price for tea leaves in addition to hostile government policies have forced thousands to abandon the Blue Hills forever.
Stuck at rock-bottom rates
Over the past decade there has been no significant hike in the price of green tea leaf, the lifeline of Nilgiris district. Going by the data of Tea Board of India, the price of green tea leaf has been hovering between Rs 9 and Rs 17 per kg for more than a decade. The plight of farmers in the upper Nilgiri region of Ooty and Coonoor is marginally better as they get higher prices. However, during the height of the harvest season, prices go down to Rs 9 per kg. due to the low capacity of bought leaf factories to process the over production. During the period the tea leaf is an unwanted crop as the prices crash.
As per the price data submitted to the Tea Board by the Kayyunni Small Tea Growers Association, an organization of tea farmers near Gudlallur, during the last five years, tea farmers received a good price only for four months during the global coronavirus pandemic when prices rose above Rs 20. In 2020-21, prices ranged at Rs. 23 during August, Rs 27 in September, Rs. 24 in October and Rs 23 in November. Nilgiris tea farmers received a good price as the Kerala government directed its agencies to purchase tea dust directly from INDCO, the Tea Co-operative movement under the Tamil Nadu government. The fact that the tea plantations in Assam were closed due to the pandemic and the government had banned the import of tea helped push up the prices for farmers.
According to the Nilgiris farmers, the prices have now slumped back to the pre-pandemic levels of 2017-2018, when the highest price received by the farmers was Rs 15 while the lowest price was Rs 9.50, despite the manifold increase in input costs.
Over the past decade there has been no significant hike in the price of green tea leaf, the lifeline of Nilgiris district
Rising cost of production, unchecked imports
The wages of labourers which was Rs 250 for men and 150 for women in 2005-2006 period in Nilgiris has been increased to Rs 500 and Rs 300 respectively. The price of fuel, transport costs, price of manure have also risen greatly. A recent survey of farm labourers has shown that 90 percent labourers are above 50 years of age as many younger workers have migrated to cities like Coimbatore, Tirupur and Bangalore. At the other end, the next generation of tea garden owners has largely migrated abroad to destinations such the UK, US, Canada, Singapore and Australia. Most of the youngsters neither want to come back nor do they want to invest in agriculture as they feel their parents and grandparents have been exploited and gotten little in return.
The agrarian communities say the unchecked import of farm products, as a result of the anti-farmer policies of central government is the main reason for the plummeting prices of cash crops. The import of pepper and areca nut has resulted in a dip in prices of both these crops. According to data the total production of pepper in India is around 50,000 tonnes and the total consumption is more than 70,000 tons.
As farmers are refraining from pepper farming due to the increased input costs, the government is allowing the import of inferior Vietnamese pepper. These cheaper imports have also affected the quality of Indian pepper in the international market as these varieties are mixed with Indian pepper and exported. The increasing costs of fertilisers and other inputs—again seen as a fallout of policies at the centre —have further added to the farmers’ costs.
Increasing man-animal conflict
The increasing incidents of man-animal conflict are also forcing farmers to abandon their lands. According to Forest Department data more than ten persons were killed in elephant attacks in Gudallur-Pandallur taluks in 2021 and 2022 till September last. Crop raids by elephant herds have become a daily routine for farmers living not only on the borders of jungles but also those in well-cultivated areas. As the herds traverse many miles from the forests, which have become barren due to mismanagement, jackfruit, vegetables and banana becomes the most sought-after food resulting in destroyed crops.
The monkeys, herds of wild boar, deer, peacocks and other wild animals also raid the farms. Unlike earlier, shouts, firecrackers or loud noises are no longer effective in scaring away these raiding parties, say farmers. Instead they march to the spot from where the sound or light comes, they say.
The climate also turns hostile
The final nail in the coffin is the adverse impact of climate change on all cash crops of the region, including coffee, tea, pepper and areca. In July and August of this year, the tea gardens were left barren and industry went through a near total shut down as incessant rains lashed the Nilgiris district and adjacent Wayanad in Kerala. The impact on the tea industry was devastating, affecting more than 50,000 farmers, lakhs of daily labourers, tea leaf suppliers and factory staff.
The increasing incidents of man-animal conflict are also forcing farmers to abandon their lands. According to Forest Department data more than ten persons were killed in elephant attacks in Gudallur-Pandallur taluks
Majority of the 292 green-leaf processing units (bought leaf factories) of the region were shut down for many weeks during the period. The heavy rains and the consequent shut down was unprecedented in the more than a century old tea industry, said industry experts. In addition to the worries, the thick fog that accompanied the incessant rains caused widespread leaf-blistering leaving the plantations barren.
The farming community registered an 80 percent dip in harvest. A farmer who owned a one acre tea garden and harvested an average of 500 kgs of green leaf every month, got a yield of just 124 kgs in August. As a result his income plunged from Rs 5,500 (Rs 11 per kilogram) to mere Rs. 1,364. With less than 1000 kilograms of leaf supply per day, most of tea factories were also forced to shut down for two weeks as they need minimum of 10,000 kilograms leaf on a day for operations. The unprecedented weather events triggered yet another exodus of young farmers to the city in search of livelihood.
Going by the data of Regional Agricultural Research Station (RARS), Wayanad, under the Agricultural University of Kerala, in July and August of 2022 the region received 65 percent and 62 percent increase in rainfall, respectively. Not just excessive, the rainfall has also been erratic. While the region received 310 mm and 910 mm of rainfall in July and August 2021, this year the figures were 810 mm and August 573 mm respectively.
According to the Tea Board, Nilgiris and Wayanad districts have 48,000 and 2,650 registered tea farmers, respectively. The number of farmers would be much higher as there are many farmers yet to be registered in Tea Board due to various reasons like unauthorized land holdings and errors in land documents. The agrarian fraternity demands the state and central governments to appoint an expert panel to assess the huge loss incurred by the industry due to the phenomenon and also ensure a Minimum Support Price (MSP) to the farmers for crops in tune with the M S Swaminathan Committee report recommendations of 2006.
With all the odds stacked against them, Nilgiris farmers are fighting a losing battle to stay sustainable even as they watch their children abandon the land for greener pastures and the promise of a better livelihood.
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