, Sep 4 (IANS) A green revolution is sweeping Assam, empowering many people for the first time and rejuvenating the state's economy. Small tea gardens now dot the landscape as more and more people turn their backyards into mini tea plantations.
It does not really matter if you have a small patch of vegetable garden to spare or a big mass of land.
According to the All Assam Small Tea Growers Association (AASTGA), the number of small tea growers has swelled to 65,000 in the last two decades. And it is on the rise.
Assam currently produces around 480 million kg of tea. Around 30 percent of this comes from small tea growers.
Lakhi Gogoi is one of the many who has his own tea garden - Rajashree Tea Estate - in the upper Assam district of Tinsukia.
'In 2008, my green tea leaf production touched 80,000 kg. In 2009, it rose to 81,000 and this year I am expecting it to touch 100,000. Tea business is good business,' Gogoi told IANS.
Although Gogoi worked in a well-known tea company earlier, he had no knowledge of the business.
'I am well accustomed to the knowhows of tea cultivation, spraying pesticides, pruning and plucking. It was a matter of time before I realized that if the big tea companies can grow these plants and reap such big benefits, so can I,' he said.
'After years of toying with the idea, I began my venture in 1996 on a small patch of land. Over the years, I scaled up my operations and now grow tea in 50 bighas of land,' Gogoi said.
Depending on the market conditions, the price of green tea leaves varies between Rs.12 and Rs.18 a kg.
Said an AASTGA official: 'By growing tea in underutilized uplands, small tea growers have brought in a green revolution in Assam by bringing in huge socio-economic changes.'
'More than 900,000 people are involved in the small tea growing business in Assam. Almost 250, 000 hectares of land is covered for such plantations. They contribute to 29 percent of the total tea produced by Assam, which is 14 percent of the total tea production of India,' the official added.
Even farmers in villages, who traditionally grew vegetables, are now opting for tea cultivation. 'Tea cultivation brings much higher profits and is a steady source of income,' said D. Bora, a farmer.
In a state where unemployment looms large, youth are the biggest beneficiaries.
Rajiv Sharma, 28, decided to try his hands in tea plantation two years ago. He started small -- growing tea bushes in the backyard of his house. And there has been no looking back since.
'My parents were initially sceptical and said tea production has always been the big companies' cup of tea. But I was willing to take the risk. I started small and now have the capacity to invest in more land for more plantations,' Sharma said.
Unlike the big tea companies like McLeod Russel India and Goodricke, small tea growers do not have their own factories. They sell their leaves either to the big firms or smaller private factories which in turn manufacture and market it under different brands.
One of the challenges that the small tea growers are facing is that of maintaining quality.
'Not all growers are aware of banned chemicals. All they seek for are strong pesticides which will kill the pests - thus making the wrong choice. As a result, this tea does not get a good price at tea auctions,' Sharma told IANS.
It is for this reason tea leaves of small growers are manufactured and branded differently from the main brands by the big tea companies. Nevertheless, almost 25 percent of the tea manufactured by the tea moghuls are from the small growers.
While the small tea growers are helping to change the socio-economic condition in Assam, they hardly get any help from the state government.
Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Jyotiraditya Scindia's recent announcement of a special scheme to provide financial assistance to the community has, however, given them some hope.
'If the government is seriously thinking of helping us, it will be great. We are after all an unorganized sector. Let's just hope it is not another empty promise,' said Gogoi.
(Azera Rahman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)