Auction prices tumble in tumult

AVIJIT SINHA(The Telegraph)

Siliguri, Aug. 11: The agitation by various trade unions in the brew belts of the Dooars and the Terai has brought down the prices of tea at auctions.

Small-scale tea planters, who own less than 25 acres of land, are the worst affected with tealeaves sold by them fetching lower prices at the bought-leaf factories.

Sources at the Siliguri Tea Auction Centre said prices of CTC tea, produced in the Dooars and the Terai, had come down by almost Rs 30 per kilogram in the past few weeks.

“The average price was Rs 136.76 in the first week of June. In the last auction held on July 28, the CTC tea brought from the Dooars and the Terai was sold for Rs 109.34 on an average. This means there has been a decline of Rs 27.42,” said an official at the auction centre. The garden owners said the ongoing agitation by trade unions to seek a hike in daily wages was to blame for the low prices.

“The trade unions are organising demonstrations, gate meetings and other forms of agitation, affecting the usual cycle of plucking and production on tea estates. Quality is the first casualty in the disruption of work. Nobody wants to buy inferior quality of tea,” said Prabir Bhattacharjee, the secretary of the Dooars Branch of the Indian Tea Association.

The secretary foresees a worse scenario in the coming weeks. “As tea could not be despatched from gardens (because of an embargo imposed by the Progressive Tea Workers’ Union), stocks are piling up. When the agitation is ultimately lifted, the market will be glutted with tea and the prices will come down further,” he said. “Added to this is the excess production in Assam and some other tea belts in the current season.”

Bhattacharjee rued that the labourers were on strike at a time the produce did not yield a fair price in the market.

In fact, 25,000 small growers in north Bengal are bearing the brunt of bandhs and embargo in the brew belt. They said they were not getting even Rs 5 for 1kg of tealeaves because of the tumult.

“Around 20 per cent of the tealeaves produced by us are supplied to tea estates. As the agitation by the workers has shut down the estates, we have to depend on bought-leaf factories, which enjoy a monopoly in north Bengal now,” said Bijoygopal Chakraborty, the president of the Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers Associations.

“The price of a kilo of green tealeaves had reached Rs 15 or so in the current season. But after the agitation was launched, the price has come down to Rs 5 per kilo, which is lower than our cost of production.”

Chakraborty said if the Tea Board and the state government did not intervene, the small growers would have no option but to stop plucking.