COVID-19 lockdown disrupts India’s tea industry; output seen falling 10% this year

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The national lockdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic that kept pluckers away from the plantations in key tea-growing states of Assam and West Bengal is likely to lower production by about 10 percent this year, a top industry official said.

Sujit Patra, Secretary, Indian Tea Association told indoasiancommodities.com in an interview that production could drop by about 10 percent due to labour disruptions caused by the lockdown.

“The lockdown at tea gardens had unfortunately coincided with the beginning of the peak plucking season. Around mid- April, the state governments in Assam and West Bengal had announced some relaxations allowing resumption of work at tea gardens with 50 and 25 percent of workforce. But this could not compensate for the lost time at a critical juncture in production cycle,” Patra said.

Operations at tea plantations were severely impacted in the latter half of March and most of April before the state governments allowed some relaxation in rules following a strong push from the local tea industry.

In recent years, the total annual tea production has averaged in the range of 1350 million kg with gardens in Assam and West Bengal accounting for over 70 percent of the national output.

Meanwhile, following apprehensions of a dip in domestic production and gloomy global economy due to the Covid-19 crisis, analysts are projecting a drop in tea exports this year, but Patra, said there could be a major surprise in store.

“This is quite a surprising trend given the current global condition but we are noticing a significant surge in enquiries from Iran, Russia, China, Tajakistan, the UAE, etc. In forward contracts, we are also noticing price appreciation trends. We wouldn’t be surprised if export levels are maintained or does not fall as significantly as total production provided shipment disruptions are restored in the coming weeks,” he said.

India is a tea exporting powerhouse and last year total shipment had stood at 248 million kg.

Patra said work flow in the tea gardens of Assam and West Bengal was almost back to normal, but there were some losses as the first flush of premium export tea was lost due to no activity in parts of March and April.

According to the local planters and their trade body, Darjeeling Tea Association, the production loss was in the range of 1.5 million kg. 

Ritwik Sinha is a Delhi-based business journalist with 23 years experience across three mediums - television, print and digital. He has covered key economic ministries and parliament for a long time while working for noted television platforms like BITV, Doordarshan and Sahara. He also brings to the table substantial B2B media experience spearheading publications like Travel Trends Today (T3) (as managing editor) and Logistics Times (as founding editor). For past over four years, he has also been associated with India's leading business fortnightly Business India as a consulting editor.

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