Assam’s tea industry, yet to recover from 2020’s Covid-19 lockdown, may witness a 40 per cent crop deficit in the first five months of this year due to poor rainfall across the state.
A study carried out by the North Eastern Tea Association (NETA) on tea production loss owing to a prolonged drought-like situation in Assam estimates that the crop deficit from January to May 2021 will be about 60 million kg compared to the same period in the year 2019.
The study does not take into account crop figures in 2020 because the deficit from January to May was 78 million kg due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
“This year despite taking into account the rainfall received in the past few days has been an unusual year as far as tea production is concerned in Assam,” said Bidyananda Barkakoty, adviser, NETA.
The average rainfall deficit in the main tea-growing districts of Assam’s Golaghat to Tinsukia region is about 45 percent from January to April this year compared to the same period last year.
Also, in Assam over the past few years, rainfall has been highly localised and the quantum of rainfall varies tremendously within few kilometers of distance.
“We do not remember facing such a prolonged drought in the last 30 years. Apart from the huge loss of crops due to rainfall deficit, the drought at the very beginning of the tea season has also delayed the application of fertilizers by around two months. This will only add to the loss of crop during the ensuing peak harvesting months”, said Manoj Jallan, former chairman of NETA.
“Since the tea production has been low till May and may continue till June it is likely that the Assam tea industry is staring at a huge revenue deficit,” says Dr. KK Dwivedi, Principal Secretary, Industries and Commerce, Government of Assam.
For the state which has the largest concentration of tea plantations in the world and is the single biggest tea producing area in India, the tea yield has been sensitive and vulnerable to climatic conditions.
“Last year tea production suffered on account of heavy floods in the state and this year there has been little to no rainfall which is very crucial for crop growth,” says Dwivedi.
Besides, temperature drop in the last few months from 34 to 19 degrees centigrade coupled with hardly any sunshine for weeks, preceded by temperatures above 34 degree centigrade has also been playing havoc with the crop.
According to the Tea Association of India’s data, Assam produces around 4.5 per cent of its total crop in the month of March and around 6 per cent in April which is around 32 million kgs and 44 million kgs respectively.
In 2019 for instance, the annual tea production in Assam was 716.49 million kgs, which went down to 618.20 million kgs in 2020, nonetheless, tea producers in the state was hoping for better yield in 2021.
However, this year the industry will see a massive dip in crop cultivation as there has been an average rainfall deficit of about 45 per cent between January and April 2021 in comparison to that of the same period last year in the main tea growing districts of Assam.
Moreover, the second wave of Covid-19 has also affected several tea gardens in Assam. It has spread among plantation workers and now a number of tea estates have been declared containment zones.
Assam’s tea industry that employs 20 million workers, directly and indirectly, is looking at tough times again this year.
Weather vagaries and impact on tea industry
Many climate experts warn that your morning cup of tea may never taste the same again if global warming increases and the climate crisis intensifies, as it has over the past few years.
Late 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) had warned that in coming years climate change and worsening weather conditions will threaten tea production in the limited agro-ecological space required for tea production.
“Some of the world’s biggest tea-growing areas will be among the worst hit by extreme weather and their yields are likely to be vastly reduced in the coming decades if climate breakdown continues at its current pace. Floods, droughts, heatwaves and storms are likely to have a severe impact on tea-growing areas around the world,” says a senior official with Goodricke Group.
In Kenya for instance, the area of optimal tea-growing conditions will be reduced by more than a quarter by 2050, while about 39 per cent of areas with medium-quality growing conditions are facing destruction.
But the more worrying thing is that even before tea plantations get wiped out due to climate vagaries, tea drinkers may find changes in the taste of tea.
The impacts of flooding and the increased rainfall in many tea regions seriously impact the growth of tea leaves and in turn change the subtle flavours of the tea leaf, and could also potentially reduce its health benefits.