The tea cultivation industry in Tamil Nadu is staring at months of potential unemployment as temperatures drop to single digits, leaving a blanket of frost in hill stations like Ooty in Nilgris and Valparai near Coimbatore.
Though tourists have been flocking to the towns to witness the frosty picturesque scene, the tea farmers of Ooty and Valparai -- both prime areas of tea cultivation in the country -- are less welcoming of it.
Manjai V Mohan, the elected director of the INDCO tea factory in Nilgiris, a part of the Nilgiris Small Tea Growers Service Industrial Cooperative Society Limited told TNM that this is the first time in over a decade that Ooty is facing this kind of frost. “Generally, this is the season we harvest tea leaves after good rainfall in October and November. But this year, the season has been colder, especially from December 31, 2018,” he says.
Mohan says that that beyond the good pictures, the situation is grim. Tea workers earn wages between Rs 200 to Rs 250 per day, says Mohan, but they will likely lose their livelihood because of the chill. The total area in which tea is cultivated in Nilgiris is about 56,035 hectares and in Valparai, tea is cultivated in about 11,180 hectares, according to recent district data.
“As far as tea plantations are concerned, once the crops succumb to frost, then it takes almost three months for the plant to spurt foliage again and grow. This means that people who are dependent on tea farms for survival won’t have work for three months,” he notes.
Ooty has seen daily minimum temperatures ranging between 4 degree Celsius and 6 degree Celsius for the past 10 days, while the temperatures for the same period in 2018 were between 19 degree Celsius and 22 degree Celsius.
Similarly in Valparai, temperatures have hit 3 degree Celsius, the lowest in the state, in the past 10 days. The range of daily minimum temperatures recorded in the hill station since January 1, 2019 is between 3 and 4.5 degree Celsius. The temperatures for the same period last year ranged from 23 degree Celsius to 24 degree Celsius.
According to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, the optimum temperature for tea cultivation must range from 20 degree Celsius to 27 degree Celsius throughout the year.
Hameed, a trade union leader for tea plantation workers in Valparai, said that they have only been getting out four hours of work a day since January 1 because of the weather.
“The situation is so bad that we are able to go out only by 12 pm and have to turn back to our homes by 4 pm due to the chilly weather,” Hameed says.
For 40-year-old Meena*, this is the worst she has seen in her 14 years in Valparai. A worker at a tea estate for the last 13 years, Meena says that this chill has affected the income of estate workers. “We get a fixed wage of Rs 300 per day, and an additional amount based on the quantity of tea leaves we pluck each day. Now, because of the frost, we get only the fixed wage,” she says, though she added that the fixed wage is a luxury afforded only for permanent workers like her.
“The situation for temporary workers is really bad because the estates will ask them to leave for a month or two, until the situation gets better. So their income will be zero during that period. With the school admission season coming up, their situation is sad," she explains.
Since this kind of weather is unexpected, tea plantations remained unprotected and exposed to the frost that came with the weather. “The tea which was grown in some areas in Valparai has gone bad and the crops which were grown in other areas are going to become useless. Once it goes bad, we cannot do anything,” Hameed says.
This situation has pushed estate workers in Ooty to find ways to deal with the loss of income. “We are planning to request the government to provide us one-time relief this year, just like how they gave the people affected by Cyclone Gaja. This is a huge loss for us as producers, and the workers also suffer,” says Mohan.
However, he says that workers are still deliberating on whether they should approach the government.
*Name changed on request