Earlier, agencies or middlemen used to sell the tea leaves at high rates to companies and give small-time tea growers only very little of what they earned.

How tea growers in Wayanad joined hands to fight exploitation by middlemen
news Tea Plantation Sunday, February 03, 2019 - 14:31

Unhappy at being exploited by middlemen and losses sustained due to the decreasing price of tea leaves, small-scale tea growers of Wayanad in Kerala realised that they had to organise themselves to improve their conditions.

In 2013, 15 small-time tea planters of Wayanad came together to start the country’s first ever workers’ run tea factory, which is currently run by 168 such small-time tea growers.

Amidst major players such as Tata, Harrisons Malayalam and AVT ruling the tea industry in India, the Wayanad Green Tea Producer Company is a breath of fresh air for the many small-time tea growers who were previously struggling to earn a livelihood from their estates.

TNM visited the Wayanad Green Tea Producer Company’s factory and spoke to Krishnadas, a founding member and director of the company, who narrated the story behind the venture.

When they said ‘enough is enough’

Krishnadas started by explaining that during the 1990s, the tea growers of Wayanad depended heavily on various agencies or middlemen to supply their tea leaves to major tea companies.

“As it is, the companies used to take only a small quantity of our produce as they also had their own tea estates. On top of that, the agencies used to sell them at high rates to the companies and give us only very little of what they would get,” Krishnadas said.

Krishnadas.

He said that the agencies used to give excuses such as ‘the tea leaves were wet’ and not of good quality, to justify the low amount paid to the tea growers. “Especially during the rainy season, these agencies would give us money excluding 10 to 15 kg of what we gave them, saying that the leaves were wet,” recalls Krishnadas.

Gradually it came to a point where the tea growers were not earning even half the amount they spent to grow the tea leaves. “The fall in the price of tea leaves made it worse,” added Krishnadas.

During 1997-1998, when the rates of the tea leaves dropped very low, the farmers in Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu started a protest following which the central government announced a small subsidy for the farmers in the Tamil Nadu and Wayanad areas.

Tea leaves.

“But we did not get the subsidy. The agencies took that money on our name. That was the point when we decided that enough was enough!” Krishnadas said.

In December 1999, several tea planters across the Wayanad region got together in Karadippara to discuss the future course of action. Krishnadas was one of the people who led this group.

“All of us decided to go and meet the then agriculture minister and Communist leader, Krishnan Kaniyamparambil. It was he who first gave us the idea of starting cooperative societies. After discussions with him and many fights with the agencies later on, the agencies finally gave us the subsidy amount that was meant for us,” said Krishnadas.

Strength of cooperative societies

It was in 2006 that the tea growers in and around the Wayanad region, with the help of the Tea Board of India, came together to form cooperative societies. This was an initiative by the Tea Board to motivate small-scale farmers to work as collectives by forming producer societies or self-help groups and also to cut the involvement of middlemen.

But despite this, the absence of their own tea processing unit meant that they were still at the mercy of the major tea companies.

It was finally in 2012 that 15 farmers, belonging to the Small Tea Growers Society at Karadippara and the Karshaka Jyothi Small Tea Growers Society at Vattachola in Wayanad district, came together to start their own tea factory. In 2013, the company was officially registered with the support of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD).

Inside the Wayanad Green Tea Producer factory.

The company was started with the 15 members investing Rs 50,000 each to buy the land to set up the factory. “Various organisations also chipped in to make our dream a reality. NABARD offered us a loan of Rs 45 lakh and Canara Bank in Sulthan Bathery gave us a loan of Rs 25 lakh, which helped us procure the machinery and set up the factory,” said a proud Krishnadas talking about the formation of India’s first ever farmers’ tea company. Today, the company is run by 168 small-scale farmers, who individually own tea estates ranging from 20 cents to 4 acres of land, with the total shares of the company being Rs 40 lakh today.

The Wayanad Green Tea Producer Company factory was officially inaugurated in December 2017.

As the name of the company goes, the factory produces and markets organic tea and good quality organic green tea, which is in high demand in other countries. “The main impact of the company is for the tea growers, who are reaping the benefit of their own harvest. Earlier they used to get Rs 14 per kg of tea leaves. Now, with the absence of middlemen and other companies, they get at least Rs 40 per kg,” Krishnadas told TNM.

 

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