By Jose Kurian
Nilgiris (Tamil Nadu), Sep 22 (IANS/ 101Reporters) As incessant rains battered the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu in July and August, John PT (67) was worried about his one-acre tea garden. A farmer from Kayyunni in Pandalur taluk, John was least prepared for the losses that poured in.
There was a drastic drop in both harvest and earnings. On average, John gets 500 kg of tea leaves a month. However, in August, the yield dipped to 124 kg "I usually earn Rs 5,500 at a rate of Rs 11 per kg, but the rains brought it down to Rs 1,364," he said, adding that he did the farm work all by himself as he could not afford to pay labourers.
Most farmers in the region have up to five acres of tea gardens, and the rains did not spare anyone. They claimed the harvest has dipped by around 80 per cent, but the government has not assessed crop damage yet. "It is normal to have poor harvests in summer and monsoon seasons. But we never faced a loss of this magnitude," John said.
Tamil Nadu recorded 98 per cent excess rainfall between June 1 and August 8, with the Nilgiris receiving the highest rainfall of 67.50 mm. On the other hand, data from the Regional Agricultural Research Station (RARS), Wayanad, showed a respective increase of 65% and 62% in the region's rainfall in July and August. Though located in nearby Kerala, Gudalur and Pandalur taluks depend on the RARS for weather data rather than the monitoring station in Ooty.
The tea industry in the Nilgiris and Wayanad witnessed a near-total shutdown from August 1 to 15 due to poor leaf supply. Both districts together have 292 green-leaf processing units (bought leaf factories). As most of them were affected, over 50,000 farmers, lakhs of daily labourers, tea leaf suppliers and factory staff were left in the lurch.
According to Shajeesh Jan P, Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural Meteorology, RARS, there were only seven sunny days in July, which probably led to leaf blights due to fungal attack.
"As it rained heavily, the plants froze without any fresh sprouts. At the same time, the fungus affected the leaves," said a scientist at a plantation in the Nilgiris district, requesting anonymity. "Though leaf blights affect farms more or less every year, especially in winters and at the peak of monsoons, its impact was particularly high this year."
In short, the plucking of tea leaves picked up pace only in the third week of August, even as the rains continued to play spoilsport.
No work, no earnings
The tender tea leaves are hand-plucked every 10 to 15 days and sheared every 20 days. Depending on their expertise, labourers earn Rs 240 to 700 a day by plucking 40 to 100 kg of green leaf a day.
Ranjini Joy (38), a Chermabadi resident who works in a farmers' society at Pothukolly, said she did not earn anything when leaf-plucking stopped for two weeks. Her husband had to shift to Coimbatore in search of work. "Several farm labourers have temporarily shifted to Coimbatore, Tirupur, Kozhikode and Bengaluru to find jobs," said Joy.
Sheeba Solomon (36), whose husband is a farm labourer at Kayyunni, hardly got 10 days of leaf-plucking work in August. With two school-going children, her family had to struggle to meet their daily needs. "The public distribution system saved us from starvation. I borrowed money from women's self-help groups and took wage advance to meet the expenses related to the household and education of children," she said.
Her mother, also a daily wage labourer in the tea garden, did not get work for three weeks. "We suffered a setback of at least Rs 25,000 in earnings," said Sheeba, who is constantly worried about a possible landslide as the family lives near a hillock.
For many like Navaneetham Mahendran (47), the struggle was manifold as she had to send money to her children studying in Coimbatore. "My husband's provision store at PRF Colony in Kayyunni also incurred losses." She said the shutdown of plantations and small farms also affected women's self-help groups as there was no money flow.
Though rains have subsided now, the green-leaf supply has not rebounded. A production unit needs a minimum of 10,000 kg of tea leaves a day to operate. "As supply dipped, most of us were forced to shut our units for two weeks," said Rahul J Chordia, a partner in Royal Valley group, Coonoor.
According to TC Varghese, a member of the Nilgiri-Wayanad Bought Leaf Factories Association, tea factories can process 30,000 to 40,000 kg of green leaf a day. "Low supply pushes production costs, resulting in huge losses."
Farmers get meagre price
According to the Tea Board of India's zonal office in Coonoor, the Nilgiris and Wayanad districts have 48,000 and 2,650 registered tea farmers, respectively. Many are yet to get registration due to reasons like unauthorised land holdings and errors in documents. In Wayanad, farmers have switched to coffee plantations and hence the numbers are low.
According to data from Kayyunni Small Tea Growers' Association, the green tea leaf was priced at Rs 9 to 16 in 2006, whereas it is Rs 10 to 14 today. "Those days, the wages for male and female labourers were just Rs 300 and Rs 200, respectively. Now, the charges range from Rs 450 to 500 for men and Rs 300 to 350 for women," said Varghese Rajagiri (61), a farmer from Kayyunni.
"One sack (50 kg) of potash was priced at less than Rs 200, against the present Rs 1,175," he pointed out. Association secretary Rajeev M (50) echoed the sentiment. "The prices of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides, and charges associated with transport have increased manifold, but farmers still get a meagre amount."
Shaji Chelivayal, (52), a farmer leader in Gudalur, said people would switch to better crops if losses multiplied. "Earlier, a person with 10 acres of land was a prominent personality here. But now, the same farmer is the poorest of the poor, with mounting debts and paltry returns."
The agrarian fraternity has demanded that the state and central governments should appoint an expert panel to assess the loss and ensure a Minimum Support Price as recommended in the Dr MS Swaminathan Committee's report of 2006.
In most households, at least one family member has migrated to nearby cities as farmers anticipate a repeat of losses, especially due to leaf blight. While acknowledging such a possibility, Shajeesh Jan said he has been receiving reports of widespread diseases in all crops. "With climate change bringing in unprecedented shifts in rain patterns, crops have been severely affected in the last few years. Incessant rains lasting for weeks make it tough for crops like tea and pepper to survive in the region," he added.
CY Reji (47), a native of Karakkolly in Pandalur, joined as a supervisor at a ginger farm in Karnataka's Coorg a few weeks ago. "Erratic rains robbed me of farm jobs. Though I have an acre of tea garden in my village, rains spoiled everything," he lamented. On how wages have spiralled down, he said he earlier got a daily wage of Rs 500 in his native place. But to make just that amount, he has to travel to distant places now. "Even if I get a lesser wage, I would rather prefer a regular job back in my place."
"These days, if you are committed to farming, only your debt will increase, not your income," Reji summed up.
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)