New Delhi: For connoisseurs of tea, the nearly 200-year-old Assam variant has a special place that very little else can compete with. From vouching for its health benefits for being packed with antioxidants and minerals that help fight fat, strengthen the immune and digestive systems, as well as keep the heart healthy, those who enjoy their cuppa can never get enough of the earthy malty flavour of the Assam tea. It owes its unique flavour to the place and climate of its origin. From the soil quality to the perfect blend of temperature, rain and farming techniques, it is a delicate balance of natural and man-made factors that give Assam tea its rich aroma and taste. It is this very balance that is under threat now.
India is the world’s largest tea-drinking nation and Assam is the country’s largest tea-producing state. It accounts for roughly 52 per cent of the country’s tea production and 13 per cent of the world’s tea. The state is home to around 800 organised tea estates, collectively producing 630-700 million kgs of tea, according to the official data. However, rising temperatures and extreme weather events are affecting both the quality and quantity of Assam tea.
Brief: Assam’s Tea And The Vagaries Of Nature
Assam tea has a rich, deep amber colour and is known for its brisk, strong and malty character. The Tea Board India states,
They say ‘you haven’t woken up fully if you haven’t sipped Assam tea’. Both Orthodox and CTC (Crush/Tear/Curl) varieties of tea are manufactured here. Assam Orthodox Tea is a registered Geographical Indication (GI). The distinctive second flush orthodox Assam teas are valued for their rich taste, and bright liquors and are considered to be one of the choicest teas in the world.
The kadak chai (strong tea) is heavily dependent on weather and is now facing a challenge to its existence due to the vagaries of nature. According to the Centre for Science and Environment Report, “Climate India 2023: An assessment of extreme weather events”, between January 1 and September 30, 2023, Assam reported 48,029 hectares of crop area damage. In June alone, 10,592 hectares of crop area were affected in Assam. In August, when India experienced heavy rains, floods and landslides, Assam was the worst hit with extreme weather events on 28 days of the month.
The impact of extreme weather events is reflected in the decline in tea production. According to the data from the Tea Board, in Assam, production volumes decreased to 99.78 million kilograms (mkgs) in August 2023 as against 109.81 mkgs in August 2022. A drop of nine per cent.
Assam has been ranked number one in the Climate Vulnerability Index prepared as part of the “Mapping India’s Climate Vulnerability – A District Level Assessment” by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in 2021. Assam, greatly exposed to flood events has an Overall Vulnerability Index Score of 0.616 – this means, it is highly vulnerable to extreme hydro-met disasters like floods, droughts, cyclones, avalanches and heat waves.
Tea Growing Cycle In Assam
Tea in Assam is a nine-month crop; the harvesting takes place from March to November. During winter, which is from December to February, tea plants enter a dormancy period. Explaining the tea growing cycle and the four flushes (plucking seasons), Bhupendra Singh, Manager of Dhekiajuli Tea Estate said,
In the eastern area, the daylight hours dwindle quickly during December. By 4 o’clock, it gets dark. Owing to a lack of sunlight and low temperatures, tea cultivation stops by December 15. The plants are shut.
The first flush is the first harvest of the year and it begins in mid-March, lasting 30-35 days. It is when the state gets good sunshine and little showers, fostering the growth of tea leaves. Shibani Krishnatraya, a resident of Tezpur, Assam said,
The spring or pre-monsoon season in Assam is characterised by local storms, breaking the dry spell of winters. The pleasant weather promotes the growth of orchids and flowers. The showers are mostly chilly during this time.
The second flush or summer flush begins soon after the first flush, followed by the monsoon flush (continuing till October end-November first week) and autumn flush.
Changing Climatic Conditions And Its Impact On Assam Tea
Bhupendra Singh said that tea requires a temperature range of 25-32 degrees centigrade; well-distributed annual rainfall of about 200 centimeters; minimum day length of nine to 10 hours; and minimum temperatures not going below 10-12 degrees. He added,
This is the ideal growing condition, but, in Assam, the temperatures are now hitting about 40 degrees. Even this year, sometime in June itself, we recorded about 42 degrees of temperature.
Mr Singh, who joined Dhekiajuli Tea Estate 15 years ago has witnessed a 30-35 per cent shortfall in rain over the years leading to a decline in crop yield by 20-25 per cent. He added,
In Assam, except for some of the areas, irrigation was never a necessity. But, with rising temperatures and a decline in rainfall, irrigation is not a luxury anymore. This is adversely affecting both the quality and quantity of the tea.
K N Singh, General Manager, of Heeleakah Tea Estate shared,
If you drink the tea of the first flush in February or March, you will find the tea to be flaky because there is no rain. When you get the rain, there is a sweetness in the tea which we end up losing. But we are in a sorry state now, over the past couple of decades, we have been unable to find the difference between the first flush and second flush and we cannot even comprehend when they start.
Bidyananda Barkakoty, Adviser to the North Eastern Tea Association (NETA), Former Vice Chairman, of Tea Board India and Council Member of the Tea Research Association (TRA) said,
With the climate change, we witness either long rainless periods, or high-intensity downpours for a shorter duration. This results in water logging and soil erosion. Also, the day temperature is much higher than tea bushes can adapt to. Moreover, even the tea community cannot work under extreme heat conditions.
Born and raised in Assam, 55-year-old Bidyananda Barkakoty has witnessed a gradual rise in temperature over the last five decades.
Growing up, we would switch off fans after Durga Pooja, which falls in October and return to using them regularly only during Bohag Bihu in April. But today, even in December, we don’t get to wear a sweater or coat.
The data procured from Bokakhat Tea Estate in Golaghat district of Assam shows that this year, Bokakhat received the lowest rainfall in the past 15 years. In 2008 (January – August), Bokakhat received 64.63 inches of rainfall. Whereas in 2023, it dropped by 33 per cent to 43.05 inches.
Dr Mrinal Saikia, Associate Director, Directorate of Research, Assam Agricultural University said,
From 2009-2019, the rainfall has declined by 10.6 millimeters. Similarly, 0.49 degrees Celsius rise in temperature has been seen. As a result, there is a shift in season.
Mr Barkakoty added,
We add fertiliser twice a year to improve the quality of tea. The prerequisite for it is moist soil. But now we either have heavy rainfall or extreme sunshine, not giving us any chance to use fertiliser on time.
Additionally, the probability of pest infestation increases with a surge in temperature.
The price of tea sold at auctions has also shown a declining trend of 15 to 20 per cent across various categories over the last decade. The tea industry claims weather and climate were key factors.
In an interview with news agency ANI on December 18, Dinesh Bihani, Secretary of the Guwahati Tea Auction Buyer’s Association (GTABA), said that the temperature rise has impacted the quality of teas and sudden and uneven rainfall has resulted in a change in the volume of tea production. He added,
This has also impacted exports. This year is not good for the tea industry due to climate change and war (Russia-Ukraine). We have faced many difficulties, and the price has also dropped.
Can Assam’s Tea Industry Adapt To Climate Change And Recover?
“Climate change is a reality, at least in Assam and we are bearing the brunt of it”, said Mr Barkakoty. He recommends four key steps to adapt to the changing climate:
- Irrigation: We require the government’s support in providing irrigation facilities, specifically drip irrigation over sprinkle irrigation.
- Rainwater harvesting: Until 30-40 years ago, tea gardens used to have ponds within their premises. It was to help during microclimatic conditions. Gradually, the concept disappeared. We have to revive those ponds.
- Shade trees: Tea plantations require shade for which shade trees are planted in between tea bushes. We have to increase the number of shade trees to protect the bushes from heat.
- Crop improvement: For appropriate adaptation in the long run, new varieties of tea plants, that can withstand climate change, are required.
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