Pest attacks in Assam plantations hit tea production

July 7th, 2008 - 2:38 pm ICT by IANS  

Guwahati, July 7 (IANS) India’s tea production has been hit with rampant pests eating away the crop, adding to the woes of the cash-strapped tea industry in the northeastern state of Assam, officials said Monday. Planters and industry officials in separate statements said a tea mosquito called helopeltis has attacked nearly 200 of Assam’s estimated 800 tea plantations during the past two months.

“There has been a sudden outbreak of blisters on tea plants and soon the attack is spreading like wild fire to scores of gardens in eastern Assam,” Dhiraj Kakati, secretary of the Assam chapter of the Indian Tea Association (ITA), told IANS.

The ITA is the apex administrative body of the Indian tea industry.

According to tea officials, large estates in eastern Assam have borne the brunt of the attack and the production losses are expected to be high.

“The loss in terms of production is estimated at 10 to 15 percent of the total produce and as this is the main production season (May to July), the problem is indeed very serious,” Kakaty said.

“The gardens hit by bugs are all big plantations and produce the bulk of the beverage.”

According to tea growers, the bugs tend to attack plantations during the winter when the young leaves brown.

Assam is crucial to India’s $1.5 billion tea industry and accounts for about 55 percent of the total annual production. Along with the mosquito bug, a disease called the bacterial black spot has also hit scores of plantations in eastern Assam.

“When there is an outbreak of helopeltis, we also find the bacterial black spot attack in gardens. This is a serious problem and bound to affect production,” said Mridul Hazarika, director of the Tocklai Tea Experimental Station in eastern Assam’s Jorhat town, the heart of India’s tea industry. The Tocklai station was set up in 1901 and is currently the world’s biggest facility for tea research.

“There are chemicals to control the pests, but then most big gardens, especially those gardens that export teas, avoid using such sprays due to fear of pesticide residual content as western and European countries are very choosy about teas with pesticide residues,” Kakaty said.

India’s tea industry was facing a crisis with prices dropping in the weekly auctions since 1998 and exports plummeting as well.

The slump in prices and exports was largely attributed to cheap and inferior quality teas produced by many new tea-growing countries, thereby pushing premium quality Indian teas to facing stiffer competition in the global market.

In the late 1990s, a kilogram of good quality tea from gardens in Assam and south India fetched around Rs.95 to 100, by far the highest average price Indian tea got in the weekly auctions.

Today the average price of tea in the auctions is about Rs.72 a kilogram.

India’s traditional tea market in Russia and Britain has been severely hit in recent years with both the countries buying cheap teas from Kenya and Sri Lanka.

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