There are worry lines all over the face of M K Bhojan, a small tea grower in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. Tea prices have fallen cataclysmically in the last few years, affecting small farmers like Bhojan most acutely. In 1997-98, one kilogramme (kg) of green tea leaf fetched as much as Rs 21. And it was possible to make Rs 80 from one kg of processed tea at auctions. Today, prices of green tea leaves have fallen to a paltry Rs 3 to Rs 5 for a kg (the price of the processed tea has gone down to Rs 30-Rs 43 per kg). "That was the price I got in 1977. But then, labour and fertiliser costs were much less and I could make a small profit. The same price today spells doom for us,' laments Bhojan.
89,000 hectares (ha) of land in the Nilgiris, amounting to 80 per cent of the cultivable area, is under tea cultivation. Of that, 42,000 hectares are cultivated by small farmers."The average holding of a small tea-grower is estimated to be around 0.6 ha,' says Vikram Kapur, executive director Tea Board, Coonoor. These small growers sell their tea leaves to the brought tea leaf factories (BLTFS), which process the leaves and sell the