Tea Plantations Community

Tea cultivation in Himachal Pradesh dates back to the visit of Dr. Jameson, then Superintendent of the Botanical Gardens in Peshawar, now in Pakistan, to Kangra district in 1849. He pronounced that the lower slopes of the Dhauladhar range lying between 900 and 1400 metres were ideal for tea cultivation. The first commercial plantation was established at Holta near Palampur in 1852 at an elevation of 1260 metres above sea level. The seeds for planting were largely obtained from China and by 1892 the area under tea extended over 9,000 acres, with plantations owned by Europeans as well as native proprietors. The Gazetteer of Kangra district recorded in 1882-83 that “The tea now made is probably superior to that produced anywhere else in India. The demand has been steadily increasing and much is now bought by natives for export via Peshawar to Kabul and Central Asia.” Kangra tea reached European markets through London, Barcelona and Amsterdam and even won gold and silver medals at exhibitions in European capitals during 1886-95.

The great earthquake of 1905 ruined this flourishing industry in Himachal Pradesh. The panic stricken British sold their plantations to the locals, who could not maintain the same because of the lack of technical know-how, poor processing facilities, fragmentation of land holdings and low returns with the result that many plantations were either uprooted or abandoned.

The state government and Tea Board of India initiated steps to revive the sick industry. In 1962, Tea Experiment Station was provided financial assistance by the Tea Board to identify the problems and generate technology to improve tea plantations. The technology generated through research efforts by the CSK H.P. Agricultural University, Palampur and quality product processed through Co-operative Tea Factories have placed “Kangra Tea” once again on the national and international scene for its quality. "Kangra Tea" is famous worldwide for its rich aroma and taste. Tea sector provides employment to approximately 6,000 workers directly or indirectly. Dominated by small growers – 96% of growers have holdings of less than two hectares – tea growing here is more of a cottage industry. Labour is hard to come by, with much of the plucking done by migrant labour from the plains. Kangra district accounts for about 92% of the total area under tea in Himachal Pradesh.

However, the tea industry in Kangra has lately been challenged by increasing production costs and declining tea prices. Competition from African countries, Sri Lanka and China is making the matters worse. This is resulting in the decline in the area under tea.

The tea plantation in Kangra, which at one time covered more than 5,000 hectares of land and supported more than 1,600 families, has shrunk considerably and now less than 2,000 hectares is under tea. Nearly 96 per cent of the holdings have an average size of less than an acre and the total production of Kangra tea is about 7-8 lakh kg annually.

Some of the small growers in Kangra are third generation planters and keep the family tradition alive, because “my grandfather grew tea and it’s what I’ve seen since I was a child.” The processing methods haven’t changed much either – Kangra is the only tea region in India where hand rolling of tea is still in vogue – green tea is produced by both by the steam as well as the pan roasting method and patiently handcrafted.

Far from the commercial tea growing and marketing centers in the rest of India, the Kangra tea region has a certain rustic charm. With its unique planting heritage and distinct cup character, Kangra tea has great potential and yearns to be rediscovered and suitably valued.

Volunteers will be shown how tea plantation community lives as well as the various traditional processes and methods they use to grow and harvest tea and the key issues and challenges faced by them in terms of livelihood, education, healthcare and public services.