Indian tea industry has a lot to learn from its Chinese counterpart, say traders and growers

Over thousands of years, tea has evolved into an integral part of Chinese culture, whereas in India is more of a business. (HT Photo)

By Pramod Giri, Hindustan Times

Indians might have elected a former tea vendor as the Prime Minister, but from technology to agriculture practices, machinery to processing units, health of workers to diversity of products, Chinese tea industry is miles ahead of its Indian counterpart, think experts.

Dan Robertson, the founder and owner of The International Tea Cuppers Club, head of The Tea House and World Tea Tours and Robertson Tea based in the USA and Rajiv Lochan from Siliguri, the first Indian entrepreneur to introduce Indian tea to China, who shared their views with HT said China has lots of lessons for India in this field.

Incidentally, China embraced tea about 5,000 years ago and is the world’s largest producer of tea,

On different parameters such as health, productivity and pay, Indian tea workers are far behind Chinese workers. (HT Photo)

According to both, there is a qualitative difference between the way the two countries approach tea -- while it’s a part of Chinese culture, in India it’s just another business.

The entire value chain from tea planters to growers and traders have a lot to learn from China, both Robertson and Lochan said.

“The Chinese have blended their culture, history and understanding with scientific research to produce more than 10,000 different tea varieties. India has only few a varieties,” said Robertson.

Indian producers readily agreed. S K Saria, the MD of Songachi Tea Company that owns four tea gardens in Darjeeling hills and Dooars in North Bengal said, “In China and oriental countries, tea is not a commodity but is virtually worshipped and treated as a rare gift of God.”

“The Chinese are far better than us in terms of agriculture practices, machinery, processing units and products. There are many lessons to learn for India from China while China has nothing as such to learn from us,” said Ashok Kumar, the partner of Goomtee Tea Estate in Darjeeling.

The bulk of tea consumed in India is of CTC variety which is boiled with milk and sugar. (HT Photo)

In 2004 Rajiv Lochan became the first entrepreneur to introduce Indian tea in China. “Chinese tea industry has lots to offer in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship and quality and welfare of the workers to India,” he remarked.

Lochan, who owns Lochan Tea Limited, told HT, “China has more demand for India CTC tea while a miniscule part of the export comprises premium Darjeeling tea.”

However, according to Lochan, there is one lacunae in the Chinese tea industry and that is the absence of a regulator like the Tea Board of India.

According to unofficial figures, in 2016 China imported four million kg of Indian tea, while India imported only a few thousand kgs. India imposes 130% import duty on tea from China, while China imposes only 17% duty on tea from India.

Green tea is fast becoming popular in Indian cities due to its therapeutic values. (HT Photo)

Traders say the high import duty makes Chinese tea expensive in India and only a small quantity in consumed in big hotels.

“As Chinese workers are healthy they produce more tea,” said Lochan. There is also a yawning gap in earnings. A Chinese tea worker gets Rs 1,000 per day while their counterparts in northern parts of West Bengal gets only Rs 131.50 p per day in addition to fringe benefits like ration, housing and medical treatment.

Lochan said that Chinese tea workers do not have to worry about their health as the government takes care of their social and health security. “India desperately lacks this,” he said.

However, Indian black tea (CTC variety) has become a fashion for young Chinese. Lochan, who recently attended a tea exhibition in China as a judge, said, “Drinking black tea of different flavours has become a fashion statement for the young Chinese.” More than 90% of Indian export to China is black (CTC) tea and hardly 10 percent is Darjeeling orthodox tea.

Robertson also thinks that Indian factories have a long way to go to produce green tea like Chinese factories do. Incidentally, green tea is fast becoming popular among urban Indians for its therapeutic properties.

Tea plantation and production began in India in the nineteenth century. The British began it to break the monopoly of the Chinese in the tea industry. Indians took to drinking tea on a large scale after a marketing campaign by the Tea Board in the 1920s. (HT Photo)

“Chinese tea growers are serious about replantation of tea bushes after certain intervals. It is an area neglected in India. Most of the bushes are very old and the yield is low,” said the US businessman.

In 1994 Robertson took tourists from the US to China. He also deals in Chinese tea and sells it throughout the world. “Years ago I started to make a documentary on Chinese tea industry. It was supposed to be under one hour, but I could never complete it as the history is too rich and varied and needs to run for hundreds of hours,” he told HT.

Though China has always remained number one in the world tea production, Kenya the third largest producer has been dominating the world tea export market. India, the second largest producer, is the third largest exporter.

China has numerous tea gardens and none is sure of their number. In 2015 the country produced 2,278 million kg compared to 2,096 million kg in 2014. In the same period India produced 1,209 million kg and 1,207 million kg.

China contributed 18% in the world tea export while India contributed 13% in world tea export in 2015.



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