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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trouble for India's Tea Planters

DIBRUGAR, India -- He's a genteel man, with a sprawling plantation house, courtly manners and an estate of carefully trimmed tea bushes that stretches across the gentle hills of Assam, blanketing the land as far as you can see.

But the business of tea? It's best not to ask.

Manoj Jalan, a fifth-generation planter with a 1,950-hectare estate, summed up his situation simply: "This is a rough business."

"I was born here, in this building," Jalan said, standing in front of a colonial-era house. "Tea is a way of life for us."

India has long been famous for its tea, and the $1.5 billion industry launched by British colonials nearly two centuries ago is, after China, the world's second largest. More than 1 million tons were grown in 2007, much of it here in the northeastern state of Assam.

But production costs are mounting and a brutal insurgency has targeted the planters. Things have changed since earlier generations of planters cleared the forests, planted the tea and built an enormously profitable industry.

Planters like Jalan, whose families piloted the industry after independence from Britain 60 years ago, have been forced into a brutally competitive marketplace.

On one side are corporations that maximize profits through enormous scale, with dozens of estates and tens of thousands of workers. On the other side are the growing number of micro-producers, many with just a couple acres of land, that are increasingly powerful in the market. All are competing in a market where prices have fallen 30 percent in just a decade.

Some gentleman farmers are in trouble now because they didn't properly tend their estates in the boom years, going for short-term profits instead of replanting some bushes and waiting seven years for the harvest.

That's one reason Basudeb Banerjee, the chairman of the Tea Board of India, the main industry group, has little sympathy for complaining planters. He thinks the industry's worst years are finally ending, and that many planters invited trouble on themselves.

This is a business that seems to attract trouble. Yet here is the contradiction: It's hard to find a planter who wants to give up. These are well-connected landlords who could sell out if they wanted to, yet few do.

"For me, looking after the garden is a great joy," said Boruah, a planter whose family has been growing tea for nearly a century. "I may not be earning anything -- I'll tell you that -- but the joy is to be involved."

When tea plantations close -- and 33 are shut across India now, leaving thousands unemployed -- the workers lose everything: homes, communities, schools. By some estimates, hundreds of tea workers have died from diseases linked to malnutrition over the past year after plantation closings.

For laborers, the safety net can be as frayed as it was a century ago.

Back in the good times, the wealthiest planters jetted to Europe to shop, and bought homes in Calcutta and New Delhi. Those days are over.

Change doesn't come easily to planters. Many still bemoan the end of the Soviet Union, which for years was their main buyer. Others talk about the bulk auction system, which has barely changed in a century.

"I must confess," Jalan said. "They did a better job in their time than we've been able to do in our time."