Covid threat and drought combine to jeopardize India’s tea harvest

India’s tea harvest is under threat as Covid-19 infections spread across plantations already struggling with a scorching drought.

At least 90 tea gardens in Assam, India’s largest tea-producing state, have reported cases and many declared containment areas, according to the local tea association, as authorities try to prevent the virus to spread to more than 800 plantations in the state.

About 500 cases have been confirmed, but planters said more testing was needed to detect the true extent of the outbreak.

India is the world’s second largest tea producer after China and competes with countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka in the export market.

Growers warn that, if left unchecked, disease outbreaks could ruin the harvest season and drive up prices.

“Last year the tea gardens were miraculously spared,” said Prabhat Bezboruah, Chairman of the Tea Board of India. “This weather… The omens are ominous.

The outbreaks in the tea plantations highlight the reach of India’s second wave which left no corner of the country untouched. The coronavirus has spread to remote areas after taking a devastating human toll in cities and disrupt industry and economic activity.

India reported more than 310,000 new cases of Covid-19 on Sunday and more than 4,100 deaths the day before. Experts believe the numbers are grossly underestimated.

Assam and neighboring West Bengal, home to Darjeeling’s famous tea production center, are each reporting their own outbreaks. The two states have recently organized local elections that public health experts said fueled the infection.

The task forces blame what they call cramped working conditions on tea plantations for the surge in cases.

The living quarters “are densely populated. Workers work or move in large groups, so the risk of rapidly increasing the number of infections among them is very alarming, ”wrote Dhiraj Gowala, president of the Assam Tea Tribe Student Association, in a letter to the local government.

India’s tea industry is already weakened by everything from erratic weather conditions linked to climate change to last year’s lockdown, which brought the harvest. stop for several weeks.

This loss of production helped push Indian prices to record highs last year, giving Kenya and Sri Lanka an advantage in the export market.

Production column chart from January to March (in thousands of tonnes) showing tea production in India

Ibi Idoniboye, analyst with commodity data firm Mintec, said the latest disruption in Indian plantations could create another opportunity for producers like Sri Lanka to sell more to big consumers like Russia.

Producers fear they will have to face another lost year. The coronavirus threat is exacerbated by a severe drought in Assam and northeast India, which has left tea leaves withering on their bushes.

“You put your hand in the ground and you just pick up the dust. Normally it’s lumpy and muddy around this time, ”said Nazrana Ahmed, who runs a plantation near the town of Dibrugarh in Assam.

North Indian tea production of 47 million kg in March was higher than last year, according to tea trader Van Rees, but still well below the 60 million kg harvested in March 2019, last “normal” year.

According to Mintec, auction prices for tea in Calcutta, the main export center, jumped more than 40 percent to 287.5 rupees per kg in April from the previous month.

Vivek Goenka, president of the Indian Tea Association, said authorities were setting up vaccination camps to vaccinate plantation workers, but were struggling to obtain vaccines in a harsh country. shortage of shots.

“I hope we will be able to contain the situation,” he said. “I’m not saying it will go away overnight. . . It really depends on how quickly and how quickly we can control that. “

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