Dressed for duty, Sagar Datt Mehta reached his office at his usual time of 7am on May 21. At 92, he elegantly drives his white Maruti Gypsy to his tea garden and responds on the official WhatsApp group about the day’s work. Before getting there, he also finds time in the morning to check his emails and browse through the news headlines on his cellphone.
Mehta is the world’s oldest-serving tea executive and president of the Khoomtaie Tea Estate in Golaghat district of Assam. By the time we tried reaching him on International Tea Day, May 21, he was out in the garden finishing his office duties, which include studying the worker job sheet, taking key decisions and signing payment vouchers.
“We use the word ‘veteran’ so often for people that at times it loses the true meaning and emotions attached to it. If at all the word is to be correctly used, it should be used to describe this legend of the tea industry. Mr Sagar Datt Mehta is a true veteran and an institution of tea in himself. A remarkable person to work with and learn from,” said Saravjit Singh Marvah, senior manager at the tea estate.
Mehta joined the tea trade in 1954, right after graduating from Calcutta University. In 1981, he joined the Khoomtaie Tea Estate. It has been a glorious and eventful 60-year journey for Mehta, for whom green is the colour of life.
“I broke the stereotypes of a tea garden manager. I kept cordial relationships with the labour and the garden officials. Earlier the labour used to come on long contracts. The wages were fixed and commissions were paid to the ‘sardars’. There was hardly any interaction between the ‘sahibs’ and the labourers. I worked otherwise and I still do. I am worried as the gardens are losing their biodiversity. The waterbodies are vanishing fast, resulting in prolonged aridity. I harped on planting fruit trees in the garden. My breakfast is only fruits and that too the homegrown ones. Possibly this is the secret to my vibrancy and long life,” said Mehta.
The Assam tea business this year is staring at a crop loss of about 60 million kg compared to the same period in 2019. The industry, which has still not recovered from last year’s Covid-19 lockdown and paralysis, may now witness a 40% crop deficit in the first five months of this year due to poor rainfall across the state, says a study carried out by the North Eastern Tea Association (NETA), an organisation of tea producers.
“The year 2021 has been an unusual year so far for the Assam tea industry as far as production is concerned. A study has been carried out to assess the crop loss due to the impact of a prolonged drought-like situation. It took into account the rainfall received in the last few days,” said Bidyananda Barkakoty, adviser, NETA. “As per our study, the crop deficit from January to May this year will be about 60 million kg compared to the same duration in 2019. We have not compared crop figures with the year 2020 because last year the crop deficit from January to May was 78 million kg due to Covid lockdown. In percentage terms, the crop deficit from January to May this year will be about 40% compared to the same period in 2019.”
The average rainfall deficit is about 45% from January to April this year compared with the same period last year in the key tea-growing districts of Assam: Golaghat to Tinsukia. Comparative studies also reflect that these days the rainfall distribution is highly localised and there is a vast difference in the quantum of rainfall within a few kilometres.
During the Covid-hit 2020, Assam lost around 78 million kilograms of tea compared to January-May 2019. The revenue loss was to the tune of Rs 1,128 crore, according to the study carried out by NETA.
“Last year the crop deficit was at least commensurate by price initially even though it faltered towards the end of the season. But this year, we are yet to see the price appreciation which has added to the industry’s woes of production loss,” said Dipanjal Deka, secretary of the Indian Tea Association.
Extreme weather fluctuations, both in terms of temperature and rainfall, have impacted the growth of tea leaves severely. A temperature drop from 34 to 19 degrees Celsius coupled with hardly any sunshine for the past one week, preceded by temperatures above 34 degrees Celsius is catastrophic for the crop in its peak production phase, say industry people.
“We do not remember facing such a prolonged drought in the last 30 years. Apart from the huge loss of crop due to rainfall deficit, the drought at the very beginning of the tea season has also delayed the application of fertilisers by around two months. This will only add to the loss of crop during the ensuing peak harvesting months,” said Manoj Jallan, former chairman of NETA.
As for the young old man of Assam tea, who still loves his sweets after food and a drink or two in the evening, “The time has come when you need to plan in such a way that you create a favourable climate in and around you, and for that, you need to have a lot of waterbodies in and around the estate along with avenue plantations. The waterbodies will revive the water table of the soil whereas the avenues will help to provide a favourable atmosphere.”