Tea is the second largest cash crop in Bangladesh after jute. Tea has been produced in Bangladesh for more than 180 years. Recently, tea garden workers in Sylhet started strike, which continued for 19 days as part of their protest movement, demanding revision of their wages. Though everyone is concerned about the poverty and state of the tea workers, critical questions remain about the sustainability of the tea industry in Bangladesh. Hence, the experts should consider all aspects for the overall welfare of the industry.
Tea garden workers began returning to work even on their weekly holiday, Sunday ending 19 days of strike after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stepped in to increase their daily wages to Tk170 after a meeting with tea estate owners on Saturday night. Many of the workers requested for the intervention of PM Hasina during the strike and it ended on a happy note. But, the tea workers opted for inclusion under government�s different safety net programs and that must be ensured for their welfare. Though everything looks bright for now, the sustainability of the industry and the industry itself still remains under question. The strikes by the tea workers have become a rallying point for many in the nation of 160 million people, as rising inflation and high food prices add to the wider frustration about low wages.
At present, the tea industry in Bangladesh employs about 1.5 lakh workers. In addition, 3% of global tea is produced in Bangladesh. In 2021, the market size of the tea industry in Bangladesh was about Tk3,500crore. According to the Bangladesh Tea Board, there are 167 commercial tea estates and tea gardens in Bangladesh. The total area of these tea estates and tea gardens is 279,507 acres, where an average of 6.74 crore kg of tea is produced annually. In 2021, Bangladesh produced the highest ever 9.65 crore kg of tea. In the same year, Bangladesh Globally exported 680,000 kg of tea and earned $180.57 million. Tea contributes about 1 percent to Bangladesh’s GDP.
Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh MujiburRahman took over as the chairman of the Tea Board in June 4, 1957. He granted citizenship to these workers who did not have any citizenship. Under his direct instruction, the Tea Research Institute at Srimangal and the Tea Board office at Motijheel, Dhaka were established in 1957. His joining date as the chairman of Tea Board is celebrated as ‘National Tea Day’.
Though the tea workers used to receive Tk120 per day as wage, they actually received benefits of much higher worth as they are provided a medical fund, retirement benefit, along with weekly rations and access to primary education for the children. It all adds up to around $4 a day. While there was pressure to raise their wages, the cost of production has been also increasing with the price hike of gas, fertilizer and diesel in recent times.
At present, this industry is facing a multitude of problems. Lack of capital and modern machinery, limitation of total land use, lower market values of tea in comparison to increasing production cost, lower yield per hectare are some of the problems forcing back the tea entrepreneurs. Besides that, domestic consumption of tea has steadily increased. In the face of rising domestic consumption, a stable level of tea export can be maintained only by a sustained increase in tea production.
The tea industry in Bangladesh experienced growth due to favorable environment, rising domestic tea consumption and government support. The industry also faces several challenges throughout the centuries. While tea production in Bangladesh increased, the export did not. In 2001 Bangladesh exported more than 1.2crore kg of tea abroad; in 2010, it decreased to just over 9 lac kg, and in 2021 it further reduced to only 6.8 lac kg. In the past, a large amount of foreign exchange could be earned from Bangladesh’s tea export, but now the picture is entirely different.
The tea industry experts have to realize that the scope and attribute for the industry is changing fast. Now, many of the children of the tea industry workers are getting educated and they will not serve the industry as their previous generations did. Moreover, the low wage issue will chase the industry as the inflation as well as price of essentials will keep rising. To compete in the global market and earn foreign currency, the industry need to adopt modern technology and system to increase production maintaining quality. Additionally, Bangladesh already imports an amount of tea. If the import cost of tea is lower than production cost, the tea industry will further lose its edge.
Bangladesh is currently ranked 57th in global exports. Therefore, if Bangladesh wants to capture the global market, it must produce more tea than the local demand. As local demand continues to increase, it is essential to prepare the lands where tea has not been cultivated before to make it suitable for cultivation and increase tea exports, especially on flatlands in several other districts like Panchagarh and Thakurgaon in North Bengal. Already we have started production of tea in flatlands in North Bengal and getting good results.
Bangladesh does not receive adequate rainfall during most of the year due to adverse weather conditions and tea plants cannot survive in high humidity. Therefore, modern and artificial irrigation arrangements must be made to overcome such conditions. This will make it possible to continue tea cultivation even in the dry season. Additionally, tea trees are grown on mountain slopes in hilly areas so that water doesn’t stick to their trunks. Therefore, in places where tea is cultivated or cultivated on flatlands, an adequate drainage system should be ensured to remove irrigation water or rainwater.
Moreover, machinery used after collecting tea leaves from the tree in various processes can be further modernized. In addition, several hilly areas of the country remain uncultivated. On top of that, only around 58% of land assigned to tea estates is used as tea gardens. Therefore, tea production can be further increased if these uncultivated areas are used for tea cultivation. Right now, few tea gardens are closed, which should also be brought back into operations.
Moreover, tea is still cultivated and produced in Bangladesh following the then British culture, which is much more important to modernize. Therefore, modernization of tea cultivation will increase production and the rest can be exported by meeting local demand. In addition, the tea industry employs a large number of people. To provide these workers with fair wages and adequate facilities, the government has to take the necessary steps along with the owners of tea gardens and tea estates. By adopting modern technology in the tea collection process, the long hours of the workers should be reduced. If all these issues are implemented, Bangladesh’s tea industry will become more self-sufficient in the future.
Jute was once considered the golden fiber of Bangladesh and was the top exporting industry of Bangladesh. But that industry is almost destroyed. Different countries including our largest neighbor, India filled our production gap. We hope tea industry of our country will not face the same consequences. If the industry experts and the government focus on the sustainability and growth of the industry, then tea still holds huge prospect in Bangladesh to hold their position as the second most foreign currency earning agricultural product.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has rightly stepped in to increase the wages of the tea workers. With her foresighted leadership, the tea industry can adopt modernization to increase production to a great extent. We now cannot only depend on cheap labor rather use of technological tools is highly required for the growth of the industry and it is not at all impossible. We, hence, believe the tea industry will prosper along with everyone associated soon.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Chief Patron, BangabandhuShishu Kishore Mela