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 Pioneering Initiatives

 The Breakthrough

 Assam Company

 Tea Travels

 Early Entrepreneurs

 Memorable Heritage

 Making Waves

 Laying the Foundation

 A Time for Cheer

 Mergers & Acquisitions

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 Excellence the  Watchword

 Consistent Quality

Excerpts from "The Heritage of Indian Tea" - D.K. Taknet

Tea has brought cheer to people across the world for over 4500 years. The ancient Chinese first drank it for its medicinal value, and later, from the third century onwards, as a refreshing beverage. Japan was the only other country where the growing and drinking of tea took early root, the Japanese raising tea drinking to a fine art in their tea ceremonies. The popularity of tea spread to other parts of the world after the seventeenth century.

In England, tea received royal patronage when King Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, who was an inveterate tea-drinker. Britain was engaged in a war with France between 1756 and 1763, and obliged to levy several taxes to maintain its standing army in America. Following protests by the colonists, the British government withdrew all the taxes except that on tea. This did not appease the colonists,who boarded a ship in Boston harbour loaded with chests of tea, and threw them overboard into the sea as a protest to proclaim that there could be no taxation without representation in the British parliament. This event was described then and ever after as the Boston Tea Party.

The Boston Tea Party fracas led to the American Revolution and the declaration of American Independence in 1773. Thus it was that tea played a key role in altering the course of history! Through the centuries, tea has also symbolized warmth, friendship, mutual respect, and caring. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the eighteenth century. 'There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiments in a chest of tea'.

Today tea is the reigning beverage in over 45 countries and is consumed in over 115 countries around the globe. The Irish are the world's largest consumers, each person on an average consuming eight cups a day. However, the largest producer and overall the greatest consumer is India, where, at any time and anywhere, chai is an essential part of daily life.

Pioneering Initiatives:

The year was 1823. Robert Bruce, a Scottish trader and explorer, visited Rangpur, the Ahom capital in Upper Assam. He had journeyed many times of these frontiers but this particular foray had a very special purpose, He planned to meet Bessa Gaum, the chief of the Singhpo, one of the principal indigenous tribes of the Indian north-east, in connection with tea.

Bruce had learnt from a native nobleman, Maniram Datta Barua, that the Singhpo grew a variety of tea unknown to the rest of the world. If all that he had wanted was samples of the plants and seeds, he could have obtained them from just about any tribal contact. Bruce, however, wanted much more: the friendship of the Singhpo tribe and long-term access to the areas
where the tea grew. If this was good tea, Assam could rival China, and Bruce sensed that he was on the threshold of something really big.

His meeting with the Singhpo chief inspired further hope. The brew from the plant did very closely resemble tea, and Bruce was permitted to carry away plants and seeds. This magnanimous gesture by the tribe opened Assam's doors to an industry that would sustain it for generations to come. Long after that happened - indeed, to this day - growing tea is the mainstay of Assam's economy. Bruch was an adventurous pioneer who sensed that history could be made, though he had no inkling of the remarkable consequences his initiative would have. Other Europeans followed him. He died in 1824 soon after his meeting with the Singhpo chief.

His younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, collected the tea plants and dispatched them to David Scott, the governor-general's agent in Assam. The plants were then sent to Dr N. Wallich, superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Garden, who declared they were not genuine tea! The indigenous Assam tea plant had to wait for another decade for recognition.

In 1833 the East India Company's monopoly of the Chinese trade came to an end. The British government decided to initiate tea-planting in India on a war footing. On 1 February 1834, Lord Bentinck, as governor general, set up the historic Tea Committee with George James Gordon as its secretary. The Tea Committee sent out a circular asking where tea could be grown. Captain F. Jenkins, based in Assam, responded by saying that Assam was ideal for tea cultivation.

His assistant, Lieutenant Charlton, collected the indigenous tea plants and sent them to Calcutta. Dr Wallich now pronounced Charlton's samples to be genuine tea, 'not different from the plant of China'. Jenkins and Charlton were awarded gold medals by the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Bengal while Charles Alexander Bruce was unceremoniously ignored.

In 1835, the Tea Committee appointed a Scientific Commission to select appropriate sites for planting tea, and Assam was again found to be the most suitable. The committee, however, decided that the Chinese plant and not the 'degraded Assam plant' should be used. The Tea Committee's secretary, Gordon, returned from a trip to China armed with tea seeds which were raised in nurseries in Calcutta. Young bushes raised in these nurseries were sent to Charles Alexander Bruce. He dutifully started several plantations with tem in Chubwa. The Chinese plants proved to be a terrible disaster because they cross-pollinated with the native plant and produced a hybrid that would torment planters for many years to come.

The Breakthrough:

Bruce did not give up. He set up a nursery at Sadiya consisting entirely of native bushes, and these survived. With the help of Chinese workmen, whom Gordon had sent to Assam, he managed to quietly dispatch a small sample of manufactured tea grown from the local Assamese plant to the Tea Committee in 1836. The first samples were approved by the viceroy, Lord Auckland. Experts pronounced their verdict: it was of good quality.

In 1837, Bruce dispatched another consignment of 46 chests of tea made entirely from the leaves of the Assamese bush to the Tea Committee. After removing a portion that had spoilt in transit, 350 pounds in eight chests were sent to the London auctions on 8 May 1838. This historic consignment was auctioned in London on 10 January 1839 and generated great excitement and patriotic fervour. Bruce had shown the way!

The Assam Company:

The East India company was the first to develop plantations in north-east India. In 1839, the Bengal Tea Association was set up in Calcutta. Private enterprise needed no further incentive and stepped into the nascent industry. In 1839, the first company for growing and making tea in India, Assam Company, was set up. Shares worth 500,000 pounds were floated, and such was the euphoria generated that they were immediately snapped up. In 1840, the government handed over almost all its tea holding to the company, and the latter, in addition, leased large tracts of land under the Assam Wasteland Rules of 1838.

From the outset the company was bedeviled by shortage of labour ad technical expertise. Despite the poor performance of the Chinese plant, Assam Company still grew it and employed Chinese methods of cultivation and manufacture. The expenses were exorbitant and the actual production insignificant. The company slipped into the red, and by 1843 was facing bankruptcy and liquidation. A saviour, in the form of Henry Burking Young from Calcutta, revived it in 1847, and Stephen Mornay took charge in Assam. Together they improved cultivation, streamlined the company's finances, and within five years they were a success story.

In May 1855, indigenous tea bushes were first discovered in Cachar district of Assam. The very next year proprietary gardens were established there. Tea cultivation spread to Tripura, Sylhet, and Chittagong, Jorehaut Tea Company followed in the footsteps of Assam Company and was incorporated on 29 June 1859. By 1859 there were nearly 50 tea gardens in Assam. Seeds and saplings were also planted in Kumaon, Dehra Dun, Kangra, Kullu and Garhwal on an experimental basis.

By 1862, the tea industry in Assam comprised 160 gardens owned by 57 private and five public companies. In 1868 the government appointed a commission to enquire into all aspects of the industry and expressed the view that it was basically sound. The total amount of capital invested in the industry increased from less than 1 m. in 1872 to 14 m. within three decades. In 1881, the Indian Tea Association was founded to represent north Indian planters, and in 1893 the United Planters' Association of Southern India was set up to represent those in the south.

Tea Travels:

All was not, however, lost for the Chinese tea bush. It was found suitable for Darjeeling. In 1841, Dr A. Campbell brought Chinese tea seeds from Kumaon and planted them in his garden in Darjeeling town. Commercial cultivation began around 1852-3. By 1874, there were 113 tea gardens in Darjeeling district alone. This inspired planters to try out tea cultivation in the Terai region. James white set up the first Terai plantation called Champta in 1862. Planting was then extended to the Dooars, but the Assamese tea bush proved more suited to this region. Gazeldubi was the first Dooars garden, and by 1876 the area boasted 13 plantations, which in 1877 led the British to set up the dooars Tea Planters' Association.

In the south, the pioneers cleared the forests to grow crops and following much experimentation, finally settled on tea. In the process they faced much hardship, combating disease, the depredations of wild animals and a chronic shortage of capital. They were, however, enterprising and determined men who shrugged off these adversities and persevered. James Finlay & Co. was the first to attempt tea cultivation in the high ranges of Kerala. The hills of Kerala, especially Munnar, are now home to the highest teas grown in the world. The specific geographical conditions and the height of the plantations make the tea unique. Tea was planted over the graveyard of coffee. Miles and miles of coffee plantations had been infested with 'leaf rust'. Mann was the first planter to manufacture Nilgiri teas. He started a tea plantation near Coonoor in 1854, which is now known as Coonoor Tea Estate. Around this time, another planter, Rae, set up Dunsandle Estate near Kulhatty. Following their success, other planters in the Nilgiris began to follow suit in 1859.

The Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains, popularly known as the 'Queen of the Hills', are situated at the tri-junction of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. The region is well known for a concentration of 80 native plant species, which is a rare occurrence in nature. Notwithstanding this, southern tea production stagnated for a long time, gathering momentum only in the early twentieth century. Today, the total cultivated area of the Nilgiris is 77,469 ha of which 69.5 per cent is under tea. Most south Indian tea is grown in the hilly regions of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka states, but the bulk of Indian tea comes from the Eastern and North-Eastern parts of the country where tea estates are mostly located in the plains.

The Early Entrepreneurs:

The role played by the pioneers of tea prior to Independence is a saga of courage, entrepreneurship and determination. Sir Percival Griffiths, in his History of the Indian Tea Industry (London, 1967) - considered to be one of the best accounts of the early years - described the first planters as having had 'to hew their way through trackless jungles to cope with disease and the ravages of wild beasts, to recruit and maintain the morale of the workers from distant provinces and last but not least, to learn the technique of tea cultivation and manufacture'.

There were dense, impenetrable tropical forests. Herds of wild elephants tramped right across the young tea bushes. There were no means of transport and communication. Right up to the late nineteenth century, people in Assam traveled mostly by boat up and down the mighty Brahmaputra river. The pioneers and local inhabitants played a major role in building roads, bridges and other infrastructural facilities in the tea-producing areas.

The Plantation Inquiry Commission mentioned in its report that the tea-planting industry had played a valuable part in opening up and developing what were previously inaccessible jungles and forests. Doing business in Assam has entailed tackling the challenge of backwardness. Assam is a microcosm of the problems relating to the environment, health, employment, habitat, gender inequality and ethnic unrest that afflict the country as a whole

Maniram Dewan, the prime minister of the last Ahom king, Purandhar Singha, was the first Indian to grow tea on a commercial basis in Assam. He was followed by Rosheswar Barua, who established six tea estates. Many other Indian planters followed their lead. Among them, some noteworthy names were Bistooram Barooah, Kaliprasad Chaliha, Hemadhar Barua, Rai Bahadur Jagannath Barua, Rai Bahadur Krishnakant Barua, Colonel Sibram Bora, Sarbananda Borkakoti, Rai Bahadur Bisturam Barua, Rai Bahadur Sib Prasad Barua, Rai Bahadur Debi Charan Barua, Ganga Gobind Phukan, Malabo Barua, Aryan Barbara, Grantham Barua, Radhakanta Handique and Narayan Bedia.

From Faraway Rajasthan, the land of heat and dust, came the Marwaris who found their leafy fortunes in tea cultivation. In 1819, Navrangrai, the father of Harbilash Agrawal, migrated from Churu and settled in Tezpur. A few years later he was joined by a stream of traders. They braved immense hardship, but battled on and built their businesses from scratch. From Tezpur.

The Marwaris travelled across rough mountainous terrain, often on foot. There were no transport facilities and it used to be said: Jahan na pahunche belgadi, vahan pahunche Marwari (the Marwari can even reach a place which is inaccessible to a bullock cart). Innumerable Marwaris succumbed to illness and lack of medical care. They had to rely on their own intelligence and skill to develop plantations, clearing the jungles and identifying the soil best suited to tea. So expert did they become that very soon European and other Indian planters began to seek their advice.

The former chief commissioner of Assam, R.H. Keating, commented " 'The Assamese with their subsistence economy were not interested in large trade and industry in 1874. Hence, the Marwaris were allowed to facilitate commercial transactions with Bengal. Later, a large number of Marwaris took over trade and business and benefited immensely.' According to the 1881 census, there were 2400 Marwaris living in Assam. Many of them were money lenders or worked as traders supplying foodgrains to the tea estates. The Census Report, 1921, notes that 'Wholesale and important retail trade is in the hands of men of Rajputana and of Eastern Bengal'.

Later the Marwaris even began buying out British plantations. Their role in the development of Assam was quite significant and was highlighted by the first Congress chief minister of Assam, Gopinath Bordoloi, 'I always praise the unremitting efforts of the Marwaris which have resulted in making Assam a prosperous place worth living in. they have performed a great service for Assam and the Assamese masses.' Bordoloi added, 'The credit for changing the face of Guwahati, Noganva, Jorhat, Dhubri, Gowalpada, Shivasagar, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur and other cities situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra goes to the Marwaris who came to Assam in the last century and settled here. Likewise, they deserve the credit for bringing prosperity to Shillong, Dimapur, Kohima, Tinsukhia, Digboi and Imphal.'

Courtesy: The Heritage of Indian Tea - D.K. TAKNET

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