The small-scale tea industry in Bangladesh is emerging with great potential. Tea plantations had a significant impact on the country's socioeconomic profile since the British period. Since the mid-1990s, a large number of local small and medium-level peasants have been turning to small-scale tea plantations. This number has increased dramatically over the last two decades, resulting in a significant shift in Panchagarh's rural social milieu. Panchagarh can be considered as the pioneer of small-scale tea plantations in Bangladesh. Around 73 per cent of the total tea-producing land areas in Panchagarh are small-scale tea plantations. The government of Bangladesh has patronised this industry since its inception. Presently, small-scale tea production is being done in Panchagarh, Thakurgaon, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari and Dinajpur districts of the northern region. Despite such encouraging and patronizing efforts by the government, small-scale tea growers are speaking out about their dissatisfaction on various issues. In such a situation government intervention is necessary for enhancing the small-scale tea industry's potential.
Bangladesh Tea Board has implemented several development projects with its funding for development of the small-scale tea industry. A project titled "Small Tea Cultivation Project" had been undertaken for the northern region with the approval of the Ministry of Commerce for the period of January 2001 to December 2006 with the target of cultivating 3000 hectares of land with financing from the Bangladesh Tea Board and the Rajshahi Krishi Unnayan Bank. The project was extended till December 2009 by combining other districts in the north with Panchagarh. The duration of the project was extended to 2014 later. "Extension of Small Tea Cultivation in Bangladesh" is another significant project to expand small-scale tea cultivation in the northern part of Bangladesh under the Ministry of Commerce with its financing (ODA and EC Revolving Fund) at a cost of Tk 74 million (7.40 crore). The project is being implemented in a total of 16 upazilas in the region.
According to the Bangladesh Tea Board, the target of this project has been achieved fully. The project was aimed to bring 500 hectares of land under small tea plantations by 2021 in the region, provide technical support to the registered tea farmers, introduce new technical methods developed by BTRI, introduce better quality BT series varieties of tea among the small farmers, distribute fresh cuttings and saplings of trees at low cost and contribute to social and financial development through employment of people in the project area.
An overall picture of development of the tea industry in the northern region with the support of the Government of Bangladesh:
• Under the Northern Bangladesh Project, the production of 1.0 million high-yielding and high-quality BT series tea seedlings is continuing with the aim of distributing them at low cost to the registered small tea growers of the region. 883 thousand tea seedlings have been distributed among farmers at low cost already under the scheme. Also, 400 pruning knives and 130 spray machines have been distributed free of cost to registered small tea growers.
• A training centre has been set up at the regional office of the Bangladesh Tea Board at Panchagarh to provide hands-on training to small tea farmers.
• Two-day annual training courses on cultivation have been organized by the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute (BTRI) for tea plantations and small tea growers of the northern region.
• 288 training workshops have been organized on various aspects of tea cultivation i.e. planting, tipping, plucking, pruning, fertilizer application, pest and disease control, tea processing, tea tasting, etc.
• Bangladesh Tea Board, Panchagarh, has conducted 1,580 field trips to tea plantations and small tea plantations in the region to provide the necessary advice.
• Bangladesh Tea Board's Project Development Unit and Rajshahi Krishi Unnayan Bank have provided free irrigation machinery, subsidy on tea seedlings and loans on easy terms to the registered small tea farmers of Panchagarh.
• A total subsidy of Tk 949,000 until 2009 had been provided to small tea farmers at Tk 1.0 per seedling to encourage tea cultivation. The Rajshahi Krishi Unnayan Bank disbursed a loan of Tk 12.5 million (1.25 lakh) to the tea farmers until 2009 on the recommendation of the Bangladesh Tea Board in Panchagarh for expansion of tea cultivation.
Another significant project undertaken by the Bangladesh Tea Board is the Camelia Open Sky School. It is a school where small tea growers are imparted hands-on training on tea plantation management under the open sky. The Camelia Open Sky School has been set up as advised by former Chairman of Bangladesh Tea Board Major General Zahirul Islam to train the growers on tea cultivation through a systematic schooling procedure. The Director of the "Extension of Small Holding Tea Cultivation in Northern Bangladesh" project under implementation by the Bangladesh Tea Board, Dr. Md. Shamim Al Mamun was given directions for implementation of the union-based Camelia Open Sky School. Since then, the Camelia Open Sky School started its journey to provide training services to tea growers in Tetulia Upazila of Panchagarh district on 25 October 2020. The Camelia Open Sky School has also started its functions in the districts of Thakurgaon, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari, Dinajpur, and the Chattogram Hill Tracts (Bandarban, Rangamati, Khagrachari), and greater Mymensingh. Under this programme, 32 practical training workshops have been organised so far.
Despite such encouraging and patronising initiatives by the government, small-scale tea growers are holding protests and speaking out about their dissatisfaction. Several human-chain protests were staged recently in Panchagarh Sadar and Tetulia upazilas. The small-holding tea growers complained of not receiving fair prices for their produce for the past three or four years. The cost price paid for raw tea leaves was Tk 12-14 per kg. Hence, the growers receive much less money per kilogram of tea leaves than the cost of manufacturing.
The small-holding farmers seek government action to establish a state-owned tea factory and an auction market in the rapidly expanding tea hub in the north which would help local tea farmers get fair prices for their produce. Besides two auction centres-one in Sreemangal and another in Chattogram-a third auction location in Panchagarh would significantly lower farmers' transportation expenses.
Intending to produce 18 million kg of processed tea this year, tea production in the northern region began in March. The northern plain land produced a record 14.5 million kg of tea last year, making it the second largest tea-producing region after Sylhet. This blooming sector necessitates being handled with caution. Government intervention to ensure fair prices for raw leaves, setting up a government-owned factory as the tea growers demand and an auction location in Panchagarh have become a necessity now.
Asif Mahmud is an independent researcher and writer. He is doing his academic thesis on small-scale tea cultivators in the northern region.