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Organic tea production has brought new success to an established company in the south of India. Dinshah Daruvala explains the work of the Bombay Burma Trading Corp. Lid.

"Tea from South India? Is tea really grown in South India?" Questions many tea drinkers ask -- Indian tea, in the minds of many consumers, is either Assam or Darjeeling tea. However, in the tea trade, South Indian tea has been known for over a century, ever since the first estates were planted in the South during the latter decades of the last century. Today, out of the total of about 800 million kg of tea produced in India, 200 million kg are produced in South India. In addition, South India has the highest average yield levels in the country, and possibly the world (Figures 1 and 2 give some interesting information on production and yields). Both Orthodox and CTC manufacture is used and these teas have found markets not only in India but also abroad.

The hills of the Western Ghat range, which runs down the west coast of the great Indian peninsular, are the main home of the South Indian tea gardens. Areas under tea in these hills spread over the states of Kerala and Tamilnadu in South India, with some tea being grown in the state of Karnataka. The total area under tea in these states is about 88,000 hectares. All the tea is grown on hilly terrain (which provides the good drainage that tea requires), at altitudes ranging from 2,000 feet to more than 6,000 feet above sea level. Hence, climatic conditions also vary considerably. These are all monsoon areas, with the South West monsoon (June to September) being the dominant rainfall period. However, some areas have stronger North East monsoon (November to January).

South Indian teas have clean, crisp, golden, and neutral liquors, with a delicate flavor and aroma. However, they lack the stronger body and color of the traditional North Indian teas, which are today so much in demand. Hence they carry a lower value in today's market which, with the increasing popularity of teabags, asks for the stronger brew. A fair proportion of South Indian tea is today used for blending because of its near neutral character. However, the tea has found niches in the domestic market and is popular in the Southern states of India. South India also has the distinction of producing excellent high grown teas from the Nilgiri district, which have a distinctive and unique flavor and aroma. In tea quality season, one can smell the fragrance of these teas being manufactured at quite a distance from the factories, and in fact, this fragrance can fill the house when the tea is being brewed.

In the decades preceding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, South Indian tea found great popularity in the Soviet markets and was predominantly exported to the Soviet Union. These were the decades when the rest of the world forgot South Indian tea, as the Russians, because of inter-country agreements on currency and debt, were able to pay far more attractive prices than the open markets. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990's, producers in South India decided to overhaul their quality parameters and look to world markets which had long since substituted their requirements from other sources. Today, although the Russian market still buys a substantial amount, with enhanced quality and innovation, producers from South India are making a comeback into world markets, as well as making more of an impact in the strong Indian domestic market.

Tea estates in South India range from owner-producer smallholdings with a few hectares under tea (whose leaf is sold to 'bought leaf' and co-operative factories) to giant corporations with thousands of hectares under tea. The corporate sector has a large presence in the tea industry in South India, with several companies owning large holdings. The Bombay Burma Trading Corp. Ltd. is one such company, having entered tea in South India nearly eight decades ago, and even today, it stands amongst the foremost producers of its size.

Bombay Burma Trading Corp.

The Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. was incorporated in 1863 and is today the oldest Rupee company in India founded with public participation. As the name suggests, the company in its early years dealt with trading and timber from Burma. It was not until 1913 that the company turned its attention to tea plantations and, hearing of areas suitable for tea in South India, decided to invest there. The corporation bought and opened its first estates in the Anamallai hills of Coimbatore District in Tamilnadu and, by 1926, had established the Mudis Group of estates which today comprises five estates and four factories and has 1,863 hectares of tea. It was also at this time that it acquired land further south at the tip of the Indian peninsular and founded the Singampatti Group which today has three estates covering 804 hectares and three factories. In addition, Bombay Burma (or BBTC as it is popularly known in South India) acquired Dunsandle Estate (155 hectares) in the Nilgiris, one of the earliest planted estates in South India. Today, Bombay Burma has 2,822 hectares under tea and produces about 8 million kg of tea annually.

The Anamallai hills, where the Mudis Group is located, is the largest tea district in South India. The hills run parallel to the west coast, and are accessible from the historic port of Cochin. On the eastern side, one descends into the plains of Tamilnadu, with the closest city being Coimbatore, well known for its cotton and textile industry. The hills themselves are forested and the tea area nestles in a bowl in the hills. This is one of the largest tea areas in South India, covering some 14,000 hectares and is home to the estates of many companies. The average elevation is about 3,500 feet above sea level and the teas produced are typically medium elevation teas. The slopes of the hills are covered with tea in orderly rows interspersed with shade trees, and from a distance, the area gives the impression of being a well-maintained lawn spread over the rolling hills.

Each of the tea estates or groups is a completely self-contained community, with its own bazaars, places of worship, schools, residential lines, and hospitals. The complete workforce is housed on the estates, and the companies provide all amenities. The plantation worker is probably the best paid unskilled agricultural worker in the country, enjoying all the amenities that a normal industrial worker has and more, such as provident fund, gratuity, free housing, creches, free medical aid, and schooling for the children up to primary level. Worker welfare is a high priority, which, given the circumstances of distance from urban amenities, is a necessity. A small township, solely dependent on the tea industry for its existence, is situated in the center of the district and looks after the other needs of the population.

Bombay Burma's Dunsandle Estate, situated in the better-known Nilgiri hills, is a high elevation estate at over 6,000 feet above sea level. It produces typical high elevation teas with the distinctive Nilgiri aroma and flavor. The Nilgiri district is far more populated and has some of the oldest tea in South India, some of it over a hundred years old -- and still going strong. The district has two major townships and is well known as a tourist destination.

The district has other industries, and a major army cantonment which houses the Defence Services Staff College and the Madras Regimental Centre. However, it is primarily a tea growing area which produces some of the best tea in South India.

Going Organic

Situated at the southern tip of the Western Ghats, just 40 miles from the cape of the peninsular, is the Singampatti Group of Estates of the Bombay Burma Trading Corp. The estates nestle in the midst of a lush green rainforest, which stands untouched and pristine and is completely isolated. No other human habitation or industry exists in the area for miles around. The elevation of the three estates in the group range from 2,300 to 4,200 feet above sea level. The lowest is named Manjolai, which translates to 'mango grove.' The next estate is 10 kilometers away and 1,500 feet higher and is called Manimuttar (river of pearls) after the river that flows through it. The third, close to Manimuttar, is Oothu, which means 'spring of water.' The three between them cover 804 hectares of tea.

The forest surrounding these estates teems with wild life. The flora and fauna have been the subject of studies by people from all over the world. With its mixture of animals ranging from elephants to the larger cats, including tigers, and from stag to mouse deer, and not to speak of the varieties of bird and insect life, this is a veritable paradise. The endangered lion-tailed macaque has its home here and ranges the jungle in peace. It is not surprising that managers who worked here from 1929 onwards took pains to preserve the area in its original condition. Even the planted tea fields were left with jungle belts between them, unlike other areas under tea.

In 1988, when the idea of organic tea arose, it was natural to think of Singampatti. The isolation from external contamination was a contributing consideration, and the environment was the clinching factor. There was a great deal of soul searching and worrying about loss of yield, costs and whether organic tea would sell, and whether the interest in organic food and beverage was just a passing fad. However, the basic principles were sound, and it was decided to put 39 hectares in Manjolai under organic cultivation on a trial basis. An importer in the Netherlands lent assistance by contacting certifying agencies and advisors for the project. By 1989, a decision had been taken to put the whole of Oothu Estate under organic cultivation, and full-scale conversion, which takes three years, was started.

Today, Bombay Burma has 312 hectares of tea under organic cultivation, an area with the capacity to produce 900 tons of fully certified organic tea. This pioneering work makes Bombay Burma the largest single producer of certified organic tea in the world. The certification is carried out by IMO (Institute for Marketecology), a Swiss inspection agency which is accredited to IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements). IFOAM is the apex body that lays down standards worldwide for organic agriculture and products. The certification is accepted in most countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., the U.S., and Japan.

Bombay Burma Tea

Tea as a crop suffers from a variety of damaging pests and disease. In South India, the main problems occur because of a leaf fungus disease called Blister Blight in the wet weather, and varieties of leaf-damaging mites in the dry weather. Each of these, if left uncontrolled, could cause up to 30% loss of crop. Apart from questions of yield and quality this was also a factor in selecting Oothu, the then highest-yielding estate, for conversion -- Oothu is a fully clonal estate planted with several vegetatively propagated clones that were bred for resistance to Blister Blight and drought. Organic cultivation standards demand that no artificial pesticide, weedicide, or fungicide, is used. Also, no form of artificial chemical fertilizer is used or permitted.

Tea requires large amounts of fertilizer to compensate for the bio-mass being removed by constant plucking. This was previously provided by chemical fertilizer and had to be substituted by organic fertilizer. Large-scale in-house compost making was started, using locally available green matter and cattle manure. In addition, residual cake from the extraction of oil from oil seeds such as Castor and Neem were applied as these were known to be rich in nutrients. These too were sourced from inspected cold press oil mills, and no cake from the chemical solvent extraction process was used. As well as providing nutrients, these applications to the soil helped enormously in improving the tilth and water-holding capacity of the soil, thus helping in preventing erosion of the topsoil.

Vermiculture was started, earthworms being nature's most efficient compost makers. Whilst this took care of some of the nutrition requirements of the tea bush, shade regulation helped in minimizing Blister Blight, and an additional bonus was discovered when it was noticed that the Neem cake being applied to the soil was acting as a repellent to the mite. Neem has been known for its repellent properties in India for many years.

All this took great commitment and a leap of faith. The costs went up considerably, and all work was manual -- no chemical weeding. Where chemical fertilizers were applied at a few hundred kilograms per hectare, compost and oil-seed cake were required in tons per hectare, shooting the cost of labor upward. And, as the cost of labor is 60% of the cost of tea, this was significant.

The People and the Environment

None of this work would have been possible without the total commitment of the people involved. The workers took to organic cultivation with great ease and willingness -- after all, it was not too long ago that it was the norm for all agriculture in India. Organic cultivation seems to have a powerful effect on people. Managers who worked at Oothu became near fanatical about it as if all their atavistic instincts were aroused by the closer communion with nature and its ways. The workers were perceptibly happier at not using chemicals, and claimed better health.

The environment also responded. In this enclave in the forest, bird life in the tea fields noticeably increased. Insect life, the most affected by the use of chemicals, resumed as old food chains were restored. The soils felt spongier underfoot like forest floors, rather than the near hardpan of conventional fields. There was little doubt that the 'right thing' was being done.

The members of the workforce in Singampatti, in spite of their isolation, enjoy all the benefits of their counterparts elsewhere. There are bazaar areas to meet their needs, places of worship for all religions, primary schools for the children, and a government-run high school. A regular bus service provides easy access to the plain, medical needs are looked after by a 50-bed hospital with two fully qualified doctors and paramedical staff, and there are creches to care for infant children whilst mothers work. The corporation provides all amenities as it does at its other properties. All in all, it is a self-contained community.

The Product and the Market

In 1990 and 1991, when the areas under organic cultivation in Oothu were fully certified, the demand for organic food products was still in its infancy. At that time, many tea importers and traders in Europe were reluctant to buy the higher-priced organic tea, as consumer awareness and demand for products free from chemical residue was low. However, in the following years, there was a growing awareness, and Oothu teas became popular in the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. Oothu produces mainly black orthodox tea. It also produces a smaller amount of premium green organic tea which is unique in character and flavor.

As the market grew, albeit slowly, both these products found ready buyers. Today the market for organic tea shows all the signs of growing at a much faster pace, and more producers have entered the market. Organic teas are available from North India -- from both Assam and Darjeeling -- as well as from China and East Africa, and supermarkets now carry organic teas on their shelves in a special section. Certainly, all the signs point to a surge in consumer demand not only for organic tea, but for all organic food products. And in this market, Oothu tea is well known and has an enviable reputation.


Tea is a cheap, natural, and refreshing beverage with enormous health benefits, which have been known in the east for centuries and have now been scientifically proven. Several researchers have indicated that the high antioxidant properties of tea, amongst having other health benefits, help to control hypertension. Today, tea is available to the consumer in many forms, from the traditional hot cup of tea with milk and sugar, to iced tea, flavored tea, and ready-to-drink tea in cans. However, increasing competition from other beverages and especially the high-profile, artificial, soft drink sector, has pushed tea somewhat into the background. The industry as a whole needs to bring to the awareness of the consumer the benefits of tea consumption.

The tea producers in South India have to fight for their profits. With higher wages, costs in South India are higher than those of their counterparts in the north east, and also higher than those of competitors in other countries in the region such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. To remain competitive, it is essential for them to add value and innovation to their product. It is no longer sufficient to simply be a commodity level player in the market, given its very volatile nature. Whilst some have successfully become producer-packagers and have entered the retail markets, others, like Bombay Burma, have moved into specialty products such as organically cultivated tea.

And so, an industry that is more than one hundred years old goes on.

Dinshah Daruvala joined the Plantation Division of The Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. Ltd. in 1970 after a stint in the Indian army. He has been with Bombay Burmah ever since and has worked on all its coffee and tea plantations in South India. Apart from his time in marketing and a short period at the corporate head office in Bombay, he has spent all his time on the plantations.
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Author:Daruvala, Dinshah
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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