History of Tea industry in Tripura

Prasenjit Biswas

October 12, 2020, 13:01:30   

The journey of Tea across the globe is reflected in its scientific name, Camellia sinensis, the word Camellia indicates that Tea is a woody plant, closely related to the ornamental bushes that have entered in innumerable gardens owing to their sweet smelling flowers. The word sinensis signifies that it’s of Chinese origin. Interestingly, the history of tea consumption in India dates back to at least 12 century. The people belonging to Singpho and Khamti tribes of NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) have been consuming tea since ages. It has been recorded by a Dutch traveller named Jan Huyghen Van Linschoten. Robert Bruce, Major General of British East India Company in 1823 also made a similar observation. He negotiated with the tribal chief Bishagaum and tried to test the tea leaves scientifically. In 1830 Charles Alexander Bruce, brother of late Robert Bruce dispatched the tea samples collected from the tribe chief to the Botanical Garden of Calcutta. It was identified as a different variety of ‘Cha’ in Botanical Garden of Kolkata. It is not the Chinese variety. It was named as Camellia sinensis assamica. In the year 1838, 12 boxes of tea processed by Singpho chiefs were exported to London. In 1837, the British planters set up their first tea garden at Chabua in Upper Assam. In 1840, the Assam Tea company started manufacturing of tea for the first time. The rest is however history. 

But the history of tea industry in Tripura is entirely different from that of Assam. Tripura has been a rich repository of natural resources because of its location in the tropics and proximity to the Bay of Bengal resulting in being recipient of high amount of rainfall. In medieval time boundary of the princely Tripura was extended till Sylhet, Mymensingh and Dhaka districts of British India in the West and Noakhali and Chittagong districts in the South & South Western part. But over a period of time geographical mass of the state started shrinking. Successive Mughal invasions depleted its resource. Gradually only Chakla-Roshenabad pargana was left with the Tripura kings. The loss of revenue due to shrinkage of area had become cause of concern and finding no other option Tripura kings started encouraging the cultivators from adjoining Bengal to come and settle in Tripura. Settlement rights were being provided to boost up the economy. In plains Tripura i.e. Chakla-Roshenabad pargana, the king had zamindari and was paying tax to the British. The revenue earning from hill Tripura (Tipperah) was rather negligible and so it became difficult to govern the state due to poor realization of resources.

Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore was a family friend of the Maharaja and it was as per his advice that Maharaja Birendra Kishore took the decision of tea planting in commercial scale to improve the revenue resources. Maharaja showed interest to involve energetic and young entrepreneurs from Bengal in establishing tea plantation in the state. He allowed the Indian planters to open tea gardens in Tripura way back in 1916. Surprisingly Maharaja never allowed the British planters to get a foothold in the state. And it was at this time that the non-co-operation movement of Gandhiji was gaining ground and there was euphoria everywhere to cast out the British jobs and their merchandise. It was at this moment that some youths of the British Bengal responded to the invitation of the Tripura Maharaja and established "The House of Labourers Ltd" in Comilla and started independent business. Comilla of present day Bangladesh was then an important trade centre under Tripura kingdom. Tripura had set up some rules for settlement for tea plantation. One of the rules was, to set up tea estate only after having received special permission of the Durbar the entrepreneur could establish tea plantation but were not allowed to make permanent settlement without obtaining prior permission of the royal court. Tea estate owners were not allowed to keep tenant within the tea estate. Specific provision of the "Rules for Tea Plantation in Tripura" was that "Tea plantation in the state has been prohibited without having prior permission of Royal Court".
On learning the offer made by of Maharaja many came forward to establish tea gardens in Tripura.  Maharaja Birendra Kishore issued the terms and conditions for leasing out land. Prasanna Kumar Dasgupta, then chief Dewan of Maharaja announced the 'Bondobast'. There was three years' rent free period. Initially 33 persons applied for having land for tea estate. Among them 23 applications were approved. Among the approved applicants 15 persons wanted to establish tea gardens in Sadar subdivision, 7 in Kailashahar subdivision and 1 in Dharmanagar subdivision. Application of one person was cancelled. So, 22 Tea estates appeared in the landscape of Tripura in the first year i.e. 1916. Total land allotted to tea estates was approximately 3,737 Drones (24,800 acres). The first tea garden which was established in Tripura was Hirachhera Tea garden at Kailashahar. The youth group from Comilla established Fatikchhera and Kalkalia Tea estates. But the tea planters were facing financial crisis right from the nascent stage and so approached the royal court for exemption of payment of land revenue. It is on record that Maharaja granted extension of time of one year for payment of pending revenue. The notification from Royal Court (notification No. 1756 of 14th  Asdhaar,1333 TE [June1923] showed the names of the tea gardens which were allowed extension of time for payment of revenue. The Tea gardens were: (1) Mantala Tea Co. (2)  Krishnapur Tea Co. (3) Mekhlipara Tea Co. (4) Saatsangam-Ranibari Tea Garden (5) Golakpur Tea Co. and (6) Jagannathpur Tea Co. 
The history of the Tea industry of Tripura from the time of Maharaja to the present day scenario under democratic set up is a long and chequered one. The Tripura Tea industry suffered badly immediately after the independence. The state got isolated as the eastern side which connects it with Assam was not having any all weather road connectivity. And, due to change in geo-political scenario, the Tea gardens which were in close proximity to the international border suddenly lost their connectivity. The nearest railheads which used to connect the gardens fell on to the then East Pakistan side and thus were besieged with innumerable problems. Post partition, the land ownership pattern of Tripura started changing very rapidly with influx of migrant population. The ownership of the moribund tea gardens was being transferred to businessmen from Kolkata who started blending Tripura tea with tea of other states. Thus the unique aroma of Tripura tea got lost in the blending process. The tea industry suffered badly for the second time during the spell of extremist activities. Many owners were kidnapped and they were on the verge of abandoning the estates due to ethnic clash and insurgent activities. It faced may odds but slowly normalcy has returned and business also started flourishing. 

Tea garden workers:
During the Initial period of tea plantation, the gardens faced acute labour shortage to carry out the works like cleaning up the forest & vegetation, weeding, hoeing, pruning etc in the tea plantation. Local people were reluctant to work in the tea plantations and in this back drop how and when the labourers came to Tripura for works could not be ascertained. Though, it is largely considered that the non-co-operation movement in the year 1921-22 of tea garden labourers of Assam had an impact on tea industry of Tripura.  The 'Chargola' exodus of Assam is cited as a cause. The labourers of tea gardens in Barak Valley, because of   continuous inhuman treatment meted to them by the owners, had started protesting and violence erupted in the tea gardens. More than 8000 workers deserted the tea gardens and had assembled at a place called Chargola near Karimganj in Assam. Hundreds of labourers walked up to nearest rail station on foot to get into trains to leave the Cachar district.  Many labourers died on the way due to diseases and starvation. British Indian authorities forcibly stopped their march. The tussle became fierce at one point when the British police opened fire on those hapless & agonized labourers. Though the exact number of deaths could not be ascertained but it was estimated that about thousand labourers lost their lives. There was outrage and protest everywhere. The workers of Bengal Railways and Inland Streamer Navigation located in Barak Valley organized strike showing solidarity with the labourers and against the brutality. The benevolent Maharaja of Tripura on learning this incident took initiative to bring those hapless labourers to Tripura. It is understood that a Minister of Maharaja's administration wrote letter to the Political Agent of British India narrating the safety measures which would be taken in Tripura and accordingly the labourers were rescued, brought to the soil of Tripura. Maharaja granted them freedom and allowed the labourers to take decision on their own either on going back to their native states or to settle in Tripura and work independently. Many of those labourers responded and joined the working force in tea gardens of Tripura and the issue of labour shortage faced during the time was settled once and for all. 

Present scenario: 

Presently, Tripura has about 50+ tea gardens, about 2500 small tea growers and 21 processing factories functioning with production hovering around 6 million kilogram per annum.Livelihood of more than 20K people are directly dependant on its maintenance, production and sale. But their lifestyle and quality have not improved and they still live as a part of marginalized section of the society. However with the effort of the government, a new lease of life has been infused in this sector and slowly but steadily its production has also been increasing now to about 9 million kilogram. There are thus 3 categories of ownership of the Tripura tea gardens. (a) The Tripura Tea Development Corporation Ltd.  (b) Privately owned tea gardens (c) The Tea industry in co-operative sector. It is also on record that despite presence of tea gardens & production of Tea in Tripura for more than a century its ecosystem has not become omnipresent in the sate though as a nation we are known for our love for tea as a beverage. The tea produced in the state are now exported also. In the year 2013 orthodox variety of Tripura tea was exported from Golakpur Tea Estate to Iran. Other tea estates like Manu valley Tea Estate exported 'Jewel Tip' tea to Britain, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Ludhua Tea Estate exported tea to Italy and Germany. It is reassuring that Tripura is creating a niche in the tea map of India

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