Tea revolution in the north
"As lands in the northern districts are more fertile compared to Chattogram and Sylhet, growers can pluck leaves after a year of planting the saplings."
Imran Ali, a farmer in Panchagarh, could barely get by with sugarcane cultivation in his 1.7 acres of land. Then, in 2005, he rolled the dice and switched to tea production, a gamble that went on to change his life forever.
"This has been a gamechanger for me as it needs a very little investment," said the 44-year-old, who earned a profit of about Tk 14 lakh last year and has now expanded cultivation to 8.5 acres.
Ali's story is not an isolated one but is representative of the small farmers in the northern region, whose socioeconomic status has enhanced thanks to switching to tea production from conventional crops like rice, wheat, sugarcane and jute or tobacco farming that progressively ate up their lands' fertility.
With such gusto did they take to it that the region -- where tea cultivation began in 2002 on 455 acres of land -- has leapfrogged Chattogram, a traditional hilly region suitable for tea cultivation, in gross annual production.
It is now second only to Sylhet, accounting for about 15 percent of Bangladesh's record tea production of 96.5 million kilograms in 2021, according to data from the Bangladesh Tea Board (BTB).
Last year, tea was cultivated on 11,433.9 acres under nine registered and 21 unregistered tea gardens by 8,067 small-scale growers of the northern region.
"As the lands in the northern districts are more fertile compared to Chattogram and Sylhet, growers can pluck leaves after a year of planting the saplings," said Mohammad Shameem Al Mamun, senior scientific officer at Bangladesh Tea Research Institute, Panchagarh.
The region, where thriving tea cultivation has turned the landscape into a verdant green, has about 50,000 acres of land suitable for tea production, he said.
Tea production in the region will proliferate in the coming days if Saidul Islam's fortune is any indication.
The resident of Birajot village produces tea saplings, and last year he sold 90,000 saplings, priced at Tk 6 to Tk 10 each.
"That's a fourfold return on my investment of time and toil," said Islam, who earned Tk 6 lakh last year.
The industry will expand even faster if the government takes the initiative to set up a state-owned tea factory and a third auction centre in Panchagarh to ensure fair prices, said Amirul Haque Khokon, president of Bangladesh Small Tea Growers Association.
At present, there are two auction centres: one at Sreemangal and the other at Chattogram.
A third auction centre in Panchagarh would greatly bring down the transport costs of the farmers of the northern region, Khokon said, while urging the government to provide irrigation facilities, training and assistance to farmers.
The biggest challenge is in providing training to workers and fair wages for them in ensuring the production of quality tea, according to Mamun.
The tea board always recommends plucking tea leaves manually after a seven-day interval for ensuring the best quality.
"The growers can pluck 32-round to 34-round in a season. But in Panchagarh, the growers usually pluck 6-8-round in a season after about a 40-day interval due to a shortage of trained labour. For this, the leaves become older and the quality of tea deteriorates."
A tea worker can pluck about 25-30kg leaves with hands compared to 150-200kg daily using a scythe, according to Mamun.
Considering that hand plucking costs Tk 5-6 a kg, a tea worker can earn between Tk 125 and Tk 180 per day.
"This is not adequate for maintaining their family expenses. So, they will lose their interest after a point, which would hamper tea production."
The situation can only improve if the factory owners pay a fair price for the hand-plucked raw tea leaves, Mamun said.
The BTB has submitted a development project proposal to the ministry concerned for purchasing plucking machines, which would be provided on a community basis to mitigate the labour shortage and also to help ensure the quality of processed tea production.
A third auction centre is Panchagarh is also in the works, Mamun added.
There couldn't be any better development for growers like Ali, who now lives in a newly-built two-storey building.
"A tea grower can take home a profit of Tk 1.5 lakh to Tk 2.5 lakh from one acre of land after three to four years of tea plantation -- this is remarkable."