At a time when the 200-year old tea industry in Assam is facing tough times, a rare variety of handmade tea from the Manohari Tea Estate was auctioned for Rs 50,000 a kg at the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre (GTAC) on Tuesday, setting a new record.
The GTAC confirmed this is the highest recorded price for any variety of Assam tea sold through a public auction.
The rare tea variety - marketed as the Manohari Gold Tea - is made from small buds and not tea leaves. It's a process that the Manohari Tea Estate has developed in the last five years to yield what they describe as the "finest variety".
Last year, this variety was auctioned for Rs 39,001 per kilogram, but it was the Golden Needle variety from the Donyi Polo Tea Estate in Arunachal Pradesh that had set the record. It was sold for Rs 40,000 per kilogram at the auction.
Rajan Lohia, the owner of the Manohari Tea Estate, says this year, they had put "more efforts". "The tea is grown out of a specialty variety of finest clone called 'P-126', which is not readily available. The tea leaves are plucked very early in the morning. It's a handmade variety. In a year, we have yielded only five kilograms."
Admitting the slump in the industry, Mr Lohia added: "We have been making different variety of specialty tea for past five years. We also make the normal CTC and orthodox tea but we shifted to producing specialty tea only to survive. Now, we are not looking at quantity but quality as the normal tea market is on a downfall and only different varieties of specialty tea are doing well."
"It's a sad story but we are happy that our survival efforts have brought success. It's time for the Assam government to step in and help the producers of the CTC tea and also help us develop more varieties of specialty tea," Mr Lohia added.
Last year, India saw a record tea production of 1,325.1 million kilograms and over half of the total produce (630 million kg) was from Assam alone. Only about 256.6 kilograms was exported from the country's total produce. The average price in domestic auctions for the CTC variety has remained stagnant at about Rs.132.7 per kg.
McLeod Russel, the world's largest tea producer, in the recent years has also sold off several tea gardens in Assam.
"The Assam tea variety setting a new record is an encouraging development for those who are trying to develop specialty tea. In fact many planters are now focusing on specialty tea which still fetches excellent prices, but industry cannot survive on specialty tea since its production is minimal," said Bidyananda Barkatoky, a renowned planter and a member of the GTAC governing body.
"If Assam tea has to survive then the normal varieties like CTC and even Orthodox varieties need to get good prices. But our prices are falling and cost of production is increasing every day. Major producers are quitting the industry due to accumulated losses" he explained.
In Assam's 2019-20 budget, the government has brought some relaxations for the ailing industry. The state government has kept in abeyance the levy and payment of tax on green tea leaves under the Assam Taxation (On Specified Land) Act, 1990 for three years with effect from January 1, 2019 till December 31, 2021.
"More people are moving towards specialty tea because it selling well. But it is not that that the tea of the common man - the CTC variety - is not selling. The prices have dropped and it's a worry for everyone in the industry but the quality of CTC tea from Assam has also dropped. Last year, my buyer went on inquiring for the Manohari Gold Tea for the entire year, since he got bumper price," explained ML Maheshwari of the Sourabh Tea Traders that bid the highest price at the morning auction on Tuesday.