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Assam tea-man brews organic success

Madhupur village in India’s Assam’s state has become the toast of not just tea connoisseurs but also ecologists thanks to Gobin Hazarika, the one-man army behind the organic, handmade tea being manufactured in local homes

India’s northeast state of Assam is renowned for its tea. Gentle slopes and miles of plain land are washed green with tea plantations, from which the leaves make their way to big factories to be crushed, torn, and curled into fine tea. Villagers of Madhupur on the north bank of the mighty Brahmaputra are doing much the same but with a difference – they produce export quality, organic tea, grown in small patches of land and processed through hand in their homes. All this is under the guidance of one man.

Gobin Hazarika is a single-man army when it comes to producing organic black and green tea. His hand-grown, handmade black tea has made Madhupur the toast of tea connoisseurs the world over, while his green tea is available locally.

Unlike most big tea companies, Hazarika, who is in his 40s, says he has to turn down most orders, especially from foreign countries, simply because he cannot meet their demand. “How is it possible for one man to make such large quantities of tea?” he asks. He has just sent a batch to Colombia, taken an order from Hong Kong, but had to turn down one from Australia.

But therein lies the charm of Hazarika’s tea, marketed under the name Madhupur Tea. Every bush in his tea garden has been planted and tended to by him. His strict adherence to an organic way of life means that he does not use any chemical pesticides on his two acre plantation. Instead, trees whose leaves have natural insect repelling properties, like neem, are planted between rows of tea bushes. He also uses organic manure made of compost and cow dung.

Assam’s tea gardens are on the gentle slopes of the lower Himalayas, an area where overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is causing increasing concern. Hazarika’s efforts in Lakhimpur district’s Madhupur village show it is possible to go organic and still make money, which is good news for both the economy and the ecology.

Hazarika’s day begins with tending to the tea bushes and looking out for pests and insects. When the crop is ready for plucking, he goes out with a jute bag slung across his shoulders and picks the leaves, which then make way to a tiny mud hut that serves as his ‘factory’ near the plantation.

Here, the processing begins. Hazarika first spreads the leaves in the open to dry them out in the sun. “If the weather does not permit, or I have a big demand, I spread them under the fan in my home for the weathering process,” he says. After that he pounds the leaves in a dheki, an Assamese word for a big mortar and pestle, and finally roasts them slowly in a kodai, a frying pan, over logs of fire. If it’s green tea that he’s making, he first boils the leaves and then roasts them.

“The speciality of my tea lies in the frying. Since it’s roasted over logs of fire the tea gets a delicate, but distinctive, smoky flavour that people love in the foreign nations,” Hazarika says.

Needless to say it’s a tedious and time consuming process but one that Hazarika will not compromise for modern machinery because “the taste will be lost”.

Having said that, at the end of last year, after attending conferences in Hong Kong and Australia, he approached the Assam state government to help him procure solar panels in order to operate a dryer. This, he felt, would speed up the roasting process. “At the moment just 500 grams of green tea takes me about two and half hours to roast over firewood. At such pace I cannot meet the demand of the foreign market because they want a bulk amount.”

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Gunindra and Gobin Hazarika

He was, however, told to get himself registered with the District Industries and Commerce Centre first. “I knew it would mean a long, tedious process and I just did not want to get myself into that rut again,” he said.

When it began

Hazarika’s journey into tea making began in 1995 when, disgusted by the demand for a bribe to get a job in a nearby tea garden, he decided to start his own plantation.

Although his knowledge was limited in the field, his willpower was not. He took counsel from professionals at the agricultural university and started selling his tea locally. And as luck would have it, Peggy Carswell of the World Community Development Education Society, Canada, who had come looking for organic tea in Assam, was directed to him by the university. Impressed, she took back a sample back home. In 2007, he sent his first consignment of 60 kg organic tea. It went up to 150 kg in 2011, and doubled a year later to Canada alone.

Today Hazarika’s annual black tea production is 1,000 kg of which 80% is exported. It is sold at Rs.1,600 (US$25) per kg abroad, while in the domestic market it sells at Rs.1,000 per kilo (US$15). His green tea which touches 80-90 kg is sold at double the price.

Although content, Hazarika says that his real happiness does not lie in his success alone but his other fellow villagers’ as well. “Ever since I started out I have tried to do my bit to help my village folk like helping out when someone falls ill, or when a student needs financial aid to study further. But to help build lives I realised I should help others follow my path in the field of tea”.

He started with distributing tea seeds and saplings a few years back but more recently he identified 20 households with lowest income who he decided to nurture, not just with all his knowledge of tea making but also in marketing their produce in foreign markets.

Ripple effect

“Some have been exceptional in their efforts. Dinanath Bhuyan, for instance, started growing tea in a small patch of land in his backyard and managed to produce 40 kg organic black tea last year. After testing his tea for optimum quality I sent his batch along with mine to be sold in Colombia,” Hazarika said.

Bhuyan’s is not the only success story. Sirang Saikia, who is a graduate and was teaching in a local school before it shut down and he lost his job, is another successful student of Hazarika’s. “We were really impressed with his (Hazarika) determination to grow tea and, despite so many big companies in the business. So when he asked me if I would be interested to do what he does, I was more than eager. It has been a blessing,” Saikia, who grows tea in one bigha land near his home, said.

According to Hazarika, the families involved in tea making have made profits of around Rs.90,000 (US$1,400) a year. “From a hand to mouth situation they are now leading a comfortable life. More importantly, others in the village are also inspired to join in now,” he said.

He, however, added that he is encouraging people to make organic black tea and not green tea. “Green tea making is tricky. Imagine after all these years I still do the roasting of green tea myself; it gets easily burnt,” he says.

“I will never compromise on quality. Honesty is my key mantra,” he added with a smile.