Lower than government-fixed prices are threatening the success enjoyed in plain land tea cultivation in the northern region over the last two decades.
Farmers say factories sold tea worth Tk225 crore in the last financial year from which the government got a revenue of Tk34 crore. The Bangladesh Tea Board also got around Tk2 crore from the amount.
But those working in the fields at the primary stage say they haven't been able to enjoy the fruits of their labour. According to them, the price of tea leaves has been on a downward trend, falling to Tk14 from Tk39 per kg around 15 years ago.
Kazi Mahbubur Rahman started tea cultivation on 36 acres of land in Panchagarh in 2008. "The production cost per kilogramme of tea leaves is Tk18, but we have to sell it for Tk14. The factories also subtract 20kg-40 from our 100kg, saying the weight is due to the wetness of the leaves. As a result, farmers get a price of only Tk7-8 per kg," he said.
"We have no choice but to sell the tea leaves to the factories. As a result, we are suffering losses day after day."
Abdul Jabbar, manager of a 50-acre tea garden in Tetulia, said, "Factory owners do not buy much tea leaves during the peak season [May to October]. During that time, farmers have to go from one factory to another to sell leaves.
"Farmers would not have losses if they could sell at Tk20 per kg. Although the government fixed the price at Tk18 per kg, the factories bought the leaves for Tk14 to Tk16 per kg in the last week [17-24 October]," he added.
Md Rasel, manager (accounts section) of Z&Z Tea Garden in Tetulia, said, "We are now going to set up a factory to overcome the crisis. It is impossible to survive in this business if you do not have your own factory."
Md Jahangir, president of the Bangladesh Bought Leaf Factory Owners Association, Panchagarh, claimed that factory owners are not responsible for the low price of leaves.
"The rule of plucking tea leaves is – two leaves and a bud or three leaves and a bud. But the farmers here bring five to six leaves by cutting them with a sickle. Due to this, the price of leaves is low. Currently, we also cannot pay the right price to the farmers due a price drop in the auction market," he said.
He also claimed that the farmers are still making a profit despite the current price.
To realise their claims, farmers have taken various steps, including organising human chains and submitting a memorandum to the authorities calling for a resolution, aside from demanding setting up an auction centre in Panchargarh to reduce harassment.
Mohammad Shamim Al Mamun, senior scientific officer of the Bangladesh Tea Board, Panchagarh office, said they were working to solve the crisis, adding that they planned to set up an auction centre in Panchagarh soon.
He also said there was a scope to improve tea leaf quality in the region. "There is an app on tea cultivation from where farmers can get useful information in this regard," he added.
Zahurul Islam, deputy commissioner of Panchagarh, said, "Action will be taken against the factories if they do not pay the price for tea leaves as fixed by the government. Our mobile court is working regularly to monitor tea prices."
According to insiders, tea cultivation in the plain land of Panchagarh started in 2000. Plain land tea cultivation also started in Thakurgaon and Lalmonirhat districts in 2007, and in Dinajpur and Nilphamari in 2014.
Currently, these five districts have nine registered and 21 unregistered large tea gardens (above 25 acres). There are also 8,060 small tea gardens (up to 25 acres), of which 1,745 are registered.
More than one lakh small tea farmers and workers are involved in the plain land tea industry.
According to the Bangladesh Tea Board, 11,433 acres of land are being used in these five districts for tea cultivation.
More than 1.45 crore kgs of tea was produced last year, which is around 15% of the national production.
After Sylhet, Rangpur is the second highest tea producing region in the country.
Currently, 45 factories buy leaves from the farmers. Of those, only two factories are in Thakurgaon and Lalmonirhat, while the rest are in Panchagarh district.