Tea-ing off for national status


All photos by SH Patgiri

THE VATTATHARAS were black coffee addicts. So were the other inhabitants of village Kongorpilly in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. It was inevitable; almost everyone grew – many still do – Arabica coffee beans in their backyard.

That was 40 years ago when VM Thomas, head of Don Bosco Institute in Guwahati, left his village to pursue priesthood. Schoolteacher Mathew Vattathara was confident his son’s missionary zeal would help take coffee to new frontiers. “I converted instead, from a hardcore coffee drinker to a regular tea drinker,” said Thomas, 60.

Thomas’ switchover is understandable. He has spent more than 30 years in a state synonymous with tea – Assam. “But it beats me how almost everyone in my village has taken to tea over the years,” Thomas said.

For tea industry captains, barring the odd Nilgiri planters, Kongorpilly isn’t likely to ring a bell. But the village’s surrender to the cup that cheers – and of 593,730 other inhabited villages plus 4,378 urban areas across India (2001 census) – is one of several reasons behind their demand for granting national drink status to tea.

With more than 83% households addicted to tea, the beverage is unofficially India’s ‘national drink’. The official tag, planters argue, would ensure better brand value for the morning refresher and help promote it as a health drink, with or without milk and sugar (butter too, in some cases). Most importantly, a national drink is an integral part of a nation’s identity, self-image, history, ecology and culture, they assert.

Leading the crusade for the national drink status is the North East Tea Association (NETA), headquartered in the tea-rich Golaghat district of eastern Assam. “India should learn from Pakistan, which had ages ago identified sugarcane juice as its national drink. Or from tea-growing major China, where green tea is a national drink,” said NETA chairman Bidyananda
Barkakoty.

“If not Pakistan or China, New Delhi should at least learn from Britain that does not produce tea but considers the beverage, invariably sourced from India, a national drink. It is funny that India, despite producing the widest range of teas for 180 years, is yet to give it a special status,” Barkakoty added.

Planters underscore the irony that even Assam – the state accounts for 50% of India’s annual tea yield – never felt the need to declare tea as a state drink. In 2005, the state identified rhino as its state animal and white-winged wood duck as its state bird but went dry when it came to the drink. “That’s why we met chief minister Tarun Gogoi recently to impress upon the need to give tea the respect it deserves,’ said NETA member JK Singhania. “The state drink status can be the stepping stone to tea becoming India’s national drink.”

State industries minister Pradyut Bordoloi admitted the government faltered in not giving the due to a drink that has made Assam a household name in at least half the world. “We shall be according the state drink status to tea soon,” he said.

Planters also stressed the role of ‘integrator’ that tea plays to justify their demand. “The only familiar word anytime anywhere in the country is chai, and the cuppa often brings strangers together,” said Barkakoty.

Most of India swore by home-made alcoholic brews until the arrival of tea, ‘discovered’ growing wild in Assam
by Robert Bruce. The Englishman had taken the credit for what the Singpho tribal people inhabiting adjoining areas of eastern Assam and western Arunachal Pradesh had been drinking for ages.

The first consignment of tea (350 pounds) was dispatched to Britain on 8 May 1838 and sold at India House, London, on 10 January 1839. Britons developed a taste for the beverage and voted out coffee procured from other colonies. Its time, tea growers and drinkers aver, India voted in tea as the country’s national drink.

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About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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