Even when the AMS was addressing the political issues involved in the land alienation of the adivasis, it also had some economic strategies. In the absence of valid legal documents to prove their rights over the land, can the adivasis have some other alternative proof ? Can they grow something and show that they are in possession of that land for many years ? And, can the land be made productive so that the adivasis will have some stake in staying and protecting their land ?

Most of the adivasi families were earning their livelihoods as wage labourers, forest produce collectors and were practising not-so-settled agriculture. Though traditionally they were the owners of the entire forested area, they were made to lose their rights over the land due to the systematic alienation from their land by powerful people and Government authorities. In order to make the adivasis economically independent, to encourage them to protect their land and to facilitate them to practice settled agriculture, ACCORD promoted tea cultivation among the adivasis. It was an alien crop for the adivasis, but it had many advantages – 

ü      Tea was the most predominant crop of the area and the mainstream economy of the area revolved around it ;

ü      the cultivation expenses involved mainly labour and the adivasis can work in their own plots instead of depending on the coolie work ;

ü      there will be regular income every month from the third year ;

ü      more importantly, it is a permanent crop – the adivasi farmers do not require intensive capital every year. Moreover, the plants will stay for many years and they can prove their settlement in that plot for many years to the Government officials merely by showing their tea plots.

Tea Planting Programme

We started a Tea Nursery ourselves to supply good quality tea plants for the adivasis and gave extensive training to the adivasi families regarding tea cultivation. Initially lot of efforts had to be put in to motivate the adivasis to go in for this ‘long term crop’. Because, living as they were from hand to mouth existence, to forgo today’s wages and work in their own land to pland tea, which will start giving income only after three years was a major problem. But, the field activists of ACCORD called Animators struggled in the villages for many years to make this programme a success. Initially, the adivasis had to be given some assistance for the preparation of their land, besides supplying tea plants free of cost.

But, over the years, more and more families have understood the significance of the Tea cultivation and have come forward on their own to request for tea plants. In about 10 years, more than 1000 adivasi families have planted tea in their small plots of half to one acre getting steady income. These small adivasi farmers supplied their tea leaves to private agents or to nearby tea factories.

Adivasi Tea Leaf Marketing Society

Encouraged by the achievements of these collective efforts and other community enterprises like Ashwini and Vidyodaya, the adivasis ventured into the marketing of tea leaves also. Like most of the agricultural crops, Tea cultivation also had its own share of constraints – main thing being the cheating in the weighing of tea leaves by the purchase agents. Though many farmers and the Animators were aware of this, they could not take any concrete steps to address this issue, since they were mainly occupied with activities in other sectors like Legal rights, Health, Education and Tea Planting etc. Once the initiatives in these fronts had stabilised, the collective marketing was given attention. In 1999. 

After many discussions in the village sangams belonging to the Erumadu, Ayyankolly and Devala Areas, an informal procurement and marketing sysem for the tea leaves was started in February 1999. It was called ‘Adivasi Tea Leaf Marketing Society’. It is an unregistered informal organization and functions as a part of the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam.

As a first step, we hired vehicles to transport the tea leaves from the villages to the Factory, decided the transport route covering all the villages, motivated the farmers to slowly shift from their previous agents to the Society, developed the necessary systems for accounting the quantity of leaves purchased / sold and to keep track of the financial transactions. Since leaf can be picked from the plants approximately once in 10-15 days depending on the rainfall. The picking rounds slowly stabilized and we were able to organize the collection trips in such a way that the transport costs are minimized.  

The leaves are supplied by the Society to a private factory – though at some times, we have to sell some quantity of the leaves to private agents if the same could not be supplied to the Factory either for logistic reasons or if the leaf gets rejected by the Factory on quality grounds.

Operational Details

 The activities of the Society are completely decentralized and are coordinated by the AMS area offices in the three Areas i.e., Erumadu, Ayyankolly and Devala. The details of the individual members are maintained in these Area offices, which include the quantity of leaves supplied, advance taken by the member, the savings, membership fees, value of inputs supplied to that member and the outstanding balances. At present, the number of people supplying leaves to the Society is over 400.

With the launch of the ATLM project, we identified adivasi youth to manage the accounting details of the operation in the three AMS area centers and trained them intensively. Systems were designed to keep track of the memberwise details as mentioned above and to settle the accounts on a monthly basis.

The leaf is supplied to the Factory in the name of the Society and the sale proceeds are received by the Society. In turn, the Society makes payment to all the members after deciding the rate to be paid to the members. At present, the leaves are supplied to the factories of the Parry Agro Company belonging to the Murugappa Group of Companies. We have explained the concept behind the ATLM Society and requested them to be an active partner in helping the adivasis. The company readily agreed and assured a minimum floor price for the tea leaf. With this, even if the market price of the tea leaf drastically drops, the Company has assured a minimum floor price for the leaves supplied by the ATLM Society.

This has tremendously helped the Society, particularly during the last two years, when the tea prices had dramatically fallen. So, the Society members are getting prices higher than those offered by the local factories or private agents.

The Society purchased a van with the financial assistance of Rotary International and is using this van to collect the leaves from Erumadu and Ayyankolli areas. This van is run by an adivasi driver and all the transactions of this vehicle are maintained by the ATLM members.

To improve the profitability of the operations, the Society procures leaves from some non-members also. Normally the rates paid to the members are higher than that paid to the non-members by at least Rs.0.10 per kg.

ATLM Management Committee

A Management Committee has been formed for taking major policy decisions regarding the programme. This committee has adivasi leaders representing each of the three Areas besides the Animators and taluk level leaders. This committee meets on the 12th of every month and reviews the progress of the programme.

The tea factories decide the rates payable for the leaf supplied on a monthly basis. That is, on the 10th of every month, all the major factories announce the rates for the leaf supplied during the previous month. This price is decided by the factories based on the prices realized by the tea powder in auctions and on their operating expenses. On learning these rates, the ATLM Management Committee fixes the prices for the leaves supplied by the Adivasi members and non-members.

Apart from fixing the purchase prices, the Management Committee takes decisions on issues like supplying inputs to the members, organizing training programmes for better cultivation, addressing grievances of the members and exploring possibilities of expanding the scale of the operations. Recently, the Society has acquired a 407 van on its own, with the financial support of Rotary International to transport the tea leaves. This will help reduce the transportation costs and will result in better prices for the members.

Services provided to the Members

The adivasi sangam members join the ATLM Society by paying a membership fee of Rs.101. This can be deducted from the value of leaves supplied by them in installments. As mentioned before, the major benefits for the members has been the proper weighment of their leaves and the better prices offered. The members found that their yields and the income levels have significantly improved in the initial months itself when they started supplying leaves to the ATLM Society. However, besides this, there are some other services provided by the Society to the members. Some of them are listed below.

Leaf Advance : The members can take advances against the leaf supplied in the Area Centres. The advance amount that can be given to the members is fixed by the ATLM Management Committee, which is at present Rs.4 per kg. This Leaf Advance gets deducted from the final payment once the rates are fixed on the 12th of every month.

Special Advance : Besides this Leaf Advance, the members can avail special loans for specific urgent needs. Upon a written request from the members, such applications are discussed by the Management Committee in the Area level and a decision is taken whether to advance the loan and the repayment terms. This advance is deducted every month from the leaf value as per the repayment terms agreed.

Supply of Inputs : Inputs like fertilisers are supplied to the members before the monsoons. The Society purchases the fertilisers from the suppliers on bulk and supplies at the Area Centres themselves, thereby reducing the costs of transportation of these inputs for the individual members. The inputs are also given on credit and the amount is deducted in installments from the leaf value payable to the members every month. The Society does not charge any interest on the Leaf Advance, Special Advance or for the inputs supplied to the members.

Training on Cultivation practices : The Society organises training sessions on agricultural operations for the members in the villages periodically. The agronomists and other Tea experts are invited from outside to explain the nuances, including the tea picking procedures to the members. Within the last three years of its inception, the quality of leaf picking has improved significantly and due to this, the yields have also increased.

Future Plans

At present, the operations are carried out in only three of the eight Areas of the AMS. There is good scope to expand the activities in at least three Areas in the near future. We are discussing with the village sangams at present and are exploring the logistic arrangements to cover more villages under the operations of the ATLM society.

Tea Powder Marketing

In the early 1990s, ACCORD had explored the possibility of marketing our tea powder to fair trade organisations and groups supporting our work in Germany. We had sold our tea powder through GEPA in Germany (fair trade organisation) and the results of this enterprise were very encouraging. However, subsequent to our forming the Adivasi Tea Leaf Marketing Society, we have started attempts to sell our own tea powder in order to earn remunerative prices for the adivasi tea growers.

We exported tea powder to groups in Germany and UK, and have started establishing links with other poor communities and development organisations in India. Besides, we are also in the forefront of setting up an international cooperative of producers and consumers called ‘Just Change’ with an objective of directly linking the producers in India and the consumers in India, UK and Germany. We have already sent tea powder in bulk to UK, which was packed in tea bags and sold. Similarly, we sent tea powder to one of our support groups in Germany called ‘Adivasi Tee Projekt’, who sold our tea powder in their annual conventions and among their friends.

At present, we are concentrating on developing links with different producer groups and other poor communities in India, so as to establish a trade network among them. We have contacted many organised poor communities and social action groups in an effort to set up an alternative trading system. The response has been very favourable and we have been trading small quantities of tea powder (both in bulk and in small packets) with groups in different States like Tamilnadu, Kerala, Orissa.

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