Day 4: Tea and the Tatas in Munnar

Gargle your mouth with green tea every morning, instead of using chemical ridden toothpastes and then see how sweet your breath smells. We were at the Tata Tea Museum in Munnar (Kerala, India) and these words were uttered by an official, who had volunteered to give us information about everything related to tea. He went on to scoff at the way that the Indians prepared tea. Green tea should ideally be brewed for twenty four hours because it releases different nutrients at different times. We were in a dingy room, a factory belt full of green tea leaves in front of us, the lush tea plantations all around us.

Munnar is tea, tea and then some more tea. The region is synonymous with extensive rich tea plantations and the great house of the Tatas also has a role to play in this region. A unique tea museum has been established by Tata Tea at their Nallathanni estate. This museum is perhaps one of its kinds in India and one of the reasons for including Munnar in our itinerary. That the region itself is breathtakingly beautiful was the fringe benefit.

The museum displays various photos and objects that have contributed to the tea industry in some way. It allows you to see how tea is processed and also lets you sample various types of tea, giving you a free cuppa at the end of your visit. Plans are being made to allow the visitors to actually pluck the tea leaves thereby allowing them to be a part of the tea brigade in a small way. What more could a tea lover desire? While the actual tea museum is all right, it was the video that displayed the history of the tea industry in Munnar that was enlightening.

It is said that a British resident with the name of Munroe came over and fell in love with the beauty of Munnar. He managed to convince the then king to lease over the land of the Kannan Devan hills to him, over which he planned to have plantations. In 1877 around 1, 36,600 acres of land was leased to him at an annual lease of Rs 3000 with an Rs 5000 deposit. Munroe started planting various spices but it was only later around 1880 that it was discovered that the conditions were ideal for growing tea. Tea started to be grown and the plantations rose in number. In 1895, James Finlay and Company Limited entered the scene to manage the tea estates. The company started to expand but the environment always remained the prime concern. Every project was analysed based on how it would affect the environment and the decision to go ahead was only taken provided the ecology did not suffer.

The Tatas entered in collaboration with the Finley group in 1964. Tata Tea was formed in 1983. For the next two decades, the Tatas managed the tea estates in Munnar. However it was then decided that the business was no longer viable and the decision to concentrate on the branded business was made. In 2005 Tatas decided to exit Munnar and gave the shareholding of the Company to the employees who worked there. A separate company by the name of Kannan Devan Hills Ltd was thus established. Tatas still hold a minor stake in the Company whereas the majority shareholding is in the name of the employees. A woman tea plucker was inducted as a member of the board of directors. The entire tea company is managed and owned by the workers. The managing of the tea company is itself a lesson in participative management. It is ensured that the men and women are equally represented and the locals and employees are equally committed to preserving the ecology and biodiversity of the area. Though the Tatas have exited Munnar they continue to be involved in the social initiatives and manage the Tata School, hospital and a centre for the mentally challenged in Munnar.

It is not surprising therefore to note that the beauty of Munnar has remained intact and has not been taken over by commercial interests – as yet. The image that stays with you remains of an enchanting land with hard working locals who understand the benefits of preserving the environment. The admiration for the social commitments of the Tatas and for the things that India manages to do right, seems to increase after a visit to this region.

The Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company: http://kdhptea.com/

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