While Pakistan’s dependence upon imported tea is constantly rising, the country’s indigenous tea plantation has drastically reduced from a peak of 1,750 acres a few years back to around 300 acres for want of political will and apathetic attitude towards attending to the teething problems of a new cash crop.
Pakistan is one of the largest tea consuming countries of the world, and it spent more than Rs31.1 billion on importing 141,257 metric tonnes of tea in 2014-2015. With a consumption of one kilogram of tea per head and 1.8 percent annual growth in population, Pakistan’s tea imports have constantly been rising over the years. During the 11 months of the fiscal year 2015-2016, Pakistan imported 164,290 metric tonnes of tea. According to reliable sources, the figures of tea imports for the whole fiscal year are likely to rise to 190,000 metric tonnes. In addition to imports, some 45-50 million kilogram black tea is smuggled into Pakistan, largely under the guise of Afghan Transit Trade, causing considerable revenue loss to the exchequer in the shape of duties and taxes.
However, there exists a great potential to cultivate tea in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), where large tracts of land have been found suitable for the cultivation of tea crop. Islamabad has been seized, for the last many decades, with efforts to lessen the country’s total dependence on imported tea by encouraging its indigenous production.
After many abortive efforts, both by the public and private sector, Pakistan finally entered into an agreement with China in 1982 for the cultivation of tea. A team of Chinese experts, after conducting research in Mansehra, Battagram and Swat, declared in 1989 that tea could be commercially cultivated on 150,000 acres (60,703 hectares) in those districts. After conducting tests in other areas, the KP government announced that climatic conditions of some more regions, including Hangu, Dir and Orakzai, were also suitable for tea cultivation and that the total area under the crop could be increased to 500,000 acres. The authorities also identified 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) suitable for growing tea in AJK.
Meanwhile, Pakistan Agricultural Research Council established a National Tea Research Institute (NTRI) at Shankiari in 1986, where it started cultivation of tea over 50 acres, under the guidance of Chinese agricultural experts. NTRI staff also succeeded in motivating some farmers to take up cultivation of tea on more than 700 acres; while a multinational company started cultivation of tea on 1,000 acres in Battagram and Mansehra districts.
Botanically called Camella sinnenisis, tea is a highly remunerative perennial cash crop. In net returns per acre, tea ranks higher than many other agronomic crops and, therefore, it is one of the most attractive crops for the farmers.
The quality of local black tea is comparable to that of Kenya. The samples of black tea produced in Pakistan were sent to renowned companies, including Tea Craft Company, for conducting quality tests. Those companies found Pakistani tea to be of good quality and ranked it as the second best in the world.
Found in both shrub and tree forms, tea also protects soil from erosion and degradation and provides sanctuary to wildlife. The tea bush takes four-six years to reach the plucking stage and thereafter it can be harvested for 90-100 years.
After maturity of indigenous tea plants, the next logical stage for Pakistan was to establish tea processing units. For processing its indigenous production, Pakistan put up its maiden black tea processing factory in Mansehra. The plant was inaugurated by President General Pervez Musharraf, on September 7, 2001. Generally, one tea processing plant is considered adequate for processing the yield derived from a tea garden spread over 300 acres.
Set up with Chinese assistance, $179,230 tea-processing plant has a capacity of processing 1,000 kilogramme of tea per day. It pains one to point out that the lone tea processing plant in the public sector has been closed down for want of sustained electricity supply and failure of the authorities to keep the plant running on some cheap alternate source of energy, like hydropower. It may be pointed out that both KP and AJK are rich in water resources and the government of KP has plans to set up 1,000 mini hydropower stations. One fails to understand why the sole tea processing plant in the public sector could not be kept running on hydropower in a region which is rich in water resources and has established a dedicated agency to set up mini hydropower stations.
In addition to sustained electricity supply, marketing of the crop became a major issue for farmers who complained of poor returns for their produce. Furthermore, the experimental tea plantations were to be sustained by the government of KP and AJK, which did not happen especially in Swat where the green tea factory has been closed down though the quality of Pakistani green tea was much superior to some branded ones available in the market.
Cultivation of tea is a labour-intensive job. If the country could have taken up cultivation of tea in areas identified to be suitable for the crop, it could have provided gainful employment to hundred thousands of people near their homes, curtailed migration of the rural poor to urban areas in search of jobs and alleviated poverty in a big way. In addition, it could have lessened Pakistan’s total dependence on imported tea and thus resulted in foreign exchange savings.
In terms of agricultural production, Pakistan ranks amongst the top 10 countries of the world. But, despite being the world’s 10th top country in agricultural production, Pakistan often faces shortages of various commodities due to primitive agricultural practices, poor marketing and managerial skills.
As far as tea and edible oils are concerned, the country has the potential to substantially curtail the import of these commodities through local production. But, its dependence on their import has been constantly rising for want of commitment and dedicated efforts to achieve autarky in tea and edible oil production.