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WANTED: A CHAS Board

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We, the Citizens

By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

Do we really need the projected Tea Board? Here’s why we don’t!

According to a superbly produced book, The Chowfins of Garhwal, the East India Company brought out Chinese tea expert, Asi Wong Chowfin, in the 1850s. He became the manager of their tea estate in Gadioli. Later, he took charge of another of their tea estates “about 25 miles away” at Museti. (His descendant, Naval Aviator Trevor Chowfin and his wife Christine were our colleagues in the Southern Naval Command, Cochin, long before Uttarakhand was formed).

The point is that, in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal Mountains, there were at least two tea estates in the nineteenth century. Sadly, they did not make much impact on the flourishing international tea market. Nor, for that matter, did Dehra tea. We are familiar with the extensive tea plantations of the Nilgiris, Assam and Sri Lanka. We have also participated in the tea auctions in Fort Cochin. Uttarakhand tea was never mentioned.

One reason could be that the tea industry, today, is the domain of Big Business. It requires massive investments in acres and acres of forest land, the felling of thousands of trees, the planting and regular pruning of Camellia sinensis into bushes. Tea-leaves plucked by hordes of workers have to be mechanically Cut, Torn, Curled and Dried in huge factories to produce the CTC tea with a reasonable shelf life. Then the processed tea has to be graded from the cheapest Dust to the expensive Orange Pekoe.

Admittedly, Tea Estates do offer masses of cheap labour jobs, but is that what we want for the proud people of our small state? Can we afford the loss of bio-diversity when we choose tea plantations over natural forests? Didn’t such bio-diversity marauders create the Covid-19 pandemic? So, what’s the alternative to exploitive tea estates in Uttarakhand?

We need agricultural products that can be grown in small holdings, over a wide range of terrains from steaming Terai to rarefied highlands, and in a forest-friendly environment. These products should also be easily transportable, give high-value for low bulk, resist pests and predators, and cater to a growing national and international market. Additionally, they should offer the village farmer a wide range of related alternatives so that, in case of a sudden change in demand, the small holder can switch over to a similar crop quickly. Finally, they should need little post-harvest processing.

If there is a generic agricultural product with these qualities, it will reverse the migration from our Himalayan villages and thereby also enhance our border security 24×7!

But are there such wide-ranging agricultural products? Yes, there are. All they need is a state-wide organisation to provide the expertise to small farmers to cultivate these crops, to switch swiftly to viable alternatives, and to collect and market all the produce generated by the small farms.

Instead of a Tea Board we need to create a Culinary Herbs and Spices Board (CHAS Board). There is a booming, global, foodies’ market eager to welcome such new flavours.

To start with, let us exclude all the chamchas looking for sinecures. The CHAS Board of our state should be able to advise our farmers on all the 109 plant species that are used as spices and culinary herbs globally. They are listed by the International Standards Organisation. We could seek expertise from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Asian Development Bank. We could also approach funding agencies like the Gates Foundation which is interested in such Rural Uplift. As for pest and predator control, we believe that herbs and spices have developed their unique flavours and aromas as a defence against natural predators. As an additional income, the farmer who has beehives, along with his herbs and spices, will also be able to market specialised flavoured honey.

Finally, to give you some idea of the enormous diversity of these products, Chillies are just one of the 109 herbs and spices, but it has 400 varieties. Mint is even more generous: it has 600 varieties. Cardamom is so forest-friendly, that it cannot thrive outside a forest environment! And here’s the feminist, fantasy, moment: its seed-yielding panicles are best fertilised if touched by women!

So, “Farewell chai, welcome CHAS!”

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 half-hour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who is a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)