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  • She Says

At Avantika Jalan’s Tea Estate, Daughters Of Leaf Pluckers Wear Managerial Hats

  • IWB Post
  •  November 16, 2017

“Seeing the organic sections in the estate doing well, compared to the conventional sections especially in stressed environmental conditions, and remain productive and pest free is very inspiring.”

Avantika Jalan is the Head of Sustainability at Tea Estate – Chota Tingrai in Tinsukia district of Assam and since past six years has been adopting organic methods to grow tea. Her continuous effort is to improve soil fertility and take sustainable farming to a higher level.

Tell us about your life at the estate?

Life at the estate is like a big happy family living together. It’s been 6 years since I joined Chota-Tingrai and since then each moment of growth has been inspirational. We have about 2,000 people including workers and staff. Everybody lives together in the estate.  We do a lot of social and environmental work aiming at sustainability.

What are mornings like in the estate?

Mornings in the estate begin quite early. The first thing we generally do is go around the estate and check if every step of working is on time. We take a visit to the factory and take a note of things that require more attention.

Is it just you and your brother taking care of the 600 hectares unit?

Chota Tingrai is a family business. My great-grandfather started it in 1943 and since then generations have looked after it. Of course, my father plays a key role in the estate. He is the Head of Operations and also looks after the finances. Mrityunjay, my brother, looks after the manufacturing part, I look at the field management and John, my husband looks after the overseas business.

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How has the relationship between you and your brother developed being working together in the estate? Any sibling quarrel or mischief that ever took place?

Haha. No, not really. When we’re at work, it is purely just work. The relationship works the best for us in understanding a lot of things in a better way. We know how each of us functions, so things become easier. Our relationship at work is professional with attachment. It’s in the evening when we relax and John joins us so we have a cup of tea leading to a nice interaction.

How well does it feel to have each other’s back?

It’s one of the best feelings. Every time during typical and difficult decision-making situations we talk to each other. We both come up with advice and problem-solving techniques whenever something goes wrong.

Tell us about your relationship with John. Has it affected in the mannerism of business?

I was already working at the estate before I met him so he pretty much knew about my passion for it. The good thing was that he was willing to move to India. We’re basically building our lives with our passion for the work. John and I mostly work together on Mana Organics. It’s a huge advantage to work together with each other’s advice and guidance.

Having said that, tell us more about Mana Organics.

Mana Organics is a social initiative which works towards sustainable development in rural India. I worked with farmers in Madhya Pradesh. The farmers there had become self-sustainable using organic practices and I wanted to recreate the same in Chota Tingrai. A 100 Ha of the plantation has been converted into organic.

What are the techniques that the estate uses for organic farming?

The organic system uses the basic techniques of organic farming. There is compost for nutrition, increasing biodiversity in the natural habitat over the years for natural pest – predator cycles to control pests. There are some biocontrols for specific tea pests. Then there are hand weeding and mulching for weed control. The most important thing is the soil nutrition.

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How are your relations with the management and workers?

It’s been a very good gradual build up between us. Initially, they were apprehensive of organic farming as nobody knew much about it and hence they were not convinced. It’s so nice to see that everybody, from workers to management, is now convinced with the idea and all of us together are doing it right.

Has the journey in the estate inspired you in any way?

Seeing the organic sections in the estate doing well, compared to the conventional sections, especially in stressed environmental conditions and yet remain productive and pest free is very inspiring and satisfying. This means dedicated organic management can and does work even for large estates. To see our field team grow and take up the organic system is also very inspiring.

Tea is always a good idea! Are there any interesting ideas that have popped up over a cup of tea?

Mostly our decisions and brainstorming sessions are over tea. New ideas come to us with a cup of tea.

What are the varieties of tea you grow at your estate? And which one is your favorite?

We grow Assam Black Orthodox, Assam Black CTC, Japanese-style green teas mostly. We’re also manufacturing masala tea now.

I like Assam Black CTC.

How do you empower women who pluck tea leaves?

We try to empower as much as we can. For example, we’re eight women in the management and four of them are the daughters of tea pluckers.

Our main idea is to make sure they’re being treated equally and there’s no hierarchy system. We talk to them regularly and explain things to them personally.

Is India lacking in sustainable farming and how do you think we can make it more popular?

I do feel that in the field of tea plantation we are not much aware yet. Although, all small farmers are mostly into sustainable farming and in fact, most of them are getting back to the roots. We have the system, all we need is to redirect ourselves. People are waking up to the idea slowly but of course, there’s a long way to go.

What are the health benefits of organic tea?

The benefits are more or less same as tea. It works as a great anti-oxidant. It has no chemicals as it’s grown organically so your body remains chemical free. Non-organic tea is also checked with chemicals levels before distributing in the market. Organic tea plantation is more of an environmental benefit than health. The taste is different. It’s softer and sweeter than non-organic tea.

How has the response of customers been?

Our products mostly go abroad as within India we only work on a bulk basis. We have returning loyal customers so the response has been pretty good. They’ve seen and felt a difference.

Have you ever plucked tea and sung songs together?

Haha. Not really. I pluck only to demonstrate. But the pluckers do the Jhummar – local tribe dance sometimes, not daily. Humming is something that happens, like how it’s shown in movies.

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Chota Tingrai Tea Estate is located in the Tinsukia district of Assam. Established in 1943, it currently spans 600 Hectares, with 350 Ha of planted tea and 100 Ha of the plantation to organic, and produce 100% certified organic tea that is managed by partner Mana Organics.

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