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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 June 2006, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Quenching Bangladesh's thirst for tea
Duncan Bartlett
BBC News, Bangladesh

Bangladeshi boy making tea
A cup of tea costs around 1p

Bangladesh produces millions of tonnes of tea each year and has its own special tea culture.

But a drought has destroyed large areas of tea estates and now, to the dismay of farmers, the country is considering importing tea from abroad.

The best tea I drank in Bangladesh was made for me by a boy of seven.

With his small hands, he took a tiny glass and washed it in hot water. Then he poured in the tea from a large brown pot and added a spoonful of condensed milk from a tin. Finally, he stirred in two spoonfuls of sugar and handed me the cup with a grin.

I paid him ten Taka, about 10p. The usual cost of a cup is only one Taka.

The Bangladeshis love hot, sweet tea and every year, as the population grows, they drink more.

Nearly all of it comes from the huge tea estates, or tea gardens as they are known, which cover the rolling hills of eastern Bangladesh.

Scottish influence

I visited the Shumshernugger garden in the tropical district of Sylhet.

As I pulled up to the gates in a hired minibus, two armed guards straightened their backs and saluted. I stood on the lawn in front of a vast, white timber bungalow where I was greeted by the estate manager, Luftor Rahman, a stocky man in his fifties with kindly patrician manners. He invited me to join him on the veranda.

This time the tea was served in bone china cups. We sipped it as the sun set.

If domestic demand continues to rise and production cannot be raised, Bangladesh will soon have to import tea from abroad

From the balcony we could hear the sound of jackals, drawn to the garden by the smell of jackfruit. I could also make out the shape of fruit-bats, hunting for lychees in the trees.

Mr Rahman wanted to talk business. But first he wanted to know about my name; Duncan. Was I from Scotland he asked?

"No," I replied, "but my grandfather was."

He explained that this tea garden was founded by a Scottish entrepreneur, one Walter Duncan, who first came to the region in 1858, a year after the Indian Mutiny. The company which owns the garden is still named Duncan Brothers. It is the largest non-government-owned tea producer in the world.

Domestic demand

"Mr Rahman," I asked. "Tea only sells for a penny a cup in Bangladesh, "but couldn't you sell it abroad at a much better price? In a smart restaurant in London or Los Angeles, people would surely pay far more?"

The pickers' pay is not high, but they are better off than many people who struggle to make a living from the land.

The estate manager sighed and mixed himself a glass of pink gin.

He explained that 75% of the tea which is grown in Bangladesh is drunk within the country. The only significant export markets are Pakistan and Russia. And the farms of Sylhet have a problem. A drought last year killed one in 10 of the tea bushes, which haven't yet been replaced.

If domestic demand continues to rise and production cannot be raised, Bangladesh will soon have to import tea from abroad.

Suddenly we were plunged into darkness. Another power cut, a common problem here. Recently one blacked out half the country. Through the gloom, we heard a member of staff running to switch on a generator.

When the lights came back on dinner was served; goat curry and lentil dhal.

The estate's guest quarters were lavish but the unfamiliar sounds made it hard to sleep. I curled up in bed with a copy of the company magazine: The Duncan. Eventually I must have dozed off.

Praying for crops

At half past six, someone wheeled in another pot of hot, fresh tea.

I stepped outside to find Mr Rahman sitting on the balcony in the sunshine, waiting for breakfast. One of his staff stood at his side, bearing a plastic fly-swatter. We ate fresh mangos and toast and drank yet more tea.

When we reached the fields, we came across dozens of women plucking green leaves from the tea bushes and putting them into heavy sacks on their backs.

The women are nearly all Hindus, a rarity in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. Their families came here from other parts of the sub-continent a century and a half ago and have remained ever since.

Pouring tea
Bangladeshis fear they will have to import tea from abroad

The pickers' pay is not high, but they are better off than many people who struggle to make a living from the land.

The company offers free health-care and there is even a boarding school for 66 boys. Lessons start at half eight in the morning and in the afternoons the children play cricket and table-tennis. There are clubs for debating, art and chess.

It feels like an English public school from a distant era - a far cry from the shabby schools in most Bangladeshi villages.

With the benefit of a good education, some of the boys may gain well-paid jobs in the cities. But their sisters, who cannot go to the school, are likely to follow their mothers into the tea fields for the rest of their lives. The women are praying for a better crop than last year.

Enough tea to satisfy the thirst of the whole country - and enough left over to offer the rest of the world a unique taste of Bangladesh.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 10 June, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Bangladesh
11 Apr 06 |  Country profiles
Bangladesh tea trade gets new brew
07 Jun 05 |  Business
Bangladesh could import tea
12 May 03 |  Business
Bad weather hits Bangladesh tea
08 Nov 02 |  Business

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