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Last Updated: Friday, 13 January 2006, 08:57 GMT
Tea festival's missing ingredient
By Rajan Chakravarty
BBC News, Jorhat, Assam

Bungalow in Assam
Colonial-era bungalow have been readied for tourists
The plucking season has just finished in the tea gardens of the north-east Indian state of Assam.

To mark the event, a unique tea tourism festival was hosted in the town of Jorhat, 310km (194 miles) from Assam's main town of Guwahati, to woo foreign tourists in the area and revive the mystique of Assam tea, once known as the finest quality tea in the world.

J Syamala Rao, Jorhat's deputy commissioner, said it was not the first such festival - but it was being held on a grand scale.

With an eye towards the lucrative Western tourist market, the Assam government and tea planters in Jorhat gave the visitors a glimpse of life during the heydays of the British Raj, when Assam tea was the favoured beverage of the English aristocracy.

Beautiful colonial-era bungalows, set amid verdant tea gardens, gave 21st century tourists a taste of life that existed in the tea gardens around Jorhat almost two centuries ago.

Tribes people

But one disappointment was the Indian government's failure to find the descendants of the Scotsmen who first brought tea to this part of the world.

J Syamala Rao
A lot of people have claimed they introduced tea to India. But the most credible claim is that of the Bruce brothers
J Syamala Rao

Robert C Bruce and his brother Charles, in the employ of the British East India Company, are credited with bringing tea to Assam.

The tea plant was growing in the wild in the jungles of Assam way before the commercial production of tea started in India in the 1830s.

The local Singpho tribes people were known to consume tea leaves as a vegetable along with garlic.

Some of the Singphos drank the brew after dipping it in boiled water.

According to historical records, Robert C Bruce first discovered tea plants in the wild near Jorhat with the help of a Singpho tribal chief in 1823.

Bruce had planned to start a nursery but died before he could do so.

Later his brother Charles set up the first tea plantation in the region.

The Assam government was very keen to honour the descendants of the Bruce brothers by inviting them to the tea festival.

For more than a month the Indian embassy in London tried to locate the descendants but in vain.

"A lot of people have claimed they introduced tea to India. But the most credible claim is that of the Bruce brothers, which is why we wanted to invite their descendants and honour them," said Mr Rao.

The Bruce brothers are known to have died in India but no-one knows where their graves are.

Russian imports

India is the world's largest tea producer and gardens in Assam account for almost 55% of the country's production.

Prabhat Bezbaruah
It is not the militancy in the region that has been responsible for the decline of Assam tea
Prabhat Bezbaruah, planter

Apart from the sentimental reason of honouring the two Scots, authorities also hoped to use the festival to soothe worker unrest.

The shadow of militancy looms large over the tea gardens amid years of short-sighted policy-making by the Indian government.

But one of a well-known planter in the area, Prabhat Bezbaruah, told the BBC: "Contrary to popular perceptions, it is not the militancy in the region that has been responsible for the decline of Assam tea."

Mr Bezbaruah says the government has failed to procure a better deal for Assam tea in the international market at a time when emerging markets like Kenya are offering competitive prices.

Falling Russian imports of Assam tea is another key reason for the decline.

Mr Bezbaruah says a number of English and Scottish companies which owned several tea gardens in the region did sell their stakes and left Assam in the wake of the militancy.

The Indian authorities are understandably keen to revive an industry that has been the backbone of the state's economy and its largest foreign exchange earner.

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