Q&A: Pioneering Tea Leader Nayantara Palchoudhuri Shares Thoughts on Industry Issues

The word trailblazer is often used to describe those who have charted a singular path in life, and it could not be more aptly used than in describing the life and work of tea leader and public official, Nayantara Palchoudhuri, a director of Washabarie Tea Co. Ltd.

Palchoudhuri just finished a stint as the first female chairperson of the Indian Tea Association (founded in 1818), and she remains the first female chairperson of the important Tea Research Association, which is the Indian tea industry’s main scientific research arm.

Recently, Palchoudhuri was voted the first woman chairperson of the Asian Tea Alliance, in which China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries collaborate to further the interests of the region’s tea industry on a global scale.

Nayantara Palchoudhuri
Nayantara Palchoudhuri (Photo: Courtesy of Nayantara Palchoudhuri)

Her life includes so many firsts that the list is too long to cover. In addition to the above accomplishments, she was the first woman president of the Indo-British Scholars Association, the first female chairperson of the Bengal National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BNCCI) after 120 years, and remains a founding member of Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India. She’s also the honorary consul general for the east region of the Embassy of Norway.

Becoming a Fourth-Generation Tea Planter, an Industry Leader

Born into a tea family, Palchoudhuri studied economics at Jadavpur University in Calcutta and furthered her education with post-graduate degrees from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the SOAS University of London, England. Upon her return, she was drawn into the family tea business and became a fourth-generation tea planter.

Despite being highly educated and having grown up around tea her entire life, Palchoudhuri took courses in tea cultivation and processing before joining the family business, where she has notably championed the rights of tea workers.

Her family owns Mohurgong and Gulma Tea Estates under Washabarie Tea Co.Pvt. Ltd., where she is one of two directors.

World Tea News recently spoke with the inspiring Palchoudhuri, to discuss her many accomplishments, some of her official duties and business responsibilities, and her thoughts on various tea industry topics.

Question: How do you manage with so many responsibilities? Don’t you feel burnt out sometimes?

Answer: Actually, I’m one of these people who thrives on activity, and it’s the absence of it that actually gets me down. So, the busier my day is, the happier I am. Also, being involved in so many different types of activities gives me the opportunity to learn so much and apply it across my portfolio of responsibilities, so I find it very helpful to stay busy.

Question: Was it inevitable that despite your higher studies in economics – both in India and in the UK – that you would end up in the tea business?

Answer: Well, I studied these subjects with tea in mind. You see, being a fourth generation planter, I’ve lived and breathed tea my whole life. It only seemed natural when I came back to India to go into the business – but I made sure I got the official training at the (Indian) Institute of Plantation Management. That was required for me to make a knowledgeable contribution to the business, once joining. I was also mentored by my seniors in the industry, and learned tremendously from them.

Question: Having been say the first female chairperson of the Indian Tea Association, what contributions have you made during your tenure?

Answer: Well, as you might be aware, around 60 percent of the workforce in the tea industry is of my same gender, and it helped immensely for them to feel that they were being represented to see a woman at the top. So, I took the opportunity to make visits to tea gardens and interact with the women on the ground. I’d already done so to some extent at our tea plantations but really got the opportunity to listen and understand what their problems are and what policies and programs could be devised an implemented to address their needs.

Question: Did anything concrete come out of this?

Answer: Yes, indeed. I found that health, nutrition and wellbeing were critical elements to the lives of these women. So, we established a sustainability cell with women and children, where we engage external stakeholders like NGOs [non government organizations] and charities to concentrate on women’s health and other issues. Here awareness is key: We’ve concentrated on menstrual and pre- and postnatal care, iron deficiency – on finding out that most of these women were iron deficient – and their total well-being. We established nutrition shops, where we have collaborated with WHO [World Health Organization], and provide cereals fortified with Vitamin A and other minerals. Most gardens have crèches for children and primary schools, so literacy is not an issue. We are also working on the skill development of adolescents. We have mothers clubs, which focus on prenatal and post-natal care and adolescent Girls clubs that emphasize athletics, song, dance and activities to keep the youth busy, so they stay away from drugs.

Question: With the U.N.’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women coming up this month [Nov. 25), and with the revelations of sexual abuse in Kenya coming to light, have you found similar difficulties in Indian tea plantations, and if so, how have you coped?

Answer: On U.N. side, we felicitate them on International Women’s Day. India doesn’t have the same problems as Africa in terms of sexual exploitation of workers. Most of these workers are married and the working community has strong union representation, and if any manager tries anything inappropriate with a worker, they are likely to soon have a revolt on their hands with husbands leading the charge. Workers have strong rights frameworks in place in India as opposed to Africa, and so they are in a much better position. Rather, it’s management that has to deal with the workers with sensitivity and care, else they may find their own safety being compromised.

However, during COVID-19 when the gardens were in lockdown, one of the disturbing trends we noticed was the uptick in human trafficking, missing girls, trading in child organs – various kinds of horrific activities driven by lack of means. As you might know, the tea district in North Bengal borders three countries, so movement of girls for the purpose of trafficking can be a very accessible activity.

When we noticed this, we involved international organizations to stem the tide of trafficking, and we brought UNICEF in to ensure to protect underaged girls. With the re-opening of the gardens, this trend has decreased but the occurrence during the lockdown was eye-opening and we’re keeping vigilance on this most distressing problem, and have anti-trafficking programs in partnership with external stakeholders now firmly in place.

Nayantara Palchoudhuri
Nayantara Palchoudhuri (Photo: Courtesy of Nayantara Palchoudhuri)

Question: What is the key challenge that you’re facing as the leader of the Asian Tea Alliance?

Answer: Well, I’d have to say climate change because it’s an issue that every country now is having to contend with – problems like temperatures rising, drought and wildfires are more frequent, rainfall patterns have shifted. Although climate change affects each region differently, it influences tea yields across the board by altering precipitation levels, increasing temperatures, shifting the timing of seasons, and creating more inviting environments of insects and other pests.

So, some the issues we address, looking towards ensuring [tea’s] long-term sustainability, are strategies like: rain water harvesting; efficient use of inputs; adoption of proper agro-techniques for management of drought circumstances, including crop diversification; crop improvement [stress tolerant varieties]; integrated farming methods; and development of high-quality organic manure for maximizing carbon sequestration potential of tea ecosystems and its impact on production and tea quality. Also, we discuss alternative methods of grass rehabilitation and improving soil health and using zero emission fuels and other sources of energy to reduce the carbon footprint of the plantations in Asia.

In addition, compliance with pesticide norms has been a big challenge for certain segments of the Asian tea industry, and this is an area in which different countries can learn from each other’s experiences.

Question: In your capacity as chair of the Tea Research Association, my understanding is that you’ve commissioned a study to measure the overall carbon footprint of the industry in India. Is that correct, and if so, what do you hope to achieve with it?

Answer: Yes. This will hopefully be a landmark study because, once we’ve been able to put in quantitative terms our carbon footprint, we can work towards the goal of net-zero emissions, and hopefully enable gardens to use carbon offsets in the global system, as a means by which they can boost their revenues. There are sound economic arguments to combating climate change and operating in a more environmentally sustainable way.

Even without the study, we know that compared to other industries, tea is a low-carbon industry, so there is much scope for earning carbon credits.

That said, since there was no systematic study on the subject, TRA [Tea Research Association] has taken up a collaborative study on life cycle assessment of tea plantations and the factories to scientifically find out the carbon footprint of the industry.

Question: What’s the role of the Tea Board of India in all this?

Answer: I’m glad you asked. We proposed to the Tea Board of India to form a committee to discuss and formulate policies on achieving the net zero goal for the tea industry. Tea Board immediately accepted the proposal and formed the panel in July, by drawing people from all segments of the industry.

Question: In your various capacities as chair of different organizations, how do you think the global tea industry can be boosted?

Answer: I think we need to get more young people consuming tea. One of the ways of doing this is by emphasizing the health benefits of tea, the presence of antioxidants, the impact on lowering of cancer and heart disease in populations, and as a weight-loss drink – which I think, if such properties can be properly marketed, would result in a significant uptick in tea consumption.

Also, the harm of sugary beverages needs to be communicated. Sugar in the quantities contained in colas and other soft drinks is almost poisonous in the long-term effect it has on people’s bodies. So, promoting the drinking and appreciation of tea without the introduction of any additives like sugar, and promoting it as a quality beverage, creating quality consciousness in the consumer will be key to marketing tea if the right association can be made.

Question: You’ve mentioned that tea tourism is good for the industry. Is this something you’re trying at your gardens?

Answer: Our family gardens are located in the plains, so it can get quite hot, and may not be suitable for tea tourism. However, I am thinking of establishing a tea museum, because I really feel that tea education is important in promoting our industry. So, articles like this one, and publications like the one you are writing for [World Tea News] are important to the industry in creating awareness which otherwise wouldn’t be there.

Question: Well, thank you for your time. Was a pleasure speaking to you today.

Answer: A pleasure from my side as well.

SB Veda is the pen name for Sujoy Bhattacharyya, who is a British/Canadian writer based in Kolkata. Born in London and raised in the U.K. and Canada, the award-winning writer and editor’s work has also been published in The Independent, The Guardian, the Ottawa Citizen, The Global Calcuttan and Pragati International. He has a longstanding connection to Darjeeling, where he tries to visit once a year, and he’s currently working on a book about a Darjeeling tea garden, which is expected release soon.

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