By Azera Parveen Rahman
Gobin Hazarika is a one-man army. Not in a battlefield, but in a tea garden in Assam, whose owner as well as worker is the same man. And so popular is his handmade, organic tea that it has become a rage and is mostly exported to countries like Canada, Japan and Egypt, where it sells for as much as Rs.2,000 ($35) a kg.
His first batch of handmade, organic tea to be exported was in 2007 to Canada. What started as a 50-60 kg consignment rose to 150 kg in 2011 and this year he has an order from Canada alone for 300 kg organic tea.
There are demands from other countries like Japan and Egypt. It's also sold in the domestic market, and Hazarika makes it a point to visit auctions and trade fairs to further popularise his product.
Hazarika's annual production is 4,000 kg, 80 percent of which is exported. He wouldn't give out his annual earnings but said his green tea is sold for around Rs.2,000 per kilo and black tea at Rs. 1,600 per kilo in foreign shores, while in India it's sold at Rs. 1,200 and Rs.1,000 respectively. It is marketed as Madhupur tea, named after the village his garden lies.
Hazarika produces his tea in his mud hut, which serves as his "factory" beside his lush tea garden near Lakhmipur in lower Assam. It does seem rather odd in the face of today's latest technologies, of big machines in even bigger factories that seem to do all the hard work with mechanical ease.
What seems even more ancient are his tools for processing the tea - a bigger form of a mortar and pestle (called Dheki in Assamese) in wood, a large frying pan (called Kodai) and cane sieves.
"I make tea the traditional way, using tools that are available in every household in Assam. I use absolutely no pesticides in the garden and the end produce is plain and simple organic tea, either green or black orthodox," Hazarika, who is in his 40s said.
Every morning, his day begins by tending to the tea bushes in his two acre Meen Mohan Tea Estate - named after his parents - to check for pests and insects.
When the crop is ready for plucking, Hazarika takes his jute bag and goes about his work, collecting the magic potion - two leaves and a bud - that finally makes way to millions of homes, to become the cup that cheers.
"I do all the processing myself. After plucking, for the weathering process, I spread the leaves in the open, under the sun, so that they dry out. At times, I also leave them under a fan in my room. Thereafter, I pound the leaves in the Dheki," said Hazarika, dressed in a simple clothes and a pair of slippers.
"After pounding, I finally roast the tea in the Kodai over a log fire. In case of green tea, I first boil the leaves and then roast them. Frying it over the logs gives the tea a very distinctive, but delicate smoky flavour that the people love and which makes it so popular in the foreign market," he added.
Since it's organic, Hazarika does not use any pesticide on his tea bushes. Instead, he has planted trees like Neem among the bushes and sometimes burns tobacco leaves to ward off insects.
Humble and deeply rooted, Hazarika's journey began in 1995 when, disgusted by the demand for a bribe for a job in a nearby tea estate, he decided to start his own tea garden. While his knowledge about tea cultivation was limited, his will power was not.
He also took the aid of experts in nearby tea estates, like Harmutty, for advice and tea seeds.
As he sold his tea in the local market initially, Peggy Carswell of the World Community Development Education Society, from Canada, came looking for organic tea in Assam, as part of her Assam Tea Project.
"When she visited the agricultural university, she was directed to my estate. She was impressed by my work and that's how my tea was introduced in Canada," Hazarika said.
And the rest, as they say, is history.