By Gaurav Borthakur
Bimala Prasad Chaliha, the third Chief Minister of Assam was a tea planter himself & quite aware of the obstacles of the Assamese planters who were at the fringe of the industry. It was more than a century when Assam tea got its worldwide recognition & yet most of the controlling power of Assam's tea industry remained in Calcutta. Efforts were made by Chaliha to line up an idea for a tea auction center in Assam. Inspite of producing more than 50% of country's tea, planters of Assam had to depend on the nexus of buyers, sellers, brokers, bankers & tea associations in Calcutta. At times, it became difficult for the Assamese planters to approach an agency for selling tea at a fair price in Calcutta. Another auction center in Guwahati meant bringing down commercial activities in the Calcutta tea circuit & loss of revenue for the West Bengal Government. Therefore, the very idea of setting up a tea auction center in Guwahati was indeed a revolutionary one. In the year 1961, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the Finance Minister of Assam, constituted a committee to make an assessment for a tea auction center in Assam. Rana K.D.M. Sinha, the Secretary at the Finance Department at the Government of Assam was asked to submit a report. The Chinese aggression took place in the year after & the said report couldn't be submitted & the task came to a standstill for a few years. Finally, in the year 1968, backed by the Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha, a new committee was formed by the then Finance Minister K. P. S. Tripathi to evaluate the possibilities of setting up a tea auction center in Guwahati. The committee came up with a positive report, however, it also mentioned that the buyers and brokers of Calcutta would hardly turn up for this endeavour. Hemendra Prasad Barooah, who was involved in the process from very beginning, had a lot of business interest in Calcutta & his main office was situated there. In the year 1970, he was summoned by Chaliha to take part in the move by Assam Govt. Hemen Barooah readily agreed but requested Chaliha to keep it extremely confidential as news of his involvement in this initiative might jeopardize his business by the strong Calcutta tea lobby. He submitted a report to the Chief Minister without signing on it for the fear of becoming a victim of the Calcutta lobby. In his report, he also suggested that idle flats of the Inland Water Transport department in the Brahmaputra river ghats could be used as tea warehouses on a temporary basis as the construction of a warehouse would be an unnecessary investment during that time. Thus, the year 1970 marked the actual kick-off.
On a pleasant March afternoon that year, Hemen Barooah received a note at his residence " Villa Club Road" from Denys Wild, the Superintendent of the Jorehaut Tea Company asking him to meet Wild at the Burra Bungalow of Cinnamara tea estate. Hemen Barooah met him the next day & to his utter surprise, had come to know that John Brock, Director of Brooke Bond, the biggest tea buying company in the world wanted to meet him urgently. Hemen Barooah preponed his trip to Calcutta and landed at Brooke house on Shakespeare Sarani after three days. John Brock expressed his delight over the efforts of the Assam Government in setting up a tea auction center in Guwahati. He told Barooah that he was thoroughly distressed at the increasing labour strikes & communism that engulfed the city of Calcutta & they would extend their full cooperation if a tea auction center comes up in Guwahati. This was an eye-opener indeed & Hemen Barooah immediately rushed to Guwahati to meet the ailing Chaliha with this great news. A cabinet meeting was conducted hurriedly on the same day under the chairmanship of the Chief Minister & Dharmananda Das, the efficient IAS officer was made the in-charge of the initiative.
The news of Assam Govt's initiative to start a tea auction center in Guwahati opened eyebrows in Calcutta and agency houses along with tea buyers, brokers were asked not to send a single kilo of tea to the new tea auction center. The matter got worsened and strong Calcutta tea lobby started adopting coercive means to keep everyone away from the tea auction in Guwahati. Agencies in Kolkata started received threats. Broking agency and Warehouse being the indispensable contributor for a tea auction center, Hemen Barooah emphasized to start a local broking agency in Assam. He already had a broker farm in Calcutta, yet abiding by the situation, he started a new broking farm called Assam Tea Brokers Pvt. Ltd, the first of its kind from Assam, on 24th April, 1970 without expressing his association with this setup. Govindalal Baruah, an experienced man in tea broking was made the in-charge and Radha Govinda Baruah, the media baron was made the Chairman of the new company. Radha Govinda Barooah had to be persuaded by Hemen Barooah as he usually did not join the Board of any company. The Assam Tribune, owned by R G Baruah, on the other hand was successfully campaigning for the cause. Jadav Prasad Chaliha, another tea veteran worked on a warehouse and soon came up with one tea warehouse in Guwahati. Thus, the two main components of a tea auction center were completed.
The feasibility of auction at the Guwahati tea auction centre was still uncertain and this time, Hemen Barooah started receiving death threats from the Calcutta lobby inspite of his all-round efforts to hide his name in the initiative. Dharmananda Das advised him to go away and Hemen Barooah flew off to London for 3 weeks. Before that, he hold a discussion with his loyal Officer and Manager of his Haroocharai tea estate, Pradip Dutta for arranging tea from Haroocharai for the sale at the Guwahati tea auction center. He also asked Dutta to find out someone from Jorhat itself to buy the tea to be auctioned through the Guwahati tea auction center. After some futile discussions, Pradip Dutta could finally convince Jafar Ali, owner of "Diamond Tea", a small tea trading store situated at Gar Ali in Jorhat. On 11th August 1970, Assam Govt notified a committee for the inauguration of the Guwahati Tea Auction Center with Dharmananda Das as it's Chairman. On 25th September 1970, Radha Govinda Barooah, knocked the hammer at the function hall of the guesthouse in Nehru Stadium complex, Guwahati & Assam got its first tea auction centre nearly 147 years after the discovery of tea in Assam. On that day, only two broking farms took part in the actions, Hemen Barooah's own Assam Tea Brokers Pvt Ltd & Eastern Tea Brokers, another local broking farm owned by Jayanta Barooah, who left his lucrative job at A.W Figgis & Co Pvt. Ltd to start a career in tea. The 30 boxes of tea from BP line of Haroocharai tea estate in Jorhat district were sold at an inflated price of Rs 42.50 per kg & as decided earlier, Jafar Ali of Diamond Tea bought this at a total price of Rs 56,000 ( according to one source, Rs 52,000). The sum was donated to the Chief Minister's relief fund. Interestingly, Pradip Dutta had told Jafar Ali while convincing him towards the buyout that Jafar Ali's name would be remembered always alongside the Guwahati tea auction center and he must not miss this golden opportunity.
Today, Guwahati tea auction center stands as the second-largest CTC tea auction center in the world with its state of the art building. In the year 2019-2020, 204 million kgs of tea were sold through the Guwahati tea auction center and it fetched an average price of Rs 139.63 per kg. Last year, in order to boost tea consumption, GTAC Tea Lounge was inaugurated at the Guwahati tea auction center. Set up with a perfect tea ambiance, this tea lounge offers exotic blends & flavours of Assam tea from the best quality gardens.
P.S. - Haroocharai tea estate is flourishing even today though it gets its new owner recently, the flamboyant Madhupur Tea Company which took over the majority of the shares at Haroocharai TE in 2018.
Also Read: Farmers’ Position Then And Now