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AFTER a long delay following a series of negotiations among stakeholders, an important tea plantation project is likely to be launched in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa shortly.

The project—a public-private partnership with an outlay of Rs490 million and conceived by the federal government a few years back— has been devolved to the province under the 18th Constitutional Amendment.

The project was designed to bring around 70 per cent of 3,000 acres in KP and Fata under tea plantation with a capacity to produce around 23 tons of tea per annum. The forest departments in KP and Azad Kashmir had to lease out 1,000 acres each to three private companies for tea cultivation. These companies had to provide job, health care and education to local people in their respective areas.

But differences among stakeholders on some issues, reservations of the forest department and the devolution delayed the project.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is ideal for tea plantation. According to project director Ijaz Malik, the project has been devolved to the province and a sum of Rs25mn earmarked for it this year.

“In Azad Jammu and Kashmir the project is going on in full swing. In KP, however, some snags like leasing of land to private companies has delayed its launching. It is expected that the issue will be resolved soon as stake holders have agreed on the lease agreement. The land has been identified and will be handed over to companies after the signing of MoU between a private company and the KP forest department shortly. Things are expected to be sorted out fast as the province will directly deal with the companies,” he said.

The National Tea Research Institute (NTRI) in Mansehra through its tea research and advisory unit in Swat, had completed tea plantation over 268 acres before Taliban captured the area. Heavy shelling destroyed the plantation area.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal belt needs about 35million kg tea for its population of 35 million (around one kg per person per year) including Afghans living in the province and Fata.

According to the NTRI estimates, tea can be grown on around 64,000 hectares in Mansehra, Battagram, Swat and some other areas of KP apart from the tribal belt and Azad Kashmir.

Even if half of the potential area is brought under tea cultivation, it can produce around 80 million kg of tea enough to meet half of the country’s demand.

But, despite enormous opportunities, land under tea cultivation has been dismally low in KP and the country — less than 1000 acres — as the crop has remained ignored both by farmers and the government. There is no specific programme for tea cultivation in the provincial ADP.

The tea project was being looked after by the NTRI, a subsidiary of the federal government’s Pakistan Agricultural Research Centre, both retained by the centre even after devolution.

According to Husnain, an ex-worker of the NTRI,: “It is the absence of an intensive campaign by both the public and private sectors that had led to low tea acreage and low per acre yield — around 3,500kg per acre per year in NTRI fields but only 1,000-1,500kg at farm level,” he said.

“Moreover, the problems of irregular rains and delayed returns from the crop (tea starts production after six years while majority of farmers cannot wait that long as they need money for their daily needs) and lack of official support to lease out land for tea cultivation in the province, have hindered the expansion of the plantation,” added Husnain.

The NTRI trains farmers in nursery development, provides tea plants and guidance for cultivation and evolves technology packages for them. It also gives inputs to farmers and purchases their produce. It aims at self-sufficiency in tea. But due to shortage of personnel and absence of extension system, it has limited outreach to farmers.

The provincial agriculture department with its large staff, plentiful resources and outreach capacity could play active role in tea plantation that could help earn billions for the cash-strapped province and alleviate poverty in the militancy-hit areas in Malakand division and the tribal belt.

The NTRI has three tea research and advisory/marketing units at Swat and Battagram in KP and Abbaspur in AJK .

Tea can boost farm income 4-6 times and employ over three million people as labour force and improve their lives, saving billions of dollars by reducing tea imports.