The United Planters Association of Southern India is calling for increased import duties on plantation crops, tea in particular, to protect the country's small growers.

At a time when a national surplus has led to a crisis, vice-president of the planters association, E.K. Joseph said: "The situation needs to be viewed in the context of the danger posed with the removal of quantitative restrictions on imports by 1st April 2001, when plantation crops could be freely imported into the country."

"Protection under a tariff regime is a must for the domestic industry and the safeguard is additional tariffs," he added.

India, is the largest producer and consumer of tea, producing around 800m kg annually and as part of its commitment to the World Trade Organisation, it agreed this year to remove quantitative restrictions on imports of 714 items.

Most of India's small tea growers are based in Southern India and this region alone produces nearly 200m kg, and half is exported to give reasonable prices to growers.

But, a drop in domestic auction prices and imports from Sri Lanka under the Free Trade Agreement have hit the growers hard and under the agreement, tea imports from Sri Lanka attract a concessional duty of 7.5% up to 15m kg, subject to conditions.

Joseph said tea prices in the domestic auction had dropped to 48.11 rupees ($1.06) per kg in mid-July from 58.04 rupees ($1.28) at the same time in 1999.

Sarah Diston