Saturday, February 07, 2009

Tea-shops in India: Shrinking and Vanishing

The colours on the wall have faded but the arches still retain the same old grandeur and the teashop is impressive at first sight.

But that's half the tale. Customers are declining and the sale of tea has gone down over the years. And this is the same story at most of the tea-shops you go.

Tea is perhaps no longer a much-desired drink, especially for the upwardly mobile Indian youth.

It's cheap and probably not chic to drink tea, sitting on weak wooden benches or standing by the side of a kiosk, unless you are an unemployed youngster.

In the age of Barista and Cafe Coffee day, it's tough to run a tea-shop. In urban India, space is difficult to find and old 'chaai ka hotels' find it tough to resist the offers of huge money to sell the land, to those who come up with chic showrooms or shops selling cell phone accessories or property dealing offices in these premises.

I spoke to Major (no armyman) who used to earn enough to sustain a family of eight and even build his own house with the earning of his 'chaai ki dukaan' in the 70s and 80s. But the rate of chai hasn't gone up as fast as other things.

It costs Rs 3-5 in urban India, from Lucknow to Ludhiana, and it's tough to make more than Rs 100 a day for any ordinary chai-wala.

"After paying the electricity bill and the boys, I get Rs 80-120 per day as profit", says Ram Lubhawan, whose father had started the shop 45 years ago.

Six years back he sold half of the space and now has barely adequate space for keeping the goods. In his neighbourhood there was another teashop, who was once his busiess rival.

The person, Itwari (he must have been born on Sunday), sold his shop for Rs 35 lakh three years back. Still, Ram Lubhawan's business hasn't picked up. He has no plans to sell the shop but there is tension writ large on his face.

Selling tea is not much profitable. It's manifold more rewarding to sell gutka or pre-paid cell phone vouchers. Even if the chai-wala puts ginger and adds the 'tea-masala' to the 'chaai', nobody is willing to pay more than Rs 5.

Tea-culture dying!

For several years I have been watching this trend of shrinking teashops. In old days, there used to be 'chaai ka hotels' or 'chai-khanas' where one could ensconce oneself in any corner on the benches and spend time with friends in cosy comforts.

Now, it's tough to find shops where you have place to sit, let alone sprawl. Shops have been replaced by kiosks. Is the tea culture dying? Has it become just the drink for the class that does physical hard work--like masons, white washers, drivers, mechanics, handcart pullers, labourers & hawkers, and need tea to keep them refreshed?

Or the chai-walas need to reinvent themselves?

Past posts on Tea [On this blog]
1. Morning tea cups in Hyderabad
2. Huzoor Chai Pijiye: Lucknow's Kashmiri tea