The industry began to upgrade its practices even before the NGO alleged Indian tea contained harmful pesticides.
In its recent report on the activities of Greenpeace, the controversial NGO, the Union home ministry said that it is trying to hurt the Indian tea industry by saying the leaves contain hazardous pesticides.
What had drawn the ministry's ire was the report called Trouble Brewing on Indian Tea Greenpeace had released in August which said that 34 pesticides were found in 46 samples of the dominant brands, while 59 per cent contained cocktails of more than 10 different pesticides, including one sample with residues of 20 different pesticides.
"We wanted to highlight the issue of high pesticide use in tea, which is an important cash crop for India, and the regulatory lapse regarding that," says Sidhharth Sreenivas, manager (food and agricultural campaign), Greenpeace India.
"We realised that this issue needs to be highlighted for the promotion of organic culture and collectivisation of small farmers in the tea industry,"
On behalf of the industry, the Tea Board quickly refuted the charges. "Having reviewed the findings of the Greenpeace study, we can confirm that all the samples tested by it comply with the Indian laws and regulations, designed to protect consumers," it said in a statement.
"Indian tea is well regarded the world over and is totally safe."
The home ministry also alleged that Greenpeace did not release the forensic analysis which, intelligence sources believe, was done at a private laboratory abroad.
"We wanted to get it tested in an Indian laboratory but the infrastructure of any of them was not suitable enough to get correct results," Sreenivas says.
According to him, the forensic results of the tests could not be shared with the ministry as there was non-disclosure agreement between the organisation and the laboratory.
"When we shared the report with the companies nobody criticised it. In, fact many of them were interested to start pesticide-free tea cultivation," he adds.
The report has set the alarm bells ringing - the industry has been on a war footing to adopt sustainable tea practices. Not without reason: the tea industry employs 3.5 million workers and earned $644 million from exports last year.
A month after the Greenpeace report, the Tea Board issued the second version of its plant protection code which is a comprehensive guideline for safe usage of plant protection formulations in tea plantations.
The recommendations comply with the safety standards stipulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.
Was the Greenpeace report a wake-up call for the Tea Board and the industry?
The chronology of events suggests otherwise. The Tea Board launched its trustea code in 2013 to evaluate the social, economic, agronomic and environmental performance of tea plantations in India - much before the Greenpeace report came out.
The code covers all aspects of tea production and manufacturing. Among the major financiers of trustea are Tata Global Beverages and Unilever.
"Till May 2015, trustea had already certified about 80 million kg of Indian tea with the support of internationally reputed implementation partners such as Solidaridad and Ethical Tea Partnership. This included 273 estates that have been assessed and 66 estates that have been certified," a Tata Global Beverages executive says.
That's a significant improvement over last year's 67 million kg. And by the end of 2015, that figure could be 200 million kg, suggests Rohinton Kurus Babaycon, local coordinator Tea India, consultant on assignment of IDH (a partner of trustea).
To put the figures in context, India produces around 1.2 billion kg of tea across 150,000 estates in North and South India, of which only 2,000 would be established estates - small growers account for the balance.
To that end, what trustea has achieved may seem small but the pace is picking up. By 2016-17, trustea certification could extend to 500 million kg. Babaycon, however, reiterates that the target would not compromise the credibility of the code.
Work in progress
Sustainable tea is not a recent catchword. Buyers abroad have always demanded it (India happens to be the fourth largest tea exporter in the world, shipping almost 200 million kg every year). Now, consumers in India are demanding it as well.
Makers of branded tea like Tata Global Beverages and Hindustan Unilever have to go the extra mile to ensure the quality standards of what they procure from other estates.
Thus, in August 2014, Unilever commissioned a research project with an international expert agency, CABI, to investigate the feasibility of growing tea in India through pesticide-free techniques. Based on the learning from an initial survey, field studies are likely to begin in commercial tea gardens in Assam.
"The expected outcome of the studies is a toolbox of best practices for ecological manufacture of tea in India," a Hindustan Unilever executive says.
"The results will be shared with the Tea Board and industry stakeholders and we will continue to work closely with them to raise the bar."
Unilever, Hindustan Unilever's parent, as a part of its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, has said that by 2020, all its agricultural raw materials, including tea, will be produced using sustainable crop practices.
From the producers' standpoint, a major plantation owner says, the organised sector has got its act together.
That's roughly 850-900 million kg of tea; the balance is accounted for by small growers where the land holding ranges between 2 hectares and 20 hectares. But the scenario for the small growers too is changing with support from the bigger players in the business.
Consider the case of Travancore Tea Farmers' Society. Kanan Devan Hills Plantation, in which Tata Global Beverages has a stake, helped it to bag the Rainforest Alliance and trustea certifications.
With 916 members, Travancore Tea Farmers' Society is the largest smallholder group in India to achieve both these certifications.
Travancore Tea Farmers' Society is one of the 1,260 small tea growers in Wayanad and Idukki regions of Kerala to get the Rainforest Alliance and trustea certifications with help from Kanan Devan.
"Though everyone was more or less aware of the concepts of sustainable agriculture even before the certifications were introduced, now, as a result of all the training programmes of Kanan Devi, members understand the consequences of irresponsible agriculture practices," says Travancore Tea Farmers' Society Secretary Thankachan.
"Now there is a wholehearted effort from all farmers to rectify the mistakes of the past so that there is better productivity in our farms."
With output of more than a billion kg, there are bound to be problems galore. Right now, it's all work in progress for the industry.
India’s Tea Economy
Size of the industry: 1.2 billion kg
Export: 200 million kg
No. of plantations: 1,50,000
Organised Plantations: 2,000