Just when curtains all over the world were coming down upon yet another eventful year, elsewhere in the hubbub of India’s beautiful North East, a once-loud and proud wooden hammer ,too, was quietly coming down upon its wooden bidding board for the last round. Of manual tea auction. Like the year, the hammer’s reign had come to an end. Because the E-giant had arrived in the Northeastern tea auctioning scene too – to make instant and less ceremonious, like dip-dip and sip tea bags, the grand and boisterous process of buying and selling tea in the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre.

The porch at the entrance to the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre lovingly holds a host of radiantly blooming bougainvillea on its canopy, as if in significance to the abundance of greenery in the tea gardens—the gardens which were the reason behind the birth of the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre, lovingly and in short, referred to as the GTAC. It must have seen days of great splendour in its youth, but now it was bidding adieu to all its past glory. Because laptops, touch pads and the all pervading internet have taken over the hammer and its board. Because Manual Tea Auction in the GTAC , which involved the physical gathering of a large number of tea sellers, brokers and buyers in the auditorium of the GTAC, has been put to rest. For E-Auction has taken over. And the hammer shall strike no more.

But the first time it did, it created history.

And that was in 1970, September 25. The place, however, was not the present building of the GTAC. It was the auction hall at the Stadium Guest House. The environment in the crowded hall was one of immense festivity and euphoria. Producers, buyers and sellers had arrived even from Calcutta (now Kolkata), not to buy or sell ,but to observe the historic event of the first stroke of the bidding hammer, that would create a landmark in the most famed realm of Assam—tea. Tea planters, government dignitaries, celebrities and important personalities had all gathered for that inaugural tea auction. And even people not in any way associated with tea other than sipping the rejuvenating brew, came to be part of this defining moment. Newly registered buyers, who had never so far participated in a tea auction ,clearly outnumbered buyers from other auction centres. It was an event of such a magnitude that every person present there became a proud part of tea and trade history in the eastern zone of India. The officially constituted members of the Guwahati Tea Auction Committee were seeing into the last-minute details.

As the anticipated moment came closer, pulses raced and adrenaline rushed. Then, at 11am, late KP Tripathy, the then Finance Minister of India, addressed the gathering. After him, the founder Chairperson of the GTAC, late Dharmananda Das, IAS, delivered a brief talk, and requested late Radha Govinda Baruah to inaugurate the auctioning of the first lot of tea.

So, the much anticipated moment had at last dawned!

Thus, amidst great applause, late RG Baruah struck down the hammer, resplendent in its earthy, wooden grandeur, upon the equally resplendent wooden board to the bid of Rs42.50 per kg. The bid was made by late Jaffar Ali of Diamond Tea Company. Ali was a trader from the town of Jorhat in Upper Assam. Almost four decades ago, that was an impressive price!

However, before that first milestone hammer struck, there was a lot of groundwork to be done, infrastructure to be prepared. And the Guwahati Tea Auction Committee held its first meeting to plan the launch and establishment of that important and massive event on August 29, 1970 at Shillong, because Shillong was then the capital of Assam. The meeting was chaired by late Dharmananda Das, and in that meeting, a draft of the GTAC rules was approved with a few amendments, and the date of the inaugural sale was finally decided as September 25, 1970.

Now, the next aspect that required serious consideration was the storage of the huge consignment of tea which would arrive for the sale. And with less than a month at hand, it wasn’t at all possible to construct a warehouse with the required norms for such a challenging purpose. But because people really wished tea auction to start in Assam, enthusiastic and skilled persons like Anil Sharma came forward to offer their expertise. Sharma, armed with experience he gained from working with a construction company of international repute, took upon himself the daunting task of converting the spacious sheds of the Assam Small Industrial Development Corporation (ASIDC) into a tea warehouse. Just because there was a will, there was a way. And there happened a tea warehouse, too. And on time! So, when the first truckload of tea arrived from Bahoni tea estate in Jorhat district for the first ever sale in Assam, the warehouse was all set to receive it.

And that’s how, phase by phase, history was created.

And then, construction of the present GTAC building commenced in 1975. After its completion, though the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre moved in to its present premises from the Stadium Guest House, in 1985 the GTAC occupied only that part of the building which was until now the DUST auction hall. The rest of the building housed the offices of the Assam Tea Corporation Limited (ATCL), Assam State Electric Development Corporation, Chief Vigilance Commissioner of Assam, and the Relief and Rehabilitation Department of Assam (formed exclusively for facilitating aid after the infamous massacre in Morigaon’s Nellie in 1983).

The hammer struck down for the first time in this new GTAC building, situated conveniently on the Shillong-Guwahati road, right next door to the State administrative headquarters at Dispur, on April 1985 with sale number 14. And, another chapter in Assam’s tea history was etched. The GTAC is the largest CTC tea auction market, and the second largest overall, the first being the Colombo Tea Auction Centre in Sri Lanka. It offered 20,000 sq feet of auctioning area, 460 seated fully air conditioned LEAF auction hall, 110 seated fully air conditioned DUST auction hall and recreational club facilities for members. A much eventful passage of time and many chairmen and secretaries later, however, the GTAC made a lease agreement in 1990 for the present building with the Government of Assam for twenty years. And now, under the Secretary-ship of Jayanta Kakoty, this period of twenty years expires on March 31, 2010. The process of renewal of the lease is underway.

So, since that first hammer-strike, between many a sip of the aromatic brew much tea has been tasted, their flavour categorised and their price estimated. Much bidding had since been hammered, the hammer and its board losing their rich mahogany colour in the process, and paling away in those parts where hammer hit board. And as much tea had since been sold, by manual bidding.

And finally, on December 30, 2010, eight brokers (ATB, Parcon, PTM, JT, ETB, CTBL, TBG and ABL) once again, sat for another historic strike of that same wooden hammer, now exhausted from hitting and bidding over the years. But this time, the strike was a quiet one. It almost wished to go away unnoticed, only that ways of the universe never allow historic events to slip by thus. And so the hammer struck, for one last manual sale. Then on it would go away to quietly bask in its past glory, for the tea hammer shall hard-hit and bid no more.

(Acknowledgement to: Rajdeep Basumatari , Assam Tea Brokers).

Rashmi Narzary