June 2001 | Ananth Koovappady

Coffee in India

The history of coffee in India dates back to the 17th century

No one knows how coffee really came to India. Legend has it that, back in the 17th century, Baba Budan, a pilgrim travelling to the holy places of Islam, brought back seven coffee seeds from Yemen. These seeds were planted in the hills of Chandragiri, situated in today’s Chikmagalur district of Karnataka.

Baba Budan, whose name adorns the hills where the first seeds were planted, is credited with transplanting the migrant bean from its distant native land to a foreign country, where it spawned a flourishing enterprise that has provided the means of livelihood to several farmers centuries later.

For more than a century after its introduction, coffee was rated low in India, restricted in cultivation and consumption to the Malnad farmers who grew the crop for subsistence and personal consumption. History credits the burst of coffee beyond the hills of Chandragiri to a Britisher.

The famed trading company, Parry and Company, operating out of the erstwhile Madras State, had an enterprising manager by the name of JH Jolly. It was he who petitioned the Mysore kingdom for a lease of 40 acres of agricultural land to cultivate and export the crop. The petitioner was duly obliged and it proved to be the turning point for coffee in India.

Early on during his Indian sojourn, Jolly realised the commercial potential of coffee as the bean’s use spread from Arabia to Asia Minor to Europe in the span of a few centuries. Despite the rabid opposition to coffee in some countries (it was termed as Satan’s drink in some places), it slowly gained popularity and came to be consumed in increasing quantities across the world.

Typical of the colonial traders of his day, Jolly seized the opportunity and took the lease of the 40 acres of land from the Mysore kingdom to rewrite the history of coffee cultivation in India.

The commercial exploitation of the drink made more and more enterprising and pioneering planters take to the cultivation of coffee. Over the years small holdings coalesced into larger ones that created bigger coffee estates, almost all of them situated in the Coorg district of Karnataka.

Given that coffee was a variable berry crop by nature and that its markets were volatile, only the courageous and resourceful survived to reap the benefits of the continuing growth of coffee as a crop in India. As the coffee landscape changed, dominated, of course, by the British, the planter community saw the emergence of a host of related services that straddled the entire spectrum of activities in the industry.

These included coastal agents who arranged services leading up to the shipment of coffee; managing agents who set up coffee-curing works; transport agents who ensured the transportation of the bean as a bulk commodity and guaranteed its safety en-route; and agents who organised the manpower for this labour-intensive industry.

The industry was cruising along without many problems till 1930, when the winds of the global economic depression derailed it. For this first time an industry which had always forged ahead on its own approached the government for succour. This led to the setting up of the Coffee Cess Committee, which funded activities to promote coffee consumption in the country. The body, which later metamorphosed into the Coffee Board of India, was set up in 1936 and was to alter India’s coffee landscape for many decades.

The Coffee Board, with plenty of assistance from Ivor Bull, a general manager of a British plantation Consolidated Coffee, steered the fortunes of the coffee industry through its most trying times. With the world war cutting off all export routes for Indian coffee, the Coffee Board transformed itself into a marketing outfit. Planters would sell their produce to the Board, which took on the responsibility of marketing it.

Little did the planters realise that this temporary arrangement of selling their produce to the Coffee Board would be institutionalised by the government in 1952, when the Coffee Amendment Bill passed by Parliament made it mandatory for all planters to compulsorily sell their produce to the Board.

This monopolistic state of affairs continued for till the early 1960s, when the winds of liberalisation, aided by a lot of effort from Tata Coffee, prised open the doors of the Coffee Board and a lot of controls were loosened. This new chapter in the industry’s story has breathed new life into many plantations, allowing larger outfits like Tata Coffee to dream big and make their mark through brands in the global coffee market.