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Darjeeling tea sector reels under existential crisis as Gorkhaland protests make cuppa dearer, rarer

Darjeeling: Caught in the political quagmire, questions are now being raised about the viability of the world famous Darjeeling tea industry. Even if the indefinite shutdown that hit the 50-day mark on Thursday in the Darjeeling Hills on North Bengal is lifted, doubts have been expressed regarding the revival of the industry.

 Darjeeling tea sector reels under existential crisis as Gorkhaland protests make cuppa dearer, rarer

Representational image. PTI

Darjeeling is in the grip of a Gorkhaland agitation since June this year. An indefinite bandh has been clamped since 15 June. Even the 87 tea gardens producing the world famous Darjeeling tea have been included in the indefinite shutdown. This is for the first time that the Darjeeling tea industry has been brought under the purview of an indefinite shutdown set to cross the two-month mark.

"With the production having been stopped there is a scarcity of Darjeeling tea in the market. Before the industry closed down on 8 June, the gardens had managed to produce only 30 percent of the normal annual production," said Sandeep Mukherjee, principal advisor, Darjeeling Tea Association.

Last year the production of Darjeeling was 8.45 million kg. Darjeeling tea has four harvest seasons or flushes -- first, second, monsoon and autumn. The first flush is harvested from mid-February till April end while the second flush is from mid-May till end June. The first and the second flush, mainly exported, usually, sustain a Darjeeling tea estate throughout the year.

"The tea gardens did not get the opportunity to produce the premium second flush teas. The second flush was totally destroyed," said Mukherjee.

The world market is reeling under a shortage of Darjeeling tea owing to the deficit in production. While the auction houses have exhausted their stocks, whatever little is left is being sold at a premium. Industry reports peg losses to a whopping Rs 250 crore which is rising by the day.

"Prices have doubled. The Darjeeling tea which was earlier fetching Rs 500 per kg is now being sold for Rs 1,000 a kg. Similarly, the upper grade whole leaf Darjeeling tea which was being sold at last year Rs 1,000 per kg is now commanding a price of Rs 2,000 per kg. Even the average price of broken variety has shot up from Rs 500 per kg to Rs 800," said Anshuman Kanoria, chairman, Calcutta Tea Traders Association.

"Owing to the shutdown the Darjeeling tea industry is losing out on valuable export orders. The deficit is being filled up by the buyers with cheaper teas from Nepal, China and Sri Lanka. The brand and goodwill of Darjeeling that took years to create are fast eroding," said Mukherjee.

Incidentally, Darjeeling tea is the first Indian product to be protected under the Geographical Indication. GI is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. The product cannot be replicated outside the GI area. As per the GI, tea produced in the 87 tea gardens in the Darjeeling Hills can be labelled and sold as Darjeeling Tea.

"GI indicator is very important and that the Darjeeling Tea is legally protected in 50 countries including the European Union further adds value to Darjeeling. We are losing out on all these factors too," said Mukherjee.

The tea producers are reeling under a financial crunch. Even if the shutdown is withdrawn the question of the future viability of the industry continues to haunt each and every tea estate. The Darjeeling tea industry engages 60,000 permanent workers and 40,000 seasonal workers. Around four lakh people reside in the 87-odd plantations under the Darjeeling tea industry. There is 17,500 hectare of land under tea cultivation in Darjeeling.

With two months of closure resulting in a halt of pruning and weeding activities in the estates, the tea bushes have grown to trees. "Following the lifting of the shutdown, there will be numerous problems that the management will have to face. It will take more than a month for pruning and weeding. With plucking activities having stopped the flushing table has gone haywire. Then there will a deficit of manpower. Then we have the festive season (Dusshera and Diwali) in September and October. By November the production will come to a halt owing to winters. Taking all these factors into consideration we don’t even hope to have 10 percent production this year, let along the quality," said Ashok Lohia, chairman, Chamong Group. The group has 13 gardens in Darjeeling.

Once the gardens open, the management will have to provide salaries, wages, ration along with other fringe benefits to the workers thus challenging the financial viability of an industry that has been closed down for the past two months. There is an exodus of workers who have migrated to greener pastures in search of jobs further multiplying problems.

"The present problem is political in nature and nothing relating to the industry. However, the industry will have to bear the long standing consequences which even poses serious questions regarding the future of the cuppa which could even face extinction," said Lohia.

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Updated Date: Aug 05, 2017 16:27:52 IST