Gorkhaland demand: How the ongoing GJM agitation is killing Darjeeling's flourishing tea industry

The indefinite shutdown imposed by Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) supporters in Darjeeling has become a nightmare for the people living in the town. One of the worst aspects of the bandh, however, is a restriction on the free flow of trade and the commodity suffering the most is one that has bestowed a Kohinoor-like status upon India: the Darjeeling Tea.

Work has come to a grinding halt at an estimated 87 tea gardens in the strife-torn hills, with an initial loss calculated at a whopping Rs 340 crore.

Workers at tea gardens are not seen carrying their backpack cane carriers to pick the summer's second flush – the second round of plucking of tea leaves – for processing and are instead seen carrying posters and placards.

They are not ready to listen to the pleas of the plantation owners. And the fact that the second flush crop, harvested before the monsoon rains, accounts for one-fourth of Darjeeling's 10 million kilo production and 40 percent of its revenue seems to have no effect on them.

They do not care. Tea, at least for now, is not important.

File image of protesting GJM workers. Image procured by author

File image of protesting GJM workers. Image procured by author

This is bad news. Darjeeling's Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe or Oolong are among the most famous and expensive teas available across the world, especially in Europe. Interestingly, it was the British who introduced tea plantation in Darjeeling with stolen seeds from China. And the United Kingdom still remains one of the biggest markets for the 10-million kilograms of Darjeeling tea produced each year.

Darjeeling's terrain and climate, at an altitude of around 6,700ft, is perfect for growing superior quality Darjeeling leaf, which is often called 'the champagne of teas'.

"We are staking our lives for this fight, we could die fighting... what is tea in this battle?" asks Bindra Pradhan, a member of the core GJM committee.

GJM general secretary Roshan Giri said that the idea behind blocking Darjeeling’s finest produce was to create a "nationwide impact". He said his party will not allow the movement of tea from the gardens this time. The party had allowed tea gardens to operate during a string of bandhs and self-imposed curfews in August last year.

The turmoil is likely to continue indefinitely as West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress and its feisty chief minister Mamata Banerjee tries hard to ease what appears to be an insurmountable political crisis.

The ethnic Gurkhas want a separate political and administrative unit to be carved out from the Gurkha populated districts of West Bengal. Their supporters – men, women and children – have taken over the winding roads and hill habitations in the 3,150 sq km region, stopping traffic, closing shops and restaurants, and preventing all economic activity.

"They are actually killing their best product, work should have continued in the gardens," says Sandeep Mukherjee, principal adviser to the Darjeeling Tea Association.

Mukherjee said that the current "mess"  will severely impact Darjeeling's tea exports across the world. "Plucking of leaves have stopped for almost a fortnight. What is happening now is a steady undergrowth in bushes. And since the plucking is not happening, the crop will be vulnerable to pest attacks."

The state government is stuck in a peculiar situation. There are a little over 75,000 workers in the gardens who cannot be replaced with outsiders because all routes to Darjeeling are closed by GJM workers. Besides the workers, an estimated 200,000 people are dependent on the gardens. But GJM workers are not ready to relent. At some places, their supporters hold banners to stop vehicles, and in others, the roads have been blocked using riverbank stones. The entire population of 1.8 million is being asked to remain indoors.

The gardens have already lost 11 percent revenue and 40 percent of their exports due to the current unrest.

That is not all. If the strike continues, the coal supplies used in furnaces to turn the green leaves to black tea will not be available. Worse, the supply of rice to tea gardens has also stopped – tea pickers are partly paid in rice.

Darjeeling's loss could become Colombo's gain as many Sri Lankan companies routinely pick tea from Darjeeling to blend it with their local produce and market it as Darjeeling tea. The Lankan exporters, fear Indian tea experts, will increase their sales.

Abandoned tea plantations in Darjeeling. Image procured by author

Abandoned tea plantations in Darjeeling. Image procured by author

The crisis will severely impact exports to the rich and famous across the world - like the Japanese, Swedish and other royal families - and also to top departmental stores like Harrods in London. At a glittering dinner at the Royal Palace this March, the Swedish Royal family had included Darjeeling tea in the menu. The high-quality tea is also on the menu of the Japanese Royal family, which buys the product in bulk from planters in Darjeeling.

"You would be mistaken if you think the departmental stores will keep their shelves empty. They will pick up expensive tea from Sri Lanka and even Kenya to fill the shelves," says Shiraj Sen, a tea planter.

Sen says that on paper, the loss may not look that huge because Darjeeling accounts for only one percent of India's total tea produce of 1,233 million kilos, of which 230 million was exported.

"Darjeeling tea is classy because 70 percent of the product is organic, its leaves are known for its fragrance. Tea drinkers all over the world love Darjeeling tea but now the stocks will be threatened," he added.

Senior officials of the Kolkata-based Tea Board have called for an emergency meeting next week as tea companies look to deal with the crisis. "This has been going on for more than a month... the first time when GJM had raised the issue of Gorkhaland, they had exempted the tea gardens from the ambit of their strike. Now, they have included it, knowing very well what it means for them, and us, and the image of the country," says SS Bagaria, chairman of Darjeeling Tea Association.

He said stocks across the world will last for a month and a half and that "no one knows what’s going to happen thereafter".

The Guardian quoted Nick Gandon, director of the United Kingdom-based Reginald Ames tea merchants and brokers, who said that "the action in Darjeeling would inevitably disrupt the market and lead to a rise in the price of the tea."

Bagaria says that the current shutdown will, arguably, be the biggest blow to the tea brand ever since it hit the markets five decades ago. No one can doubt him.

Updated Date: Jul 03, 2017 17:54 PM

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