Prized Darjeeling First Flush Held Hostage

DARJEELING, West Bengal, India

“The situation in Darjeeling is a mess,” observed Devan Shah, CEO of International Tea Importers (ITI) on his return from the troubled region. A partial embargo by workers of shipments from 20 Indian Tea Association (ITA) gardens continues.

On Wednesday workers lifted an embargo at 63 Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) gardens that had escalated to the point where “workers show up to work, tea is manufactured but not shipped. There is a big backlog of teas and the clock is ticking for these teas,” says Shah.

The Tea Association of Canada lamented the fact “there has been no headway to break the deadlock” over worker demands for a wage increase. Riley Richman, the association’s executive communications, notified members that the Consultative Committee of Plantation Association (CCPA) (primarily ITA and DTA) “is trying hard to find a solution on the issue.”

The Indian Tea Association (ITA) represents a majority of the region’s 87 gardens. The Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) represents the remainder. The Morcha-controlled Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union broke off negotiations Wednesday. The union is seeking an increase from Rs57 ($1.27)to Rs154($3.44)a day. The current wage agreement, negotiated in 2008, expires Thursday.

The dispatch of samples was stopped when talks ended between workers and the CCPA.

“Tea garden workers have demanded a 100 percent raise in their daily wages,” says Shah who remains hopeful there may be a resolution by the end of this week… “but then they said the same thing last week and the week before that.”

Timing is critical as the Darjeeling First Flush is prized by many as the champagne of tea. First flush teas bring up to Rs4500 ($100) per kilogram. The longer they sit the less they are valued.

“First flush teas have always been the favorites of the Germans and they are the ones who pay the hefty price,” Shah explains. “There were some first flush teas from North Tukwar, Namring, Loingview and Rohini tea estates that made it out of Darjeeling before the situation started. The Easter holiday in Europe (April 24) is when first flush teas are given as gifts. If the situation does not resolve then the first flush sale of Darjeeling will be affected. “

“This strike by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) is in support of the political movement to further divide the state of West Bengal in order to create the state of Gorkhaland,” says Kunall D. Patel, Director of Sales and Strategy at Davidson's Organic Teas in Reno, Nev. “Not only has this hampered the lucrative and highly sought after Darjeeling first flush tea market, but also disrupted life in Darjeeling and its famed tea industry.”

The Darjeeling Times reports protesters in the streets. Tourists are avoiding the hill country and some tour vehicles have been intercepted by authorities concerned about the upcoming elections.

“This is not unexpected as the movement for a separate Gorkha state dates back to the 1980's,” says Patel. “We only hope that this disruption is resolved soon, so Davidson’s can continue to share the joy and pleasure of enjoying Darjeeling’s finest first flush, second flush and autumnal teas with their customers,” says Patel. It is fortuitous Davidson’s owns its Darjeeling gardens “insuring a continuous supply of teas without any major disruption every time there is a “bandh” (the Hindi word means “closed” and describes a form of protest used by political activists in India and Nepal).

Shah says after Darjeeling’s planters split into two groups “unity does not exist anymore.” The current government does not want to involve itself in this fight to divide the West Bengal State for political reasons.

“We will just have to wait and watch,” he says, “We are living in interesting and historically important times.”

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Dan Bolton

About Dan Bolton

Dan Bolton edits STiR Tea & Coffee Industry International. He is the former editor and publisher of Tea Magazine and former editor of World Tea News. Dan was editor-in-chief of Specialty Coffee Retailer for several years. He is a beverage retail consultant and frequent speaker at industry seminars and conferences. His work has appeared in many beverage publications. He worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years prior to his career in magazines. He is the founder of Natural Food magazine and has led six publishing ventures since 1995. He resides in Winnipeg, Canada.

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