Famed for its muscatel and ripe fruit aroma/taste the world over, Darjeeling tea (sometimes referred to as the “Champagne of Teas”) and its heritage in India is gasping for breath. And it would not be wrong to say that the Darjeeling tea industry is already in ICU (intensive care unit), as it has been bleeding too long without any cure.
The situation is extremely critical in Darjeeling – West Bengal, India – and the current situation of almost all Darjeeling gardens is alarming with no help coming from the government.
Desperation is leading to sell offs. Wages, along with prices of all key inputs – like coal, fuel and fertilizer – have continued to rise sharply resulting in increased in the cost of production. The industry has also experienced challenges posed by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, availability of workers, absenteeism, climate change, and increased food safety norms by the European Union – all of which have directly impacting quality, yield and crop. And to make matters worse, the free passage of teas from Nepal into India is eating into the demand of Darjeeling tea.
The financial stress of the Darjeeling tea industry has been acknowledged by the Indian government's Parliamentary Standing Committee of Commerce in their recent report, as well as the tea industry alike.
“The tea industry in Darjeeling has not yet recovered from the financial setback of the prolonged shutdown [strike] of 2017,” said Nayantara Palchoudhuri (pictured below), chairperson of the Indian Tea Association at the 139th annual general meeting of the association, held recently in Calcutta. “Production has been consistently declining due to reducing yields. Tea prices of Darjeeling in the last six years have grown at a CAGR of only 1.7 percent against an increasing cost of inputs at a CAGR between 10 to 12 percent. Higher transportation costs due to geographical disadvantages have compounded the problems further.”
Palchoudhuri said for revival, fiscal interventions by way of a special financial package for the industry needs to be considered without delay, so that the industry becomes sustainable and the livelihood of 55,000+ workers and their dependents becomes secured.
“Even though Darjeeling is a miniscule part of the Indian tea industry, it continues to be the flag bearer of the Indian tea industry, sustaining hundreds of thousands of people,” said Anshuman Kanoria, chairman of the Indian Tea Exporters Association. He owns Goomtee and Tindharia gardens in Darjeeling. “As India’s first Geographical Indications (GI) product, Darjeeling tea is a pride and heritage of India whose revival is essential before it's too late.”
Overall, the production of the 87 tea gardens of Darjeeling has declined from 10 million kgs about a decade ago to 6.5 million kgs by 2022. “Faced by low labor productivity and absenteeism, falling yields, rising costs, additional food safety demands and other issues, Darjeeling tea is on the brink of collapse,” Kanoria said.
Inside Nepal Tea Imports into India
Increased production by Darjeeling’s direct competitor, Nepal, and the free passage allowed to into India, is eating into the demand of Darjeeling tea.
Under the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Nepal tea has a free run into India.
“The Nepal side of the Himalayan mountains is growing teas on a bought leaf model with little or no adherence to traceability or labor laws,” explained says Kanoria. “Unlike the stringent requirements of the Plantations Labour Act, to which Indian tea estates comply, Nepal high grown tea factories source leaf from small farmers at low rates, with uncertain pesticide compliance and dump large parts of it into India for sale in different ways, often being passed off as Darjeeling.”
India’s Consumer Affairs Minister, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, said in the Parliament that the Tea Board of India has issued instructions to all the importers and the buyers of tea to ensure that the origin of imported tea is mentioned in all their sale invoices and not to pass off imported tea as tea of Indian origin. All the distributors and the blenders of tea were directed that the label should clearly indicate on the packaging that contents of the blended tea are imported, giving the source of origin of imported tea irrespective of whether the imported tea has been brought directly or indirectly.
‘India’s Greatest Export’
Sparsh Agarwal (pictured below) of Dorje Teas said the shutdown in 2017 allowed for the Nepal tea industry to sell their inferior quality teas as “Darjeeling” and, unfortunately, the government is not taking the necessary action to counter this, as of today.
Agarwal told World Tea News that Darjeeling tea can never lose its “sheen.” “It's India's greatest export, and its magic and romance is unparalleled,” he said. “The demand for Darjeeling Tea globally is continuously increasing.”
Currently there is close to 20 million kgs of “Darjeeling tea” being sold in the market globally, even though Darjeeling only produces seven million kg annually. “This shows how much people continue to love it,” noted Agarwal.
The tea auction system accounts for only a fraction of the total tea sold. “The issue is that overseas buyers have created an insidious nexus with local businessmen, tea traders and unscrupulous planters to sell fake Nepal Teas as 'Darjeeling tea,'” said Agarwal.
On the Geographical Indications (GI) issue, industry officials said that policing was the logic behind implementing GI rather than promotion, which would have helped reap dividends. “The directive by the regulators in November 2021, prohibiting mixing of any imported tea into any GI tea irrespective of whether it made any claim to containing any GI product, further alienated multi-origin packets in India from buying Darjeeling, and it resulted in Darjeeling losing almost 10 percent of its overall market, officials in India noted.
But on Oct. 18 this year, The Tea Board of India amended its 2021 notification that had completely banned the blending of Indian teas enjoying the GI tags with imported ones.
Complicated Issues Make Matters Worse
Tea planters have proclaimed mass absenteeism of workers in the absence of any deterring law, which is impacting the quality and crop of Darjeeling.
Estates are required to provide housing to all employees and they continue to hold on to it even after retirement, flouting the requirement to provide a replacement or having another member in the family working in the garden.
Workers are also getting ration from the Government and some have illegally obtained Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) cards and see no need to go to work. No work, no pay is of no help to a garden when the leaf is overgrown and absenteeism between 40 to 60 percent is resulting in massive loss to crop and quality in Darjeeling.
Climate change is another issue which has adversely affected Darjeeling crop and quality. Dry winters are affecting the high revenue first flush of March, whereas unseasonal rains in April to May are causing losses in equally important 2nd flush of May to June. This year has seen a blow to rain flush due to constant rain and fog with few sunny days.
The Tea Board India has constituted a six-member Committee on Darjeeling, which will study the problems and come out with recommendations as to how they can be resolved which has been appreciated by the industry. And the Darjeeling district has chalked up a district export plan for Darjeeling tea.
“Darjeeling tea ownership has always been about passion and a love for the area and its tea, rather than about commercial gain,” a local tea planter said. “However, compounded heavy losses since years is now forcing even the most committed owners to consider hiving off estates even as non-tea actors make a beeline to pick up land as land bank to avail of tea tourism and other permitted opportunities. All this while Darjeeling tea heads towards an uncertain future.”
Rajiv Lochan, of Lochan Tea, said barring a few companies, not enough effort has been made for marketing.
What Is the Way Out for Darjeeling Tea to Get Back Its Shine?
“Firstly, estates need to go directly to consumers,” said Sparsh of Dorje Teas. “At Selim Hill Tea Garden, we have created Dorje Teas for this purpose. Secondly, the government needs to ban the illegal smuggling of Nepal Teas and ask the Nepali govt to take adequate actions as well. Thirdly, Darjeeling's tea planters should cartelize in order to protect this industry.”
Kanoria, of the Indian Tea Exporters Association, said: “Darjeeling has been bleeding for too long without cure. It is only the deep passion of some planters that has kept them alive despite huge losses. A one-time government assistance is urgently required to enable Darjeeling gardens just to survive the negative impacts since the strike of 2017, compounded by other calamities in subsequent years such as drought and lockdown. This is the only way to offer breathing space to gardens and arrest the panic sale of tea estates to non-tea players. Protecting Darjeeling from spurious Nepal imports is the next. After this, a sustained promotion program in India and key potential overseas markets like China is required to ensure demand is created and that the pride and heritage of India, Darjeeling tea can survive on its own again.”
Some of the other key points are levying an equivalent import duty on Nepal teas, entering into agreements with EU and other key trade partners to arrange for accreditation, and notification of identified labs in India so that pre shipment independent sampling and lab tests performed in India are accepted as the basis of approval of exports.
“Darjeeling tea has already braved the odds and repeated financial losses and agitations to keep the Darjeeling tea flag high,” a Darjeeling planter told World Tea News. “The only way to arrest this is to generate more demand and competition, which is the only way to garner higher unit prices, while producing crop at full potential. A sincere effort and plan does need to be done by all producers to improve the quality of Darjeeling teas, so that the uniqueness is kept alive. Co-operation despite the odds will be important.”
Roopak Goswami has worked for more than two decades as a newspaper journalist in Northeast India. Tea is his passion, and he covers the tea industry regularly for World Tea News.
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