Darjeeling Gears Up for Potential Paradigm Shift in Tea Cultivation

The fossilized snake etched into the stone of a temple situated on a small tea farm in Darjeeling District may well foreshadow the fate of the colonial tea estates in the region. That Darjeeling tea cultivation is facing a paradigm shift in the coming years is a notion on which the owner of the farm, Bhawesh Niroula and his Small Tea Grower (STG) peers are framing their aspirations.

Still, as he rings the temple bell to start his day, what the future may hold is far from his thoughts. He is about to leave for Darjeeling town some twelve miles away to drop his son off at school, but the trip around a multitude of hairpin turns will take around 90 minutes there and back. When he returns, his day commences with supervising the plucking of leaf for processing the following day at the small factory set up for him by retired tea garden managers. For Niroula and others like him, the spring and summer seasons when the first and second harvests (called flushes) are grown require that all his attention must be focused on the present, for these are the harvests that are in highest demand and bring in the most revenue.

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Fossilized snake etched into the wall of the temple at Niroula’s Tea Farm. (Photo by SB Veda.)

Niroula’s farm lies near Poobong Tea Garden, the entrance of which is nestled just below Darjeeling Town. The winding and, at times, crumbling path that vehicles must traverse off the main road to get to it means that the homestay he has set up for tourists (Niroula’s Tea Cottage) is a challenge to reach. Still, once arrived, he hopes the home-cooked meals and panoramic views combined with rustic living will appeal to the eco-tourist whose budget is insufficient for modern hotels like Makaibari Tea Estate’s Taj Chia Kutir Resort and Spa.

When the former Bangalore-based software engineer was called to run the factory and farm by his ailing father, he felt it was his responsibility to see that the land given to the family by the British colonials, when they left India, didn’t go to waste. With the help of his brother Bhavya and a few staff members, somehow, they make it work.

The initiative of the Niroulas and their cohorts is enough to garner the attention of even big tea companies to whom the STGs sell green leaf and to certain private buyers who buy the processed leaves. While tea from the STGs of Darjeeling bear elements of the distinctive Darjeeling character, batches typically lack the consistency of the tea cultivated at formal tea estates, which are managed by garden managers. Moreover, their tea cannot be sold under the Darjeeling label as their land does not lie in the area demarcated by regulatory authorities that qualifies for the all-important tag that identifies authentic Darjeeling tea.

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Tea Bushes at Niroula’s Tea Farm and Cottage. (Photo by SB Veda.)

It's an ironic circumstance in which to exist because the Tea Board of India (TBI) has authorized the raw leaf from farms in the area can be sold as Darjeeling tea but leaves processed at Niroula’s factory cannot be sold under the premium label. The glaring anomaly is one that Niroula and his peers seek to rectify.

Veteran cultivator and leader of the organic tea movement in Darjeeling Rajah Banerjee – who for decades ran his family’s tea garden, Makaibari – agrees. “It’s where the tea is grown that should determine whether it is Darjeeling – not where it is processed," he says.

The Nepal Factor

Buying bought leaf can lead to sourcing doubts. Rumblings that certain tea estates buying leaf sourced in Nepal, far outside the boundary for sale as Darjeeling tea, are rife among tea planters. This is something about which the Indian Government agency, the Food and Safety Standards Association of India (FSSAI) is cracking down, stopping trucks carrying unprocessed leaf to test for the residue of chemicals banned in India. While Indian tea is sourced from both organic gardens and conventional ones – but only those which meet strict standards for what can be used as pesticide and fertilizer – Nepal tea farms are not bound by such safeguards. Hence, the recent vigilance by the FSSAI has been welcomed by Darjeeling planters as long overdue.

Planters like Ashok Lohia, owner of the Chamong Group, which runs the largest number of organic gardens in Darjeeling, say that adulteration from Nepal poses an existential challenge for the region, and is among those who have supported the Indian Tea Association (ITA) to seek financial relief from the Indian government. Lohia was among the planters who led the movement to get the European Commission under the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property to recognize the term “Darjeeling” as belonging to only 87 tea gardens in Darjeeling District. This is known as the Geographic Indication (GI) Tag, and it has its own symbol that can be used on the packaging of any of the 87 gardens within the specified geographic area producing tea.

“In 2017,” Lohia says, “when, due to a political agitation, a 105-day strike took Darjeeling tea off the market during the peak of the cultivation season, buyers looked to Nepal to fill the gap.”

With analogous elevation and similar weather conditions – and using cuttings and clones of tea plants from Darjeeling – the young Nepal leaf tastes strikingly similar but can be produced much more cheaply. Also, Darjeeling’s workers are entitled to certain rights and benefits under the Indian State of West Bengal’s Plantation Act, to which tea farmers in Nepal need not adhere. So, labor costs are much lower in Nepal, and workers are denied the benefits that their Darjeeling counterparts are entitled to such as medical care, housing, and pensions.

Addiction to these cheaper teas by buyers has crippled the industry in Darjeeling, especially as large tea estates are getting increasingly more expensive to run. Indeed, in 2022, when Chairman of the Indian Tea Association at the time, Nayantara Palchoudhuri, sought a financial package from Indian Commerce Ministry to deal with the Nepal issue and historic body blows to the industry such as strikes and Covid, one official went so far as to say that Darjeeling tea was in danger of becoming unviable.

Still, Canadian buyer Kevin Gascoyne, whose company Camelia Sinensis is named for the plant that produces Darjeeling tea, says this is nothing new. Gascoyne has been coming to Darjeeling since the late eighties, a few years before co-founding his tea retail business. It has grown to become the most successful high-end tea retailer in the country. “Buyers have been buying Nepal tea for years,” he says. “And because tea is sold loose, nothing prevents retailers from adulterating what they sell.”

Certainly, processing raw leaf of dubious sourcing is a key cause of ripples in the consistency of Darjeeling tea from certain estates.  “This is why we have discouraged and are opposed to any green leaf purchase in Darjeeling,” says Arun Narain Singh, Executive Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of Goodricke Group Ltd., the second largest tea producer in India. Singh has only recently been re-appointed to his post, and, in the past, has managed such prestige gardens as Castleton.

According to Singh, Goodricke tea is cultivated only from its own gardens. “Our focus in Darjeeling must be on purity and quality,” he adds, stating that anything less would denigrate the value of the product known the world over as “The Champagne of Teas.” With Margaret’s Hope, Castleton, and Thurbo gardens in its portfolio, Goodricke runs some of the most prestigious gardens in the business.

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Goodricke’s Thurbo Estate – an organized estate in which the foliage is dense and the tea bushes are configured precisely, unlike that of a small tea grower’s farm. (Photo by Garden Manager, Pranab Mukhia.)

Singh’s views mirror that of Gascoyne in that the importation of Nepal tea to India is not a new development: “I am reminded of a Tea Board [of India] statistic: We were importing twelve to thirteen million kilograms of Nepal tea in 2010. Today, it’s grown to around sixteen million. The increase is not a big deal, and much of this may be CTC (not Darjeeling orthodox). How did we manage then to make money until 2017?  So, my point is, it’s a factor – I’m not denying that the increase in Nepal tea to India is not a factor – but it may not directly be affecting the market for whole leaf tea. And, I’m sure that solutions can be found if the government brought up issues within the WTO norms.” Singh refers to global agreements on use of pesticides and labor exploitation norms that are not subject to the Free Trade Agreement between India and Nepal.

Moreover, Singh maintains that if Nepal tea is mandated to be sold at auction only, then the buyers would be known, and  it would be far easier to regulate its sale in India, reducing the risk of the generic Himalayan teas being sold as Darjeeling.

Is the Colonial Model Going the Way of the Dinosaur? 

Notwithstanding Singh’s suggestions that Nepal tea poses no existential threat to Darjeeling, the colonial-style tea estates are struggling to make a profit. Most are incurring losses for a variety of reasons. Having run a tea estate for decades, Banerjee feels that the future of tea in Darjeeling lies with small growers, which is why he is aiding those who own tracts of land in the area of Darjeeling to cultivate tea and get it processed for sale. His company called Rimpocha Tea Pvt. Ltd. is doing well, but so far, he hasn’t managed to eclipse the colonial estates.

Banerjee says the colonial model of cultivating tea is not relevant in today’s world in which a tea estate worker, through his or her phone, has access to a world of information through the internet, which was previously unavailable to them. “During the time of the British, it was possible for the so called burra sahebs (sic. garden managers) to mete out draconian measures upon the workers to manage the estate,” says Banerjee. “Indeed, it was a very clever form of slavery because workers were not even allowed to own livestock to meet their needs, making them totally dependent on the British owners. And it worked because the facilities available to workers were extremely limited. Then, [Indians] happily followed this model after the [British] fled. Of what relevance is that model, today, when the tea estate worker, the rikshaw wallah the pan wallah, has a smartphone in their hands? It’s totally passe! Unless there is a paradigm shift in the way estates are managed, they’re just going to close. In fact, that’s what we’re seeing with so many gardens being put up for sale in recent years.”

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Rajah Banerjee’s Rimpocha Tea Brand, which is a product of small growers but specially crafted and curated by acclaimed tea master Rajah Banerjee. (Photo by SB Veda.)

The answer to Banerjee, champion of small growers, has come from an unlikely source: A.N. Singh of Goodricke is emphatic about his corporate group becoming recently active in considering ways of achieving just the kind of sea change for which Banerjee calls.  “Aside from wages, you have to give the worker the freedom to supplement their income,” says Singh, adding: “We are considering introducing as an experiment, flexi-time in which the worker can set their hours of work, making it more convenient for them to manage their other priorities.” At a recent workshop with worker unions, Singh asked the attendees about their vision for Darjeeling, and found the answer wanting. “When workers migrate to places like Bangalore for slightly higher wages, they suffer in that their living conditions in such places is really atrocious. They have to stay in bunk beds, use a common toilet, etc. Here, they have their own homes and land in a pollution-free environment. So, if gardens close, the owners won’t suffer that much – they’ll cut their losses and run; it’s the workers who will suffer the most.”

Singh suggests the unions and owners should approach the government together to come up with a new model, perhaps applying it to a single garden as an experiment, in which the workers are allocated land to manage and sell the leaf to the company at a certain price instead of relying strictly on wages (tea estate land is leased to the companies on a long-term basis, so it can’t simply be offered for sale to the workers). The thinking here is that with a co-ownership mentality driven into the management practices, absenteeism would diminish, and productivity would increase.  “In this model, the workers would be free to do interplanting either to meet their own needs or to sell other crops for a profit, and we would move away from the old model established during the time of the British Raj.” Essentially, he proposes moving to a more cooperative style of cultivation without changing the actual legal form of the entities.

The main caveat here is that, presently, working hours are mandated by the Plantation Labour Act of the Government of West Bengal. Hence, any deviation from the workday proscribed in the Act may have to come as an amendment from the government – and that could take years. There is also the question of quality. Plucking is the most critical part of the cultivation process. If those plucking leaf gain such control over their duty hours, it could create gaps in supervision. There are planters, too, who fervently believe that plucking must begin in the early hours of the morning because that’s when the leaves hold the highest water content – and if done during afternoon when leaves are exposed to greater sunlight, would lead to plucking of leaf that lacks its flavor-giving juices.

That the company is willing to have that conversation, however, is telling. Management realizes perhaps better than most that a more modern model of cultivation will benefit all stakeholders in the industry.

When confronted with the response, Banerjee is skeptical: “Sounds great in theory but all sustainable solutions have to come from the ground-up and not from the top-down.”

Single Seller Model

Another notion brought up by several planters involves the government setting up a public private partnership (PPP) for Darjeeling tea in the form of a company from which buyers can buy a number of blends of the different gardens during each seasonal harvest or flush. First the government would buy from the gardens at a fixed price that is economical for the workers and planters, and then buyers would buy according to prices set by the government for various types of teas. Centralized buying is not unheard of in Darjeeling. During the era of the cold war, the USSR used to buy all tea for all of its republics at once, and distribute it among the entire USSR. Now, the former Soviet states all buy tea individually, giving them choice but eliminating the buying power and bargaining influence that the USSR once had.

The added layer of regulation associated with establishing a central PPP may interfere with private sales, and would certainly have implications on the auction system – but it is a means by which the gardens are guaranteed a certain margin in Darjeeling. Thus far, the government has not shown signs that it wishes to interfere with the free market.

Longtime tea buyer from Germany, Günter Faltin, who started his tea company as an academic experiment as an economics professor in Hamburg, sees this as a problem. “If the market doesn’t support a product, according to economic theory, it should fail.” He says that he had to negotiate very firmly with his main supplier this year as his customer base has not responded well to price increases. “We have experienced price increases that the consumer has accepted but now we are approaching a symbolic threshold, which from many a consumer’s perspective would make it cost-prohibitive.”

Regulating the price of Darjeeling tea and limiting variety, while an anathema to free market proponents, would offer buyers like Faltin the relief he may need in the future so that the threshold to which he refers isn’t crossed in his business.

Is the Market Under-Developed?

Rishi Saria, co-owner of Sona Tea Ltd., which, of its four holdings, owns two gardens in Darjeeling, namely Rohini and Gopaldhara, believes that when adequate prices are not realized, this is a failure of tea companies to properly promote Darjeeling tea among consumers. “We need to educate the market, so the person buying Darjeeling tea really understands the nature of this premium product. Many consumers don’t look for the flavour notes that say a wine connoisseur would look for. There is just a general consensus that Darjeeling tea is very good – but it is very much still, as a product, compared to tea from other regions. That this product is more akin to a fine wine hasn’t permeated the marketplace yet. This is the main impediment to people paying more a type of tea that is getting increasingly scarce while our costs of production rise.”

One model of successful beverage education is that of Starbucks. When the company opened their first store in 1971, only coffee experts constituted their customer base. During this period, the American public was accustomed to drinking very low quality coffee priced for an average of just under fifty cents a cup (according to gobankingrates.com). After hiring Howard Schulz as their director of marketing (he later went on to buy out the other shareholders and become the owner of Starbucks) the company focused on educating its more curious consumers not only on the quality of bean but also on its ethical standards in sourcing of the beans. As customers came to understand that Starbucks coffee was in a different class in terms of quality and were sourced differently than that of the mainstream coffee companies, they became more comfortable spending more per cup. These days, spending several dollars on a quality cup of coffee is seen as quite normal.

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Gopaldhara Tea Estate, one the highest elevation tea estates in Darjeeling. (Photo by SB Veda.)

Planters like Saria, while spending ample time marketing, also hope others will take up the mantle. This too, is an endeavor that Rajah Banerjee is championing, travelling to different places to give talks and workshops on Darjeeling tea.

Tea education classes are becoming increasingly common, and Gascoyne has turned it into successful offshoot of his retailing business.

Keeping the Estates But Going Smaller

While the Saria’s operations are small compared to many of the larger tea companies, their presence in Darjeeling may be poised to shrink. The same can be said of other companies, based on gardens, which have been put on the sale market in 2024.

Faltin has been a long-time buyer from Ashok Lohia and grew with him as Lohia’s company expanded its portfolio of organic gardens in Darjeeling to become the largest organic grower of the prized leaf. “I once told Ashok, ”he muses, “that you’re the Henry Ford of Darjeeling,” referring to Chamong’s growth and Lohia’s standardization of practices at his tea gardens.

Thought to be one of the most successful garden owners in Darjeeling, some industry analysts believe that even Chamong is poised to divest of certain gardens rather than grow (though not from their main portfolio).

Indeed, Sanjay Bansal’s Ambootia Group, once a prized example of biodynamic and organic farming models applied to Darjeeling tea, broke apart after he sold it to European investors and lengthy litigation proceedings followed.

What impresses about the Small Tea Growers is the extent to which they are self-sufficient – unlike most estates, which rely in some instances on thousands of workers to complete each harvest. They also typically don’t need financing.

However, it is worth looking at one garden that could serve as the model for what Darjeeling could look like in the coming years: that of Giddapahar Tea Estate. The garden is the only instance in which a single large tea estate is not only family-owned and run but the family also stays on the estate, instead of running it from Siliguri or Kolkata as is the case with every other tea estate in the region.

Giddapahar Tea Estate, where for four generations of the Shah family has owned and managed the garden, belies the legacy of British colonialism.  “Giddapahar may be the only garden that was planted by Indians,” says Sudanshu Shah who runs the garden on behalf of his family. “And, I am the fourth generation planter of our family,” he adds. He mentions that unlike other estates, which were established by the British in a very top-down way, when the Shah family actually founded the estate, they were involved, working side-by-side with the workers to plant the tea bushes (though Sudhanshu Shah is quick to credit an early manager named Bose with this accomplishment as well).

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Horizon of Giddapahar Tea Estate, located in the scenic Kurseong area of Darjeeling. (Photo by Sudanshu Shah.)

Consequently, the family has built-up extensive trust with the local people, and this has been critical to their success. Rajah Banerjee points that that, the local people, who comprise the backbone of the workforce in Darjeeling – Gorkhas whose ancestry is Nepalese – are viewed as a monolith by outsiders. “But they consist of many tribes and clans who don’t act together in unison.” So, the idea that one could simply turn over a tea estate to the workers, and they’ll take over cultivation, is a naïve one. “They’re more than likely to begin fighting over whose areas gain access to the road and water,” he says. 

One garden manager, who requested anonymity told this writer that generations of infighting and a dependency on the worker-management relationship are factors impeding the establishment of cooperative tea estates in Darjeeling. With the estates operating as small self-contained municipalities, with residential areas, hospitals, and other elements of infrastructure, it makes it difficult for the workers to conceive of giving up the benefits of staying on a tea estate much less organizing themselves and taking on the financial risk of depending solely on selling leaf to a tea company in lieu of wages. Owning a share in an estate may sound like a desirable aim but if the trade-off would be the wages and benefits, which the workers already get, many are simply not in the frame of mind to assume the heavy responsibility.

For the Shah family, owning a single garden for several generations works because they know their workers well, and the whole estate is viewed as a family.  “Some may say after a hundred years, all you have to show for yourselves is ownership of a single garden when so many others have built conglomerates,” says Shah. “But for us, we find it most comfortable to deal in an environment known to us – and, in the end it’s the quality of our tea that is most important – not the quantity.”

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Giddapahar Factory Building located on the estate. (Photo by Sudanshu Shah.)

It's a model that appears to work for the Shahs.

So, the future of Darjeeling may not be Small Growers, per se, but tea estates with smaller operations with management and ownership situated closer to the actual locus of operations.

Giddaphar replants 20-25,000 plants every year to replenish the old China bushes. “We are lucky in that our terroir is rocky, so the plants get stressed, and this brings out the sweetness in them,” Shah says, proudly. Equally, allowing some bushes to rest when the replanting program reaches its fruition, may well have a beneficial impact on the crop. It is only the companies, which have little to no bureaucracy such as Giddapahar, that will have the agility innovate in such a manner. So, while their size may be in impediment to realizing higher downstream revenues, their very lack of heft may well be critical to maintaining the quality that entices repeat buyers.

In the end, Darjeeling is facing a shake-up, and the large companies know that they have to burnish local management, transforming it into some form of ownership. The smaller a company’s number of holdings are, the easier it will be to achieve this aim. For those companies with multiple gardens, the task of changing the way they do business is complicated several fold by the sheer scale of their operations.

Accordingly, divestment is likely to continue. That said, as Gascoyne notes, “While there may be a period of upheaval, Darjeeling can’t die simply because the demand for this premium tea will continue. Whatever happens to the companies, the tea bushes will still be there, and as long as there are people willing to pluck and process the leaves, we’ll always have Darjeeling tea.”

 

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