Bhole Bhaley Lalua Khayeja Roti Baasi
Bara Hokey Banega Sahib Ka Chaprasi
(Gullible boy eat stale bread
Grow up to be the master’s servant)
More than three quarters of a century have passed since tea gardens in Darjeeling witnessed their first bloody labour movement led by one Sagina Mahato, but troubles continue to plague the plantations producing the world’s most expensive brew.
It was in 1945-46, around the time India inched towards Independence that Mahato, a feisty trade union leader, pushed for workers’ rights in the plantations that were introduced to India by a Scottish surgeon. Mahato impressed upon the plantation owners the need to protect the workers, and the gardens because Darjeeling tea—claimed Mahato—was the world’s best. Everyone believed Mahato.
Noted Bengali writer Gour Kishore Ghose penned Mahato’s life in the mid 1950s in a Bengali weekly, Desh. It was made into a film in 1970 by Tapan Sinha, starring Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar.
But troubles continue to plague the gardens till date. Workers at the 87-odd tea gardens have started work after a 100-day-long agitation in 2017 for Gorkhaland, an independent state, ended without any result. But the champagne of teas has missed its date at the auctions. And, eventually, Darjeeling tea lost its position to cheap tea from Nepal that Indian exporters were forced to blend for global sales to retain their supplies. Else, the world markets would have ordered more tea from Sri Lanka, Kenya and Indonesia.
It is a serious concern, almost like the Taj Mahal losing its exalted status as the world’s finest monument of love.
“We need to regain our position, but it will take a little over a year,” says Ananda Dutta, a veteran planter in Darjeeling.
Dutta says he has reasons to be worried because for the last six months, many exporters have replaced Darjeeling tea, with tea from Nepal because there was no Darjeeling tea at the auctions in July-August because of the political agitation in June 2017. “The Gorkhaland agitation should have kept the tea plantations out of the ambit of their demands, but it did not happen. Being not in the auctions means you are out,” adds Dutta.
In early February, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee visited Darjeeling and addressed its residents and Trinamool Congress workers. Tea was uppermost on her mind. “Do not destroy the biggest asset of the hills, Darjeeling tea is India’s pride, let us retain the pride in the world markets,” said Banerjee. She said the demand for Darjeeling tea, considered the best in the world, is still high in markets across the US, UK, and Japan because nearly 60% of the product from the bushes—some of them as old as 150 years—are organic and helps India earn $80 million in sales. But this year, sales could plummet to $40m.
These three regions—US, UK and Japan—continue to be the key to establishing Darjeeling as a premium brand of tea after the erstwhile Soviet Union broke up and new buyers emerged in the markets.
“The Gorkhaland agitators should have known that they are messing with gold, Darjeeling tea is among the world’s most expensive, some fetching prices of up to $850 per kg,” says Anshuman Kanoria, chairman at the Calcutta Tea Traders’ Association.
Tea industry sources say Nepal’s slow, unassuming entry into the world market happened right after the Gorkhaland agitation. Indian exporters replaced the Darjeeling tea since they had to maintain the flavour and aroma for the international market. Tea tasters in Darjeeling say Nepal’s Illam variant is the closest substitute for Darjeeling tea and it’s very difficult for tea connoisseurs to differentiate between the two, especially in terms of flavour, look, and aroma.
Indian blenders and exporters do not have a choice; importers are always keen to maintain the same taste and aroma as in prior Darjeeling tea purchases. Indian blenders—with consent from the buyers—started using Nepal tea, carrying the Nepal label as the country of origin and then blend it with Indian orthodox variants. Some are simply using Nepalese tea to be sold as Indian Black Tea to foreign buyers.
Now plantation owners in Darjeeling worry what if global buyers, exposed to Nepal tea, start looking at Nepal at the cost of Darjeeling? Worse, the Nepal variant is 60% cheaper than the product from Darjeeling.
“And we do not have total normalcy in the gardens in Darjeeling,” says Kanoria. In some 35-odd gardens, there are reports of tensions over demand of increased salary and better medical and education facilities for the workers and their families, impacting harvest. Worse, there are lack of workers as many migrated to the plains during the Gorkhaland agitation, slow clearance and pruning of tea bushes. Working capital is now on a low and the cost of production has increased. Planters are unsure of producing quality tea.
Locals in Darjeeling admit it is a serious crisis. “If Nepal tea eats into our business, we will have hard times,” says Kali Tamang, who works at a tea garden near Kurseong. Nepal sends 98% of its annual 37 million kg to India for exports.
S.S. Bagaria, chairman of Bagaria Group and former head of the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) says Nepal enjoys price competitiveness over Darjeeling tea and could force international buyers to change the blend permanently to Nepal and other India orthodox tea variants. “And then, Indian blenders and exporters will have no option but to do what the buyers want. The queen of teas could even lose its global position,” says Bagaria.
Planters in Darjeeling say little production might still happen this year, but it will be mixed flush. At the Planters Club in Darjeeling, many argued how Darjeeling’s four distinct regular flushes of tea—summer, muscatel, rain and autumn—have different leaf and flavour characteristics and these eventually determine their prices. “These flushes are harvested over specific months and the tea’s quality changes as per the season. We have already lost the muscatel and rain flushes this year. The coming harvest will have mixed flavours,” says a member of the club.
Planters do not want to take any chances. They know what to do if the crisis persists. Import from next door Nepal and blend with Indian tea and keep a grip on the global markets.
That would be a very, very desperate act for Darjeeling tea, India’s first Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) product.