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EXCLUSIVE: A big, big problem with Darjeeling tea

Darjeeling is the jewel in the crown in India’s tea market, a state of mind for millions. Can India still create the perfect storm in the world market? 

Shantanu Guha Ray

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Tea gardens in picturesque Darjeeling are in deep trouble, actually in ICU, claims an industry veteran.

Indian Tea Exporters Association (ITEA) chairman Anshuman Kanoria said in an interview that production from Darjeeling gardens have dwindled from 10 million kilograms to approx 6.5 million kilos this year. That is almost 35 percent of the crop.

And this is not good news.

Darjeeling brew is considered the champagne of tea, it has an unique GI tag. So it is not a pushover case.

“The biggest challenge of the Indian tea industry is to save Darjeeling gardens. And it is not happening. I do not think anyone has time for Darjeeling,” says Kanoria.

He says planters are bleeding to keep their gardens organic, else some of their products will not find demand in the international markets which have unrealistically limited use of pesticide in farm products. And then, the cost of labour has increased by almost 25 percent.

Many nations follow EU standards, which are more stringent than the FSSAI rules.

And then comes the severe increase in cost of inputs like fuel, coal, fertiliser, packaging, which has drastically increased cost of production on a year to year basis. It cannot be ignored anymore. Even if it is sorted out, where is the market at sustainable prices?

But the big issue is that Indian planters just do not have the necessary cash to pack their own produce. Very few do. This needs a serious financial push from the government but that has not happened.

Planters say the main issues are resolving back end productivity issues, cash injection to keep gardens alive and take them out of ICU, generic promotion domestic and overseas by government to create demand and resolving the unchecked entry of Nepal into the domestic market.

It should have happened, Indian tea exports in FY21 were worth $704.36 million (Rs 5,311.53 crore).

A proposal to revive the Darjeeling tea gardens after the disastrous loss caused by the big labour strike is pending before the Commerce Ministry since 2017.

The current fall in output is 3 to 4 million kilos and there are high chances the figures could decline if climate and worker availability does not turn favourable.

Darjeeling is the jewel in the crown in India’s tea market, a state of mind for millions. Can India still create the perfect storm in the world market?

Difficult as it seems, it is doable but will require a concerted effort from the Central Government to hand hold the stakeholders to revive the fortunes of Darjeeling and enable it to stand on its own feet again. The need is pressing.

India is the world’s second-largest producer but does not have the largest slice of the global pie. India is currently ranked fourth. Kenya leads the pack with 28 percent export of its produce, followed by China, the world’s largest producer (19 percent), then Sri Lanka (14 percent) and India (11 percent).

Darjeeling

 The Kolkata-based Tea Board has not had funding for quality upgradation and meaningful promotion, and does not have a dedicated budget to save the gardens. With its small production, Darjeeling has remained largely marginalised even though it is the heritage of India, providing jobs and tourism in a strategic border area.

“If Darjeeling is important, then we need help urgently to revive it. Does anyone know that the planters have been bleeding for many, many years. They have run up massive losses, masking it with some profits from businesses not remotely connected with tea. This is very, very frustrating,” adds Kanoria.

Tea industry sources confirm the fear. If the rot is not stemmed, then Darjeeling’s loss would be Nepal and others gain. And it is because India’s  neighbours are aggressively pushing premium products in the top markets of Asia, Europe, Canada, Japan and the United States.

Darjeeling tea occupies the centre stage in Indian tea, which occupies a place of pride in Indian culture. Tea is produced by an estimated 1,600 tea gardens across India. Nearly 1.1 million people work in tea gardens across India.

India produced 1,145 million kg of tea in the financial year 2021 (FY2021) but consumed 89 percent of the produce domestically. The rest was exported to Russia, Iran, UAE, the US and China.

And at the heart of India’s top-grade tea is Darjeeling, considered, along with Assam and Nilgiris, among the finest in the world for its strong flavours and intense aromas.

And the Darjeeling gardens need a serious overhaul, more than 65 percent of the plants need replacement.

“India must take care of Darjeeling,” says Shahid Rahman of the London Tea Exchange.

Rahman says the new owners of the tea gardens in Darjeeling will take time to replenish the plants. Ignoring Darjeeling tea is like neglecting the Taj Mahal.”

His store, the biggest and most prestigious in London, has some quantities of Darjeeling tea but larger quantities of Sri Lankan tea, Sylhet tea from Bangladesh and Nepalese tea that is almost similar to Darjeeling. And also Kenyan tea.

“The competition is growing exponentially because tea is now widely consumed as a normal drink, also as a health drink,” says Rahman.

Agrees Kanoria. He feels tea should have been given a place of pride long ago and the government should play an important role to push a product as integral to India as tea, first introduced to the slopes of the Assam hills by British planters way back in the 1830s.

Govt to provide Rs 1000 cr for welfare scheme for tea workers of Assam, WB

“What worries me is that people are coming to Darjeeling and buying gardens but I fear it is for the real estate. They do not want to save Darjeeling tea, a product so close to our hearts,” says Kanoria.

“Darjeeling is the best tea we have and India should not send any wrong signal to the world,” adds Kanoria.

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