More crises brewing for Darjeeling tea
Work has resumed after a long suspension because of the Gorkhaland agitation, but producers’ problems are far from over
In a season when the weather works to the advantage of planters, tea estates in the hills of Darjeeling will just about manage to keep their heads above water. This cannot be otherwise since the labour productivity in the hills is one-third of the national average for the tea industry and the high elevation of Darjeeling gardens keeps production costs high. Producers of the globally famed tea have, therefore, remained under constant pressure to find money for the upkeep of gardens. A decade ago, Darjeeling tea production ranged from 10 million kg (mk) to 11 mk. The principal reason for production being down to 8.130 mk last year is the large-scale migration to making organic tea, which foreign buyers want.
“Besides usual commercial considerations, there is a great deal of romance in growing tea in Darjeeling. But that romance is wearing thin because of piling up of adversities, the recent long suspension of work at the height of harvesting season being the latest,” says DP Maheshwari, managing director of Jay Shree Tea, which is one of the six leading producers in the region.
What the struggling industry could least afford came its way on June 15 when a strike call by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha for a separate Value in ($mn) Gorkhaland state meant that the plucking of leaves came to a standstill for 104 days. Much to the pain of the 87 gardens in the hills occupying an area of about 18,000 hectares, the prized summer harvest of second flush tea that commands premium prices in quality demanding markets of Germany, Japan and the UK was laid to waste by this year’s heavy monsoon rains.
The industry draws its sustenance principally from the second flush tea that accounts for 40 per cent revenue, though just 20 per cent of the annual hill production. The second flush tea, which releases a muscatel fragrance on brewing, is produced between June and mid-August. Most of this desirable tea is exported drawing prices of up to $850 a kg. The first flush tea harvested between mid-March and May that gives bright liquor with floral scent also has ardent admirers abroad. A complex chemistry involving the altitude of an estate — higher the elevation greater is the concentration of volatile flavour compounds in tea — the climate alternating between sunny and cloudy spells and slightly acidic soils make the hill beverage produced during the first two of a season’s four flushes unique in appearance and flavour.
“But once the second flush ends and rains start, the quality of Darjeeling tea takes a sharp dip, making it difficult for producers to market the beverage. Thanks to all the gardens remaining shut for 104 days, the industry is spared this season the task of marketing the rain flush tea