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

Business Standard - - TAKE TWO - KU­NAL BOSE

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

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