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A storm in a Tea cup

In A Battle Of The Brews, Indian And Nepal Tea Planters Slug It Out With Counter Allegations

SAM SPECIAL-ENG-16-07-2020

The conflict in the eastern Himalayas, spanning Nepal and the Darjeeling hills in India, is not over a border line but is between growers of teas. Its Darjeeling tea versus Nepalese tea. 

Both claim to be growing and producing the ‘choicest’ of teas. But Darjeeling tea planters and producers allege that cheaper varieties of teas from the Himalayan nation are being palmed off as the popular premium variety of “Darjeeling” tea making use of the coronavirus lockdown, which has brought down production of Darjeeling teas.

Nepalese planters, however, counter the allegations saying Darjeeling tea planters are not being able to produce the quality they used to, but cry foul when overtaken.

Darjeeling tea industry sources said that all the 87 gardens in the hills have over the last three months helplessly watched their iconic and premium ‘First Flush’ teas either wither in the bushes or lying shuttered in factories due to the lockdown. 

Nepalese tea growers did not suffer such setbacks and have now flooded the Indian market with “spurious leaves” that are being passed off as Darjeeling teas fooling unsuspecting consumers, the Indian planters alleged. 

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The flooding of Nepal teas in the India domestic market is also damaging the reputation of India’s first Geographical Indication (GI)-tagged agricultural produce.

Tea cognoscenti and industry veterans South Asian Monitor spoke to said that Nepalese teas pose a threat to the Darjeeling teas as they are cheaper. Retailers, exporters and blenders too said for a consumer to tell the difference between the two varieties is difficult.

But amid growing animosity between Nepal and India, Darjeeling planters are clamoring for a “permanent ban” on the sale of “cheap and low quality” of Nepalese teas that, they allege, are illegally imported into India without adhering to food safety norms.  While the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA)-a planters’ body that looks after the interest of Darjeeling tea estates-has lodged complaints with the Indian customs authorities, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Tea Board India. 

Darjeeling tea was granted a Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2004, which is a certification given to a product of certain quality and is associated with a particular region.

Tea cultivation in Darjeeling hills started under a British army officer, Captain Samler, in the 1840s. Commercial tea production, however, started in 1856 after British planters settled in the Darjeeling hills. But Darjeeling produces less than 8.5 million kg or 0.2% of the total tea produced in India every year. 65% of the tea produced in Darjeeling is exported.

Darjeeling is known the world over for its ‘First Flush and Second Flush’ teas. First flush, which is tea plucked in March-April, is smooth on the palate and has a light golden color. Second flush, which is plucked between mid-May and mid-July, has a fruity taste and is dark amber in color. 

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Darjeeling produces four crops a year- the first flush, which accounts for 20% of teas produced; the second flush, which accounts another 20%; the monsoon flush which accounts for 30% and the autumn flush the remaining 30%.

What the Nepalese say

Nepal tea producers counter the allegations pointing out that as the yield of Darjeeling teas has come down, and orthodox teas grown in Nepal’s Illam district-bordering Darjeeling hills-are acting as ‘filler teas’ in the Indian domestic market.

Only 30% of teas in India are top quality, which is exported. Nepal teas-which are known as orthodox teas-are grown in the eastern hilly district of Illam, bordering Darjeeling hills, which have similar geo-conditions. But the teas are distinctive in their characteristics depending on the elevation and the variety of the tea bushes,” an Indian tea expert told South Asian Monitor.

Nepal has younger plantations. Nepalese tea bushes are cloned from the Darjeeling varieties, due to which they have multiple benefits, a Nepalese tea planter and exporter, who did not wish to be named, said.

“Nepalese orthodox teas have been gaining popularity in the international market mainly due to their quality, aroma and taste. A big advantage Nepalese teas have over Darjeeling teas is that Nepalese tea estates are smaller and most factories buy hand-picked tea leaves from small growers.

“The tea industry is very heavily worker-intensive. The Darjeeling gardens are not being able to produce the required quality due to a scarcity of skilled workers and higher production costs. Darjeeling teas are losing out to higher altitude teas from Sri Lanka in the international markets,” the planter pointed out. 

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The Darjeeling tea industry is grappling with a shortage of workers, as the younger generation of tea workers’ have higher aspirations and prefer to look for greener pastures in cities rather than follow their parents’ footsteps, the Nepalese planter told SAM on phone from the eastern Nepal town of Chandragadhi. “Most of the younger generation of the workforce from Darjeeling is today employed in the aviation, IT and hospitality sectors,” he said.

However, Darjeeling tea is renowned more for its unique muscatel character, strong aroma, and taste along with the conscious efforts of industry bodies to promote it, they said.

According to Nepal's National Tea and Coffee Development Board, the country produces 25 million kg of tea annually-20 million kg of Crush, Tear, and Curl (CTC) teas and 5 million kg of orthodox teas. Almost all the CTC teas produced in Nepal comes from Jhapa in the eastern Terai region of the country, while orthodox teas are produced in the eastern hilly districts and some parts of Western Nepal.

Of the 5.5 million kg of orthodox tea produced annually in Nepal, 80% is shipped to markets in India, and 10% goes to the Western markets.“India imports 10-12 million kg of CTC and between 4 and 4.5 million kg of orthodox teas from Nepal every year, a Nepalese trader said.

The Indian Tea Board made it mandatory for retailers and boutique owners to obtain a license for using the name `Darjeeling', but some retailers continue to sell Nepalese teas as Darjeeling teas, allege Darjeeling planters.

But the Nepalese wonder how this can be. “When 100% Certification of Trade Mark (CTM) is issued to Darjeeling teas by the Tea Board of India, how can Nepal orthodox teas imported by India be branded with a Darjeeling logo?,” the Nepalese ask.

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Though Nepal teas do not have an organic certification, the Nepal Tea and Coffee Development Board have been promoting its orthodox teas with a logo as a ‘good agricultural practice’-a certification just one level below ‘organic’. But Nepalese tea exporters are finding it hard to convince global buyers that their teas were ‘source certified’. 

“Due to lack of quality certifications, demand for Nepalese teas in the global markets has been falling every year”, an orthodox teas exporter from Nepal said.

“Darjeeling denotes a certain quality. Nepal is not trying to diminish its value,” the exporter, who did not wish to be named, said. 

Nepal teas exported to India carry lab test certificates from the Kathmandu-based National Food and Feeds Laboratory-a unit of Nepal’s Department of Food Technology and Quality Control-which is able to check only a limited number of contents in tea.

The DTA has asked the Indian government to impose strict compliance of the FSSAI standards and has demanded 100% testing for food standards in the case of imported tea leaves and withdrawal of the recognition of the Kathmandu lab certification.

Most of the Nepalese tea is exported through the borderland port at Kakarbhitta on the India-Nepal border in Darjeeling district, and shippers are asked to produce lab verification there. Nepalese tea exporters and traders see this as a ‘big waste of time, energy and money’. Indian traders exporting Nepalese teas to third countries also face the same problem, and this has brought down tea exports, they said.

Sri Lankan growers have done an unbelievable job in marketing their teas under the Ceylon Tea brand name. Nepalese teas also should do something similar, a Calcutta-based tea trader, who exports teas imported from Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam to third countries, pointed out. A point to note is that ‘Dilmah Tea’ has become a very popular Sri Lankan brand all over the world, he said.

“Despite its long history in tea, India has yet to establish a brand in the international market,” an exporter said.