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Covid-19 pandemic wipes off premium first flush Darjeeling teas

SAM SUNDAY FEATURE-ENG-19-04-2020 (1)

Shelves at the gourmet tea house Mariage Freres in Paris, known for selling premium Darjeeling teas, which people fondly call ‘the Champagne of teas’, are now empty. Before the COVID-19 pandemic Darjeeling tea had been selling at €70 to €80 per 100 grams, or an outrageous Rs.65,876 per kg. 

More than 7,500km away from Europe, the sprawling plantations carpeting the hills in Darjeeling in Eastern Indian state of West Bengal, are facing a grim future. Darjeeling planters are waiting for a ‘panacea’ from the Indian federal and State governments, to recover from the nation-wide lockdown that has ‘unfortunately’ coincided with the plucking season of the first flush teas, which provide high quality aromatic brews that connoisseurs around the globe yearn for.

Tea planters in the Darjeeling hills, for the first time in history since the British planted tea bushes in the hill slopes in the 1840s, are helplessly watching their iconic first flush leaves either withering in the bushes or lying in the shuttered factories. Eighty seven plantation that dot the Darjeeing hills are shut.

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Plantation owners and industry bodies say that it will take more than a few weeks or even a month, before the tea bushes get back in shape even after the possible re-opening of tea gardens at the end of April.

Tea planters in Darjeeling and the industry lobby say they are waiting for the response of the State government following a fresh directive from the Indian federal government to tea growing States to exempt tea plantations from the purview of the nation-wide lockdown in force since mid-night of March 25.

They are also apprehensive that the domino effect has hit the quality and harvest of the second flush teas, the bulk of which (or more than 70%) is exported.

The Darjeeling tea industry, after going through a slump for consecutive years since the 104 day 2017shutdown, had experienced good weather and had a good harvest of first flush tea this year, says Ashok Kumar Lohia, chairman of the Chamong Group of Companies which own 13 tea plantations in Darjeeling. But those good times are only a memory now.

Most European buyers and high-end tea houses and malls stock up the prized Darjeeling first flush teas before Easter, said Lohia, whose family-owned plantations exclusively produces organic muscatel teas and who sells his entire produce directly to top tea buyers in Germany, the UK, Japan and the Middle East. 

The first flush teas or the spring flush teas are harvested between March 15 and April 10 every year after the fresh tea leaves sprout in bright and sunny winter. 

“Even tea plucked on the same day may not be consistent in quality because cultivation takes place at different altitudes – the higher the better,” Lohia said. He is a former chairperson of the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), a plantation lobby group.

“Tea grown in the same estate doesn’t fetch the same price all year round—the quality changes with seasons and with most bushes lying overgrown with leaves, all high-priced niche tea is gone and teas that fetch €60 to €70 for wholesale, are now lying in the factories as we have not been able to export it due to the lockdown in Europe as well as in India,” Lohia added.

According to DTA chairperson exporter Binod Mohan, the prized first flush plucking season—which generates 50% of the industry’s revenues, is totally lost.“The consequences are likely to get worse depending on the length of the lockdown,” Mohan, also a planter and exporter, told South Asian Monitor.

“So there will be huge economic consequences. We are staring at an estimated loss of more than Rs.1.5 billion just for the first flush teas,” he added. 

Both Mohan and Lohia say that the State government has to take a call, keeping the safety of workers and the interest of the industry in mind at the same time. “We will take steps according to what the State government decides,” Mohan said. 

Until the filing of this story, the West Bengal government had not responded to the federal government’s directive. 

But bad weather compounded with militant unionism and recurring political turmoil in the highly volatile politically restive hills, have over the decades taken their toll on the tea industry, one of the mainstay of the hill economy apart from tourism.

Anil Bansal of the Ambootia Group, which owns 14 tea estates in Darjeeling hills, said many estates owners may not survive the crisis. “No one is certain when the plantations will re-open or if the lockdown will be extended,” Bansal told South Asian Monitor. Many tea factories will be shut and ownership of estates will change, say industry insiders. 

“The impact of the 2017 shutdown was so huge that nobody realized it till hit them. So nothing can be predicted about what will happen after the COVID-19 pandemic dips,” a Darjeeling tea planter, who did not wish to be named, told SAM.

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

Mohan too said that considering the carry-over deficits of the impact of the 104-day long hills shutdown in 2017, the Darjeeling tea industry has not recovered.

A renewed standoff between the Gorkhas in the hills of Darjeeling and the West Bengal government over the demand for a separate homeland of Gorkhaland for ethnic Gorkhas from mid-June to end-September in 2017, saw the 87 tea gardens shutdown.

There have been many flashpoints in the hill district earlier too—in the mid-1980s more than 1,200 people perished in mindless killings following which a new order emerged, with the Gorkhas being given some autonomy in the civic development of Darjeeling hills.

A 20-year experiment with the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) ended in 2008, following which Darjeeling descended into chaos again. Clearly, the aspirations of the Gorkha community were not fulfilled and the demand for a separate homeland was revived.

Four more years of agitation and uncertainty led to the formation of the Gorkha Territorial Administration in 2012 with greater autonomy and financial backing. But this too failed within five years.

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There are 67,000 people who are directly employed in the 87 tea plantations in Darjeeling hills, besides another 19,000 temporary employees are hired during the four plucking seasons around the year, says Sandip Mukherjee Advisor to the DTA.

“Darjeeling produces less than 8.5 million kg every year or a miniscule 0.1 % of the total tea produced in India every year. But the spring and summer harvests are considered to be the most premium and fetch the best prices,” Mukherjee said. 

Contracting yields have swelled the cost of production, and the industry on an average sells 40-50% of the crop at unprofitable prices. Yield in Darjeeling has steadily fallen from 14 million kg, once the estates started to shun chemical inputs, Mukherjee explained. The crop has also been impacted by climate change. A drought in March is now quite common, Mukherjee pointed out.

Even though big global brands are unable to replace Darjeeling teas with any other teas due to GI protection, Mukherjee said that political uncertainty in the hills had made “Darjeeling tea unreliable and unpredictable as a brand to global buyers though 65% of teas produced in the hills are exported. Importers of Darjeeling teas are turning towards Nepal to fill in the gap in the demand,” Mukherjee said.