Having spent all my life in the Darjeeling region, I am aware that the tea industry offers much fodder for discussion. Even amongst us locals, tea slips into conversations naturally and easily. But from outside, authors and journalists regularly make their way to the hills to write about Darjeeling and its tea. I read many of these books, partly out of curiosity – what does an outsider have to say about my town – but also to see if they offer new insights.
The most recent book on Darjeeling is by American author Jeff Koehler titled Darjeeling, The Story of the World’s Greatest Tea. It’s well researched and offers a view of Darjeeling that even a layperson will comprehend. But as I read it, I couldn’t shake off the niggling uneasiness. Were Mr Koehler’s views too pessimistic? Had he left Darjeeling with the feeling that the days of our tea gardens are numbered?
He’s not the first to feel this way. Others have too, and even have gone on record to say so. I suppose much of it is reasonable enough. Darjeeling produces a small volume of India’s total tea production. There is no scope to increase it despite demand. And within this, there have been multiple factors that have posed a threat.
Where do things really stand in Darjeeling's tea estates? Click To Tweet
Tea plants depend on the weather and delayed rains and drought can impact an entire year’s harvest. India’s post-independent ‘green revolution’ played havoc with the terroir. Soil erosion from excessive chemical use coupled with the loss of forest cover have rendered the terrain very fragile.
Add to this, the inclusion of Darjeeling with the leftist state of West Bengal, which has never sat well with the local Gorkhas, who form the bulk of the tea-industry’s work force. The Gorkha agitation for a separate state has been a long and difficult one. In fact, this has repeatedly brought work to a halt. Even as recently as 2013, the Gorkha Janmukthi Morcha went on an offensive and the matter’s still unresolved. There’s an undercurrent of tension that certainly exists.
“But these,” says Ashok Kumar, who owns Goomtee tea estate, “are ancillary problems. The central problem is that the entire year’s profitability depends on a small percentage of the production, produced between March and June every year. Everyone is competing for this narrow volume. Further, for four months between November and March there is no production and no profits.”
And yet, look at the other side of the story: the prices Darjeeling teas command. In 2015, it was Namring estate whose First Flush was prized at the London auction, where 90kgs sold for a whopping Rs 40 lakh!
So where do things really stand.
The producers of Darjeeling tea are not new to challenges, especially those related to weather and soil. And in time, they have learnt to deal with them. “We have evolved every time,” adds Ashok, who has spent the last 40 years in this industry. “When the British planters left in the ‘50s, there was a crisis but we managed to resolve it. When the Russian markets fell through, we picked ourselves up… Time and again, there has been a need for a new start in Darjeeling. And we have always succeeded in doing so. I think this is the start of yet another period of evolution.”
Prateek Poddar who runs Namring tea estate agrees. “The mistake we have always made is to put all our eggs in one basket. We focussed on a single market, whether it was Russia or Germany.”
But he also says something extremely significant – that we have failed to promote Darjeeling tea within India. And here lies a huge market waiting to be tapped.
I agree with both Ashok and Prateek that as long as we can ensure the quality of Darjeeling’s teas, and focus on marketing it well, to a domestic market and overseas, we can hope for profitability.
The future of Darjeeling has much to look forward to. A majority of the stake, as Prateek says, lies with four of the largest producers who are here to stay. The GI tag that Darjeeling tea was given three years ago will come into play from early 2016. With this, all teas sold as “Darjeeling” must be 100% Darjeeling teas (and not a blend of 51% Darjeeling with other teas that we are seeing now).
These are significant and positive steps for Darjeeling. Yes, there are things that need fixing and while unlikely to happen overnight, will certainly see change in the years to come.
And let’s face it – Darjeeling’s tea gardens are a 150 years old. They have survived two world wars, colonial rule, the Indian freedom movement, the establishment of a new country, several landslides, drought and high monsoons, the green revolution and much more. And yet, they are still standing, producing some of the finest teas in the world.
I attribute this resilience to the shared pride we have as residents of Darjeeling. It’s a legacy we have inherited and that we uphold responsibly.