Kolkata, India – The world-famous Darjeeling tea gardens in India’s West Bengal state immediately elicit picturesque images of clouds floating above tea bush-covered hills where women, draped in colorful sarongs, pluck tea leaves which they collect in woven baskets tied to their backs.
But behind these postcard visuals lies another reality: falling production and demand as buyers turn to cheaper alternatives from neighboring Nepal, endangering the future of a region and of its workers, once known for producing the “champagne of teas”.
“The future of Darjeeling tea is bleak and the end seems near if the situation remains the same,” warned Subhasish Roy, director of Arya Tea Estate in Darjeeling. “Several thousand people will lose their livelihoods and this heritage will be lost forever. »
Darjeeling’s iconic tea industry was started by former British rulers who replanted bushes on Indian hills from China in the mid-19th century.
Today, the hills have 87 tea gardens spread over 17,800 hectares (44,000 acres) with a total production of around 6,640 tonnes (6.64 million kg or mkg) of organic tea in 2022, less than the 7 .69 mkg produced in 2019, according to the Tea Office. Board of India, the apex body of the tea industry.
Tea experts attribute several reasons for the decline in production, including a drop of nearly 40 percent since the gardens were converted to organic farming to meet buyer demand, said Sanjay Choudhry, owner of Ringtong tea plantation.
“We are also facing a severe labor shortage as the younger generation is not ready to enter the industry and migration is rampant. Climate change is another reason for the decline in production,” he added.
Fall in exports
The premium tea mainly caters to the international markets of Russia, Japan, Iran, USA and European countries. But exports to these countries have declined over the past five years.
In 2022, Darjeeling exported 3.02 million kg of tea, or 45.48 percent of the total production, compared to 3.71 million kg or 48.24 percent of the production in 2018, according to the Tea Board.
Even India’s overall tea exports fell to 226.98 million kg in 2022 from 251.91 million kg in 2017, it said.
Darjeeling tea producers blame neighboring Nepal and its free trade agreement with India as one of the main reasons for their shrinking market share.
In 2022, Nepal exported around 15 million kg of orthodox tea to India, compared to 10 million kg the previous year, according to the Tea Board. Orthodox tea refers to loose tea leaves produced using traditional or orthodox methods, including picking, rolling, and drying. In Darjeeling, tea gardens have factories to process tea leaves. In Nepal, there is a tendency to sell tea leaves to factories.
Indian tea estates, unlike those in Nepal, are also required to provide benefits such as provident fund, gratuities and medical facilities, among others, pushing up costs.
Ashok Lohia, chairman of Chamong Tea Estates, which owns 14 tea estates in the hills and is one of the largest exporters of Darjeeling tea, says Nepal has many advantages over India.
“Their orthodox production comes mainly from small producers who do not have processing plants and therefore their costs are much lower than those of us. Nepalese tea also enjoys free trade with India, but other neighboring countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (are imposed) 100 percent import duties on their sales there. India, Lohia said.
High wages in the hills and low export prices have also taken a toll on the industry, he said.
“About 70 percent of the cost of production includes labor and wages,” Lohia said. For example, he explained, around the year 2000, tea pickers earned around 35 rupees per day ($0.42), while the export price of tea was around 10 euros ( $11). Today, wages are 250 rupees per day ($3) while the export price is $19 to $20 per kg.
Gunter Faltin, based in Berlin, is one of the largest importers of Darjeeling tea to European countries. European demand, he said, is suffering “from a double whammy of recession and pandemic which has reduced the purchasing capacity of our customers”.
During a recent visit to Darjeeling, he told Al Jazeera he feared increased imports of cheap Nepali tea would “destroy” the livelihoods of thousands of tea pickers in Darjeeling. It also hurts his business, he admitted.
The Darjeeling tea industry directly and indirectly employs around 300,000 people, including 55,000 tea pluckers.
Even the pickers are worried about their future, pointing the finger at their colleagues who have been laid off or who have not received their allowances on the 20 plantations which are in loss.
“We always receive our salaries and other payments on time, but we do not know how long this will continue because the general condition is not good… I am worried about my future,” Sarla Thapar, 45, harvester tea at Arya Tea Estate. , told Al Jazeera.
According to Jeetendra Malu, president of the Darjeeling Tea Association, nearly 30 percent of the gardens are in default and have not repaid their staff’s statutory benefits, such as provident funds and gratuities. The problems began in 2017 and have gotten worse since then, he added.
The fall started in 2017
Hill tea growers say the nearly five-month-long shutdown in the hills by a political group over its demand for a separate state in 2017 has proven disastrous for the tea industry, and that it was never able to fully recover from it.
“The strike could not have come at a worse time as it was a peak season for the first and second harvest of tea which is our premium product,” said Sumon Majumder, managing director of Hmp Group Kolkata and of Darjeeling tea exporters. “International buyers who had already placed orders were waiting for delivery but the lockdown stopped everything. »
“Global importers started looking for an alternative to buy tea similar to Darjeeling and came across Nepal which produced almost similar look but different taste and was also grown at the same altitude and climatic conditions with lower production costs. They cannot match our quality, but exporters have termed it as Himalayan tea in the international market and sold it at a better price,” he said.
Even domestic buyers started mixing Darjeeling tea with cheap quality Nepal tea to make money as customers hardly saw any difference between the two teas.
Choudhry of Ringtong Tea Plantation also raised serious questions with the Tea Board regarding the health risks caused by Nepal tea and said that monocrotophos, a banned insecticide, is used extensively in Nepal.
“The Food Safety and Standards Act mandates verification of 34 health parameters at a government laboratory accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) before being found fit to supply to India. But proper laboratory tests (on imports from Nepal) are rarely carried out, putting people’s lives at risk. »
What is the exit?
The Darjeeling tea industry has unanimously demanded a review of the India-Nepal free trade agreement and strict implementation of a geographical indication (GI) banning the blending of Darjeeling with tea. other teas.
In 2004, Darjeeling tea became the first Indian product to receive a GI tag due to its distinctive flavor and aroma.
“Undoubtedly, Darjeeling tea industry is on ventilator and the situation is too bad. But we must seek new international markets to survive. We cannot always blame (foreign buyers)… We also need to explore the domestic market to expand our reach and find new buyers,” said Anshuman Kanoria, president of the Indian Tea Exporters Association.
“We also need to strictly enforce GI labels and impose import duties to save our industry, otherwise the end is not far away,” he added, especially as some international buyers have stopped all their Darjeeling tea purchases after the turmoil of 2017.
Senior Tea Board officials said they were looking into the matter. “The board has already submitted a proposal (for a financial bailout) to the Union commerce ministry for the tea industry which also includes Darjeeling tea,” said Saurav Pahari, vice-chairman of the Tea Board of India.
The board, he added, has issued periodic notifications and circulars to prevent passing of tea from Nepal under the name Darjeeling tea.
But this has done little to bring any comfort to the industry located in picturesque hills. “If given the chance, most garden owners would love to leave picturesque Darjeeling,” Kanoria candidly concedes.