Darjeeling Tea Industry: Present & Future
A Brief History of Darjeeling Tea Industry
The first commercial production of Darjeeling tea began in 1856. A flurry of activities started and gardens started to open up at a rapid pace. Makaibari at Kurseong, Aloobari tea estate, Tukvar at Canning and Hopetown below Sonada were the first gardens to come up.
Between 1859 and 1864, several other gardens opened up including Cedars & Roongmook, Ambootia, Margaret's Hope, Phoobtshering, Takdah, followed by Stienthal, Badamtam, etc. The first tea garden at the lower plains came up in 1862 near Khaprail.
In 10 years time, there were 39 tea gardens in Darjeeling district. In another 5 years, there were 56 gardens and by 1905 Darjeeling district had 79 tea gardens. The rapid growth continued and by 1914, there were 156 gardens in Darjeeling covering an area of about 54,000 acres under tea alone (i.e. without the wasteland) and employing over 30,000 permanent and 12,000 temporary workers.
The tea gardens then produced a total of over 8 million kilograms of tea annually. Almost all employees of the gardens were of Napalese origin and 60% of them were women. Much of the gardens' success was dependent on the supply of Nepali laborers from the nearby Nepal hills. However, when the first world war began in 1914, the supply of Nepali workers dried up as many were taken to the war.
Although the Indian Tea Association tried hard with the government to stop recruitment of Nepalis in Gorkha Regiment so that the flow of laborers to the gardens remained unaffected, it did not work. Eventually, several gardens had to close down or were taken over by the others.
Present Tea Industry in Darjeeling
Today, there are 87 tea gardens spread across roughly 19,000 hectares (46,950 acres) of land area, employing about 52,000 permanent workers. It is estimated that about 200,000 families are dependant on the wages of these garden workers. Another 15,000 contract employees are also engaged during the tea plucking time (March to November). Almost all of these workers are of Nepalese origin and majority are women.
The gardens today collectively produces about 10 million kilograms (i.e. 22 million pounds) of tea every year. Check out Tea Estates in Darjeeling
to know about some of the best tea gardens that are operating in Darjeeling.
The workers get their wages mostly at the end of the month. Some gardens even offer weekly wages. The garden workers and their families today enjoy several perquisites. Other than free housing, they also get free medical treatment, medicine, drinking water, crèches for babies for working mothers, children education etc. This protects the families to a large extent from the impact of inflation. The workers also get special allowances and incentives.
There are several types of Darjeeling tea that are cultivated in the gardens. From Black Tea which is most common to green tea, and the ultimate delicacy of White Tea for the real teetotalers. The price range starts from few hundreds of rupees to several thousands of rupees per kg depending on the type. Check out Types, Flavors & Grades of Darjeeling Tea
for the details about the varieties.
Although tourism provides one of the major earnings for Darjeeling, it is tea which remains as the highest revenue earner for the district even today and provides the highest employment in the district (to more than half the population).
Future of Darjeeling Tea Industry
So what does the future hold for Darjeeling Tea Industry? Well, it is a fact that healthy rivalry between the gardens, innovation and technology have all pushed the quality of tea only in the higher direction so far - the best has only become better. So one does have hope for the same trend to continue in the future as well. However there are some glaring facts that can't be ignored. And they are:
Where is the land for further expansion of tea?
Every piece of land in Darjeeling district has been given away for tea plantation. The only exception are the town & forests areas. Some areas of Kalimpong and Mirik were spared from tea plantation because the railway lines did not reach there which was required for cost effective transportation of tea. Such limited areas have become the only farm lands in the district.
In late 1800s when most of the tea gardens came up, the pioneering planters used 40% of their land for tea plantation, left about 40% of the land undisturbed, and the rest for building housing and other facilities for the workers. The undisturbed areas were the untouched natural jungles that were guarded and protected. This foresight was about retaining ecological balance in the entire area.
However after independence, the state government brought in a legislation that declared such private jungles as wasteland and not required for tea plantation. As a result rampant encroachment started taking place in those areas, and they are now mostly gone.
So the question is, where is the area for further expansion of tea gardens in Darjeeling hills?
How long will the same golden duck keep laying eggs?
It is well known that the perennial tea bushes are extremely hardy plants and can live for long many years. In fact in many of the tea gardens, bushes are over 100 years old, some are more than 150 years old. These were planted in 1800s by the British planters.
But everybody knows that nothing on this earth can live forever. These bushes have been kept alive and made to deliver with scientific methods such as better pesticides, field husbandry, use of higher quality chemical fertilizers etc. But eventually the writing is on the wall if the gardens have to continue with the same old tea bushes. The fact is the soils keep depleting and the bushes keep dying.
So where is the problem in growing new bushes? There are several actually. Over the last 40 years the bushes have been replanted at the rate of only 2%. The main problems have been financial constraints and lack of proper farm policy. The long gestation period of 6 to 9 years to grow tea plants from nursery to matured bush in the hills requires substantial continuous investments. This gestation period is more than double required to grow tea in the plains.
Snob value of Darjeeling tea
Out of close to 80 tea estates in Darjeeling district, the buyers are aware of only few gardens that have created a huge brands for themselves. Many others although produce very high quality Darjeeling tea remain unheard of. More over, people pay huge premiums to buy the first and second flush teas that are produced in Spring and summer. Some companies with great brands sell even the first and second flush black teas at astronomical prices (few thousand rupees a kg) and the consumers merrily buy them. This is the snob value of tea.
The fact is during spring and summer, only about 25% of the total tea production takes place. The bulk of Darjeeling tea is produced during the monsoon time when there are hardly any takers other than some traditional buyers. And they get away with throw away prices, sometimes even at a rate below the cost of production. Over the years, the snob value of Darjeeling tea has been pampered by the gardens to win the race of highest price commanded. There are awards and certificates given away at the Tea Auction to the brand that attracts the highest rate. As a result the balancing act has become a great concern. Can they do it in the future?
Is Organic Tea the final answer?
After some forty years of using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weed cleaners, it is now clear that such measures could barely sustain the yield or production level of Darjeeling tea, and have failed to increase the crop. The formula worked in the lower plains to deliver higher yield, but not in Darjeeling hills.
There is now a serious consideration towards organic farming. Using non synthetic and organic fertilizers and pesticides is only one step towards proper organic farming. The main idea is to restore the soil fertility in its natural form for long term sustainability, and restoring complete ecological balance in the area by taking measures such as redeveloping the forest areas that once existed along with the gardens.
It is now firmly believed by many tea planters that soil with its rich natural nutrients at optimal level (which is possible with jungles around) along with the climate can take the growth of Darjeeling tea back to its peak. There are now 9 gardens in Darjeeling area that have already turned to full scale organic farming ("bio tea"). One of them is Makaibari Tea Estate
Infiltration of Nepal Tea and its side effects
A very intriguing statistic says that the weight of tea sold annually as ‘Darjeeling Tea' is many times more than actual weight of Darjeeling tea production. So the mystery of how ‘Darjeeling Tea’ supply actually exceeds production is solved in this section.
Every star inspires duplicates and things are no different for the champagne of teas ‘Darjeeling Tea’. The huge influx of Nepalese tea which tastes and looks almost identical to Darjeeling tea (but is much cheaper in price) has been infiltrating India. The Free Trade Agreement between India and Nepal has allowed Indian traders to bring in Nepal tea freely and then resell it to reap profits. Most of this Nepal tea is sold in India as ‘Darjeeling Tea’ and that’s where it affects the economy and brand the most.
Even tea connoisseurs find it difficult to identify differences between Nepal and Darjeeling tea as both varieties grow in the Himalayan slopes and benefit from the slopes and mist. They have similar aroma and flavor and the difference is too small for most users to identify which is what.
Nepal Tea does not have the GI tag and is not certified whereas Darjeeling Tea (from 70% of the tea estates) is certified organic and their GI tag gives them an edge in the international market. The export of Darjeeling tea to the international market has still been affected by Nepal tea because of the price difference.
Industry reports state that Nepalese tea is brought by small retailers at 100 INR to 150 INR per kg and then being sold to buyers at 250 INR to 300 INR per kg which is way less than Darjeeling tea prices. Because of the similar taste of Nepal tea, the price conscious customer groups have been buying this Nepal tea as a substitute for Darjeeling Tea.
Indian bought leaf factories still keep buying tea from Nepal and this smoothens the import of Nepal tea into India. The Darjeeling Tea Association has been maintaining a tight control over the 87 tea gardens in Darjeeling and has ensured that they don’t buy tea from Nepal. However Nepalese tea from their gardens (Antu valley, Sri Antu valley, Malum, Guranassi) enter through Mirik and bring in their tea for processing in the bought leaf factories that abound in Siliguri and that’s how the infiltration happens. About 6.5 million kg Nepal tea per annum has been imported in India in the last fiscal year.
Because of the low price cap of Nepal tea, the prices of Darjeeling tea also can’t go up and that’s another factor negatively impacting the domestic Darjeeling tea economy.
Updates & Prospects of Darjeeling Tea
Update February 2018
Gorkhaland agitation for a separate state lasted in Darjeeling hills for 104 days starting in June 2017 and ending in September 2017, but achieved nothing. However the agitation did not spare even the tea gardens and thus severely jeopardized the prospects of its Jewel and the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) product - The Darjeeling Tea. There was no production in July and August, and Darjeeling tea for the first time lost its position to the far cheaper Nepal tea at the tea auctions.
Due to continued demand for Darjeeling tea from the world market, especially from the US, UK and Japan, the blenders and exporters in India were forced to bring in Nepal tea and blend them with Indian orthodox tea creating a flavor and look close to that of Darjeeling tea. They sold them with a label of Nepal as country of origin while some simply sold Nepal tea as Indian Black Tea.
The experts and the blenders say that one variant of Nepal tea known as Illam is so close to Darjeeling tea in flavor, aroma and look that it's very difficult to differentiate between the two. And Nepal tea in general is about 60% cheaper than Darjeeling tea. Some high quality Darjeeling tea could even command a price of $850 per kg at the earlier auctions. This is mainly because about 60% of tea produced in the gardens of Darjeeling are organic out of which some bushes are over 150 years old.
So what eventually happened? Nepal tea entered the world market through India... in fact about 98% of the total annual production of 37 million Kgs of Nepal tea now comes to India and gets auctioned in the world market in lieu of Darjeeling tea... sellers are happy, buyers are too.
Out of the four flushes of Darjeeling tea (summer, muscatel, monsoon and autumn) which are harvested on specific months and which have different quality of leaves, Darjeeling has already missed out on the muscatel and monsoon flushes as there was no production. Planters & exporters have no choice and are clear on one thing... they have to meet the world market demand, be it with Nepal tea.
And the complexity of the situation is further compounded by several other factors. During the agitation period, many garden workers left and migrated to the plains and even to Assam. So tea plucking and productions are at their lowest now. Workers in 35 out of the 87 tea estates in Darjeeling are demanding better education and medical facilities for their families which further affects the production. And the working capital at the hands of the planters are now at its lowest.
This is a serious crisis. From an annual export of Darjeeling tea worth $80 million, the export in current financial could drop to $40 million. Some veteran experts say that it could easily take one more year for Darjeeling tea to recover and regain its original position in the world market, if at all.
Update May 2016
For over 150 years Darjeeling tea has been sold into the world market (mainly US, Europe and Japan) through the seven auction centers at Kolkata, Siliguri, Guwahati, Jalpaiguri, Cochin, Coimbatore and Coonoor through manual auctions. It has been kept out of online auction (i.e. e-Auction) all these years because of the possibility of unpredictable price hikes that may take place during bidding. It is worth noting that during an auction in 2014, Darjeeling tea was purchased at a record price of US$1,850 (around Rs. 1.12lakhs) per KG.
At last the fate is changing for Darjeeling tea. It has been announced at a press conference in Kolkata that effective June 2016, Pan India e-auctions would be launched and Darjeeling tea can also participate in that. All sellers and buyers who are registered with one of the seven centers can participate in e-auctions. The sellers can now access various other online auction centers across the world and get a large base of new buyers.
Update September 2015
The trend shows that the EU countries have purchased significantly more Darjeeling Tea this year compared to the previous year. This is likely due to the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status of Darjeeling tea which now does not authorize sellers to sell any blends under Darjeeling tea generic brand, and instead they can only sell pure Darjeeling tea under Darjeeling tea brand.
Update January 2015
Global warming has started taking its toll on Darjeeling Tea as well. Due to continuous rise in temperature over the past few years, the yield or production of processed Darjeeling tea is under big threat. There is usually no plucking between December and February (the peak winter time) when Darjeeling tea bushes require adequate chill and moisture to rejuvenate before the first flush tea leaves are plucked. However the average January day time temperature has been steadily rising year after year (13.3°C in 2013 to 13.8°C in 2014 to now 13.9°C in 2015). This is coupled with decrease in humidity (moisture content in the air) is a cause of great threat.
Other than the natural changes causing the rise in temperature in Darjeeling hills, one of the other key reasons is the continuous influx of people. Due to good climate for most part of the year, many from surrounding states keep migrating to Darjeeling. The census has shown that the rate of influx between 1951 and 2001 here is 3 times more than the national average.
The yield of processed tea which averages around 10 million kgs from about 50,000 acres of tea gardens in Darjeeling hills is likely to come down which in turn can threaten the livelihood of over 2 lakhs garden workers. Garden owners may consider using non-organic methods (chemicals) to retain the production level, but that will certainly degrade the quality of tea and its world market price.
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