Kochi: The premium ?second flush of Darjeeling tea, the best variety from the region, is in trouble over the demand for a separate Gorkha state.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which is leading the agitation, has decided that, starting Wednesday, tea estates will not be spared from the indefinite strike that began last week. “If the tea gardens are not tended for a week and the plants are allowed to grow, the quality of the tea will be affected,” said Rajeev Lochan, chairman of Lochan Tea Co.
Trouble brewing: Labourers pluck tea leaves in a plantation at Shipaidura village, 40km from Darjeeling. (Photograph by Rupak De Chowdhuri/ Reuters)
GJM had earlier said the strike would spare schools and the 87 gardens in Darjeeling.
“It is a grave situation,” claims Basudev Banerjee, chairman of the Tea Board, a trade promotion body. “Production has already been affected. All the banks are closed and it is not possible for tea estates and factories to pay the workers their wages.”
The second flush, harvested in June, gives an aromatic, full-bodied flavour and accounts for 45% of the annual tea exports from the hill district in West Bengal.
The best of the tea leaves plucked during this season fetch a premium of up to Rs8,000 per kg in the international market. The average price for the second flush is Rs800-1,000 per kg. The strike has already kept foreign buyers from reaching Darjeeling to check the quality of tea before placing orders.
Members of the Tea Board and the Darjeeling Planters Association (DPA) met state authorities on Monday to discuss the impact of the stir on the industry. They have been trying to contact the agitators as well, said Ashok Lohia, president of DPA.
Tea growers recall being spared during the violent agitation of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) led by Subash Ghising, that rocked the district 20 years ago.
Ronen Datta, former secretary of DPA who has been with the Darjeeling tea industry for 50 years, remembers the tea industry did not feel the pinch during the strike in the 1980s, as work in the gardens was not affected and the agitators had allowed processed tea to be moved out of the district.
Locals fear prolonged agitation now could prove disastrous to the industry and to the livelihood of more than 60,000 workers employed.
About 10 million kg of Darjeeling tea is produced annually, fetching about Rs350 crore a year. More than 80% is exported, accounting for 8% of the country’s total annual tea exports worth more than Rs1,500 crore in 2007.
Darjeeling tea gets its particular flavour from the Himalayan region, where it is grown at an altitude of more than 3,000ft above sea level. At that height, the atmosphere has less oxygen resulting in more oxidants in the tea leaves.
Last year, Darjeeling tea earned the geographical indication (GI) status, a global recognition of the exclusive quality and characteristics that can be attributed solely to the region in which it is grown.
But, 2008 has been tough for the Darjeeling tea industry, with production falling by about 30% since January because of less than favourable weather.