Darjeeling unrest threatens tea shortage

Darjeeling, August 4

The world faces a shortage of prized Darjeeling tea due to deadly unrest in the idyllic Indian Himalayan foothills where it is grown.

In dozens of lush green plantations across the picturesque hill station, June to August harvest season normally provides bulk of nearly eight million kilos of tea sold a year — most of which goes to Europe.  But with a showdown between native Gorkhas, who provide the majority of plantation workers, and the West Bengal government now 50 days old, production fell by 90 per cent in June.

Tourism has also been badly hit by the dispute in which Gorkha group has halted harvesting and called for a shutdown of tea industry. There have been predictions that prices could rise more than 20 per cent and some Darjeeling tea gardens could take years to recover.

“This year’s harvest is lost,” Sanjay Mittal, director of Ambiok Tea estate, said, adding ‘if the stalemate ends we hope to return next year’.

But Ankit Lochan, president of the Siliguri Tea Traders Association, said that if the strike continues for another few months, ‘almost 50 per cent of the estates will close down for at least two to three years’.

Tea Board India, the government regulatory body, said only 140,000 kilograms of tea was produced in June, a plunge from 1.33 million kilos in the same month last year.

The history and distinctive taste have made Darjeeling one of the world’s most recognised food names. British officer Arthur Campbell started planting tea bushes in 1841 in Darjeeling before commercial plantation began in 1850s. It is the only Indian brand with international protection, meaning that only tea grown in the region can be called Darjeeling.

Specialty teas can sell for up to $1,800 per kilo, while companies such as Indian conglomerate Tata and Unilever sell more mass market varieties around the world.

Clashes and arson attacks have rattled the hills since early June, shutting down businesses, schools and forcing thousands of tourists to flee. Three people have been killed.

Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has been at the forefront of decades of agitation calling for a ‘Gorkhaland’ within West Bengal. They say Bengali-speaking outsiders have exploited their resources and imposed their culture and language.

Plantation owners say the blockade has severely affected the delicate tea bushes that have been overrun by weeds. “Tea bushes need regular irrigation, de-weeding and pruning. It will take weeks if not months to get them back in shape and then more time to start the production,” said Mittal.

Gorkhas’ demands for a separate homeland started in 19th century and have regularly erupted. The latest flare-up started after the government ordered Bengali language lessons in state schools — angering ethnic Gorkhas who speak Nepali.

Plantation owners and traders say a further logjam will spike commodity price and loss of business to rival brands that so far have failed to dent Darjeeling’s global fame.

“If the situation continues like this we might lose business to China, Sri Lanka and Nepal tea brands,” Lochan told AFP.

He said traders fear huge damages demands if they fail to deliver consignments. Lochan said only 20 to 30 per cent of production has been harvested this year.