Storm brews inside a Darjeeling tea cup

There has been a steady decline in the output of Darjeeling tea over the last few decades with production stagnating at around 8 million kgs over the last few years. The slopes of eastern Himalayas, is the only region in the world, where this tea with its unique muscatel flavour can be grown.
Output stood at 8.42 million kgs in 2014, rising to 8.69 million kgs in 2015 before dropping to 8.45 million kgs in 2016, official statistics show. According to Darjeeling Tea Association, output stood at 14 million kgs in 1991. There are some 87 operational tea estates in Darjeeling which grow and manufacture the leaves, most of which is exported .
Admitting that production has stagnated, Darjeeling Tea Association chairman Binod Mohan told The Hindu that climate-change impact, lack of technical support and inadequate region-specific or organic research were among factors at play leading to crop stagnation. Conversion to organic-cultivation in tune with international trends has also affected yield.
“ There is also large-scale absenteeism among the 60,000 strong workforce ( 60 % women),” Mr Mohan said, adding that the staff frequently abstain from work to attend to the horticulture crops, grown on small patches of land.” Darjeeling’s plantation area houses nearly four lakh people.
The industry is not only losing crop, but facing revenue-loss and most of the 35 companies with estates in Darjeeling make operational losses on the gardens. The high-cost of operations, coupled with un-remunerative prices especially for lower grades and the ageing bushes (average 75 years) have contributed to the current scenario, according to DTA officials.
Kaushik Basu, DTA, secretary general, said that with 55 per cent of the crop turning organic , production costs have risen with increased need for manpower and pest-management. He is also concerned about import of deceptively similar tea from Nepal, which is harming the industry.
The average production cost of the Darjeeling tea industry is round Rs 450 per kg. The fact that the erratic weather has mostly occurred during the peak `first-flush’ and `second- flush’ seasons (which yields the premium teas), has also affected earnings.

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Harki Sidhu, Consulting Programme Co-ordinator, India, Rainforest Alliance, concurred that many grades of this exotic brew were selling below cost-of-production on quality-grounds. He however felt that the present cultivation-practices were equally to blame for the current state of affairs.
“ Declining soil-health, since the days of use of chemicals, is a major cause for concern .This coupled with the ageing bushes has led to quality drops and lower prices.. there is also loss of the top-soil due to indifferent weed-management practices.. the unique soil is being lost”, he rued.
“ That unique muscatel flavour comes from the micro-nutrients in the soil” he said, cautioning that industry will continue to lose crop, if it does not alter its current agri-practices.
Joydip Pukhan Tea Research Association Secretary said that TRA provides advisory services to the 70 member-estates. These pertain to the area of climate-change and the use of agro-chemicals. He said that the average yield is 470 kg/hectare.
Tea Board officials said that while there is no targeted programme for the Darjeeling tea industry, support is offered through the subsidy for replanation and rejuvenation of bushes. “We also provide support through subsidy for their orthodox tea output. GI protection is also given for the industry.” the official said.
Tea Board chairman P K Bezboruah said that the immediate task should be to get better prices for the lower grades (brokens and fannings) . Selling teas through auction will help price discovery.” Currently very little Darjeeling teas are sold through auction. EOM

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