Not brewing right

Tea in the Darjeeling hills is losing its flavour

 
By VIMAL KHAWAS
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Not brewing right

-- TEA from the Darjeeling hills are among the most celebrated varieties in the country. Combination of geo-environmental and agro-climatic conditions in the region makes production favourable for the tea industry, which has been producing tea for over 150 years now. But the industry is fraught with problems, which are affecting the output adversely.

Hiccups There are several issues that plague the industry today: sickness, closure or lock ups, tea gardens being abandoned, frequent violence and strikes across tea gardens; wage, education, health and livelihood issues of workers; crop productivity, old tea bushes, degradation and depletion of local ecology in and around tea plantations; intellectual property rights; decreasing value of Darjeeling tea in global markets and competition from countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Japan are among the problems.

On an average, the total production of tea in the hills has varied between 8 million kg and 11 million kg in the last decade. The industry roughly generates about Rs 150-200 crore annually. A major part of the annual production of Darjeeling tea is exported. Key buyers include Germany, Japan, the uk, the us, and other eu countries.

There has been a continuous decline in the production of tea and per hectare (ha) yield in the last 50 years. During the 1960s and 1970s, Darjeeling used to produce over 15 million kg of tea. The decline has been drastic since the mid 1990s. Today, the region produces less than 9 million kg of tea and the yield at present is below 550 kg per ha, which is far below the national average of over 1,750 kg per ha.

Blocks In the world market, about 50 million kg of tea is supplied as 'Darjeeling tea' while the total production of Darjeeling tea is less than 10 million kg. Most of these come from Sri Lanka, Kenya and even Nepal of late, and are branded as Darjeeling tea.

This practice has had a negative impact on the Darjeeling tea industry. In an effort to stop this market and sustain its intellectual property rights, the Darjeeling logo was created as early as 1986 and registered in the uk, the us, Canada, Japan, Egypt and Spain.

A Certification Trade Mark Scheme for Darjeeling Tea was also launched in 2000 after several complaints from across the world about fake Darjeeling Tea being supplied in the international market. But it is still not recognised by the wto as a geographical indicator.

Another factor is that the majority of the tea bushes in the area have well passed their prime age. About 65 per cent of the total tea bushes are over 50 years, while more that 50 per cent have been there for over 100 years. Over 15 per cent bushes are between 20 years and 50 years of age and only about 20 per cent are under 20 years. There have been repeated suggestions by researchers and tea experts to replant old tea bushes in the Darjeeling Hills. But tea companies have over the years turned a deaf ear to such suggestions.

Re-plantation is a tedious job. Besides, when replanted, it takes at least five years to reach a stage when leaves can be plucked. It is this gap of five years that companies fear most because they have to pay workers and invest huge amount in re-plantation venture, without getting any money in return. There have been suggestions that all tea garden practise organic farming so that they can attract buyers.

Monoculture has also led to the decline in quality. Experts believe soil in plantation areas do not have enough nutrients. And healthy tea bushes cannot grow on sick soil. Monoculture has further affected the bio-diversity of the hills and has weakened the genetic strength of tea bushes and other associated biota. Re-mineralisation is an option, but it requires a scientific approach.

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