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The future of Darjeeling – the ‘Champagne of teas’ – is in jeopardy

It’s known as the “Champagne of teas” and is popular with connoisseurs around the world for its impeccable quality.

But today Darjeeling is under threat – from climate change, increasing competition and a shortage of workers as low wages and a rising cost of living in India collide.

Darjeeling the place is a picturesque hill station in West Bengal, around 400 miles from Kolkata, the state capital. The area, surrounded by a green canopy of mountains, is known for its scenic view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world, an international tourist attraction.

The weather is usually cool and pleasant throughout the year, offering respite from the scorching heat of the plains. However, the population of around two million people, packed into a city that takes up just 7.43 square kilometres, is now facing a perfect storm of challenges.

The tea industry is one of the largest employers in the region, providing a livelihood for about 300,000 people, including 55,000 female “tea pluckers”. But workers are struggling to get by on their paltry earnings.

One of them, Anita Prasad, 35, told i: “We spend around seven hours per day plucking leaves from the garden that are then processed into a tea powder in the attached factories.

“It is tough work as it requires constant movement of limbs but the daily wage of Rs250 (£2.39) doesn’t compensate our hard work. The rising cost of daily commodities has made survival difficult. The work in the gardens is also irregular as the management closes the factories, citing losses.”

It’s a stark contrast to the expensive high end British hotels where Darjeeling is offered as one of the world’s finest teas. The strain is also exported in large quantities to the US, Japan and Russia. Around 40 per cent of total produce leaves India for overseas markets.

The industry was established about 170 years ago during the colonial era by the British who used to visit Darjeeling to beat extreme summers in Kolkata, then the capital of India.

The plant species Camellia Sinensis, which produces Darjeeling tea, was first planted in the area in 1841 by Archibald Campbell, an employee of the East India Company.

Darjeeling India Image via Writer Gurvinder Singh
Darjeeling being farmed in India (Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

The first commercial tea gardens were set up in 1855 and there were 39 gardens in Darjeeling by 1866. The tea produced here was first sent to Kolkata, the nearest city with a port, and then to Britain.

But that legacy is now in decline. Darjeeling had 87 lush gardens until a few years ago but the numbers have now dwindled to 74 with 13 having closed due to losses. Annual production fell from 6.9 million kilogrammes in 2022 to 6.3 million kg in 2023, the lowest output in the past 50 years. Industry experts say fast-changing climatic conditions are partly responsible.

“The impact of climate change is visible everywhere, including the tea gardens, where rainfall has become erratic, which has been affecting the quality of the crops and also the flavour of tea, for which it is known globally,” said Sumon Majumder, chief business officer of Surbhi Plantations Pvt limited, exporters of Darjeeling tea.

“The longer drought spells have been affecting the quality and quantity of the tea as the crop is rain-fed.

“The ideal temperature for growing tea is between 18 and 30 degrees [Celsius]. The plant growth is severely affected when the temperature goes above or below the desired level. Apart from that, strong winds, frequent frost, hail and excessive rainfall are also detrimental for production of high-quality tea.

“There is also another major problem of workforce shortage as the young generation is not willing to work as they are educated and prefer city jobs.”

If all that was not enough, the area also faces increasing competition from neighbouring Nepal, which is producing a cheaper alternative.

Nepal enjoys almost the same climatic conditions and altitude as Darjeeling, and has a Free Trade Agreement with India that makes exports to its neighbour duty-free. Some traders are mixing Nepalese with Darjeeling tea and selling it as Himalayan tea in the international market, industry sources say.

As the taste of both the teas is almost the same, it becomes difficult for the end consumer to spot any difference.

“There are small growers in Nepal who sell the tea to the factories [in Nepal] where they are processed but here the tea garden owners here have their own factories, which increases the production cost, and workers have to be paid statutory benefits,” said Jeetendra Malu, president of the Darjeeling Tea Association, adding that several gardens have failed to pay statutory benefits to workers.

Nepal has no such rules. “Besides… we have to pay heavy duty on exports and that drastically raises the cost,” he added. But Nepal is competing, and exporting to countries including China, Russia, Germany and France.

Tea garden owners told i on condition of anonymity that the problems began in 2017, when a four-month strike due to a political movement completely paralysed the industry. “The strike couldn’t have come at a worse time as the first flush, which is considered premium and high in demand in other countries, was almost ready for production but the movement stopped all work,” said one owner.

“Buyers abroad who had invested large amounts of money faced severe losses due to no procurement. They became apprehensive of a similar strike in future and began to look for alternatives, looking to Nepal, which has similar production,” said another.

Darjeeling India Image via Writer Gurvinder Singh
The stunning Darjeeling region of India (Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

“The tea grown is not only also lower in price but it is also very difficult for a normal customer to find any difference between the two, which gives sellers liberty to mix both the tea and brand it as Himalayan tea,” he added.

But the quality of Darjeeling tea is superior to Nepal even if consumers don’t notice it. And expenses in Darjeeling are higher because it has big factories and offers statutory benefits to workers, while Nepal has tiny plots and farmers do not receive benefits. Moreover, half of the tea gardens in Darjeeling are organic, meaning they do not use any chemicals.

The insecurity of the industry means the younger generation of tea garden workers are now migrating to other states and finding jobs in other sectors. “We don’t know what lies ahead as the work in the tea industry has been quite irregular and that affects our livelihood,” said Anand Kumar, a 36-year-old tea garden worker.

“Most of our colleagues are already shifting to other states of the country for unskilled work, as labourers, for example … the lack of opportunities has been forcing them to move out.”

India’s general election has just seen political parties make promises to the tea garden workers to improve their lives. But workers fear that with the voting over pledges will be forgotten and the future of Darjeeling tea could face further jeopardy.

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