How droughts are spelling disaster for Darjeeling tea

 

Athar Parvaiz 

Darjeeling: Famed for its taste and aroma, the Darjeeling Tea grown in the Himalayan foothills in west Bengal has been witnessing decline in production and exports because of frequent droughts, erratic rainfall and absenteeism of workers. Tea growers and researchers said that they are not hopeful about the future of Darjeeling Tea.

Since early December 2016, Darjeeling area, according to the tea growers has not received any rainfall. “This has severely impacted the crop. This year, we are expecting 50 per cent reduction in the crop as compared to March last year,”  said Kaustuv Roy, Chief General Manager at Tea Division of Andrew Yule & Company — erstwhile British Company which is now a public sector company under the government of India.

According to the statistics of Indian Tea Association (ITA), the annual production of Darjeeling tea has come down to an average 8.5 million kgs since 2010 as compared to an average annual production of 10 million kgs from year 2000 to 2009.

Frequent droughts and erratic rains

Tea growers and experts are attributing the decline in production to frequent droughts and abnormal rainfall in the Darjeeling hills in recent years.  Darjeeling hills, according to the Tea Board of India , host 87 tea estates over an area of 17, 500 hectares in north-east India in the eastern state of West Bengal.  Darjeeling tea industry contributes INR 4.7 billion to the region’s economy annually and gives employment to over 70,000 people.

Sandeep Mukherjee, Principal Advisor of Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), the nodal body for tea gardens, said that droughts have now become a usual phenomenon in Darjeeling hills.

Tea growers are now trying to live with the droughts, erratic rains and landslides. “In four years since 2012, Darjeeling hills didn’t receive well distributed rains which had a direct bearing on our crops,” said Shiv Saria whose Gopal Dhara company has four gardens in Darjeeling. He said droughts cause 5 to 10 per cent crop loss almost every year now.

Frequent droughts, Saria said, have weakened the health of tea bushes which is causing decline in tea production.  He said that even as tea plantation area in Darjeeling has witnessed 33 per cent increase since 2001, the production has decreased by 25 per cent as compared to the past.

Subashish Sannigrahi, Senior Principal Scientist of Tea Research Association (TRA) said that the distribution pattern of rainfall has changed dramatically. Earlier, he said, the rains used to be spread out, but now it rains almost in one go and the rains pour quite heavily and wash away the fertile soil besides causing landslides.

“Droughts and erratic rains have also resulted in increase in pest attacks which cause further crop losses,” Sannigrahi said adding that pests like red-spider mite, tea mosquito bug and blister blight are causing major damage to the crop.

“Also, the new plantations need enough water for proper growth. But because of droughts development rate of new bushes is getting quite slow,” Sannigrahi said. “The other option was to irrigate the plants, but Darjeeling has not even water for its growing population, how can the plants be irrigated.”

Kaustuv Roy of Andrew Yule & said that sometimes droughts are followed by hailstorms and erratic monsoon rains which cause landslides at various places and damage tea bushes.

Absenteeism of tea workers    

Roy believes that Darjeeling tea industry does not face collapse in at least next few years because of droughts, increase in cost of production and dropping out of regular skilled labourers.

“I don’t think that Darjeeling tea production will come crashing suddenly, but every year its production is deteriorating given the climatic and other challenges,” Roy said.

According to him, the tea growers have now started planting new bushes as the old bushes, most of which are over 80 years old, have been weakened by oft-repeating droughts.  He said that growers have also started creating protection walls for protecting top soil and saving the bushes from the impacts of landslides.

Wanted! Indian Consumers

But Arun Singh, Managing Director and CEO of Goodricke Group Ltd. which has more than ten tea gardens is not that hopeful about the future of Darjeeling tea.

“To put it in simple words, Darjeeling Tea is facing a big disaster,” Singh said.

“Our crops decline every year due to climatic factors. And the bushes, which are 75 to 100 years old, need replacements for ensuring better crop. But replacing them is very expensive given that new bushes will start yielding the crop after eight years.”

According to Singh, it is not only the impact of erratic weather conditions like droughts which have caused a decline in the tea production. “The European market, to which we export 70 per cent of our tea production, is now refusing to adjust the increased costs of production which go up by 10 per cent every year,” he said and added that he and other tea growers understand the problems being faced by the European countries because of the recession.

According to him, the only remedy for assuring a safe market for Darjeeling Tea is to popularise the consumption of Darjeeling tea within India where the people now have the capacity to pay for such products.

“We have been relying only on overseas market for all these years and have made no efforts to popularise it within India. Now is the time to popularise Darjeeling Tea among Indian consumers.”

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