As an active member of the tea industry in India, and a strong advocate for tea produced in Darjeeling, I feel it is incumbent upon me to share my growing concerns regarding the deterioration and loss of this rich and vital resource for high-quality tea.
The Darjeeling hills have taken all the beating they can, and nearly all of the tea businesses that were flourishing in Darjeeling are now on the verge of extinction. Personally, I believe that this is due, in no small part, to the fight for Gorkhaland, which has brought great insecurity, joblessness, misery, bloodshed, and death to the area. The political parties have raped the hills and created increased poverty, essentially killing the future of the next generation. If you would like a bit more background about the Gorkha and their quest for independence in India, you can read a previous post that my American uncle and T Ching staff member, Sandy M. Bushberg, wrote a few years ago.
Currently, the only surviving industry left in the hills of Darjeeling, at the feet of the mighty Himalayas, is tea. But this fight for an independent Gorkhaland has been insidiously impacting this unique resource as well. Soon we shall see the baton of high-quality teas handed off from Darjeeling to Nepal due to the various problems that the ailing tea industry in Darjeeling is going through. Here are a few of the relevant facts:
- Tea production in Darjeeling has gone from 9.5 million kilos to 7 million kilos.
- The cost of labor has tripled in the last 15 years.
- Apart from the normal wages, extra benefits add to the burden of rising costs.
- The input costs for production have shot up more than five times in the last five years.
- The cost of medicines and fertilizers has tripled in the last 10 years.
Low yields, high costs, and bad attitudes among the workers (they are all busy with holidays and meetings for the Gorkhaland issue) have made the production of Darjeeling teas unprofitable. Crops are being sold below the cost of production and garden owners are feeling the brunt of this. Soon we will see many estates in the hills shutting down and thousands will be unemployed.
On the other hand, Nepal is progressing every day in growing their tea industry. They are planting more and more quality tea and their prices are significantly lower than that of Darjeeling. The quality of their tea is getting better due to the new bushes and new machinery they are using. Slowly and steadily, the Nepali teas are making inroads into all of the markets of Darjeeling tea and gaining greater acceptance.
If you are wondering about the difference between Nepali tea and tea grown in Darjeeling, I can say that they are very similar, except for a few salient differences. Nepal’s tea industry started in 1863 when clones of Darjeeling tea bushes, mostly of the Chinese hybrid variety, were brought across the border and planted in the districts of IIam, Taplejung, Panchthar, and Dhankuta . Nepali orthodox tea is quite similar to Darjeeling tea, but with a milder taste. After all, the teas are grown side by side, in virtually identical climatic and topographic conditions, since Darjeeling, in India, is on the other side of the Indian border, a short, half-hour drive from most of Nepal’s tea gardens. Darjeeling’s tea bushes are also considerably older than Nepal’s, with resulting differences in taste. While orthodox tea is grown on large, long-established plantations in Darjeeling, in Nepal, it is grown by more than 7,500 small holders. The soil and winds (and other factors of terroir) that exist in Darjeeling also make a huge difference in the quality. The manufacturing process of Darjeeling is more refined and organized, which makes a significant difference as well.
If current conditions in Darjeeling remain the same or deteriorate any further, soon tea from this unique area of the world will no longer be in demand, Nepal will be the frontrunner, and we will all wonder where we went wrong.