This year’s edition of the Indian Tea Forum, held in Siliguri, West Bengal, at the foot of the Darjeeling hills, was a spectacle of sight, sound, scholarship, and socializing involving some of the leaders in the N.E. Indian tea industry. I was honored to be asked again to present at this landmark event and my thanks go to the CII (Confederation of Indian Industries) and Mr. Rajiv Lochan of Lochan Tea Ltd. Presentations and papers were given on a variety of topics, including tea garden operation issues, political issues, status of tea research, tea tourism, world tea cultures, new tea business park, tea chemistry, organic farming issues and natural pest control, and challenges facing small tea farmers, among many other subjects.
A host of tea dignitaries and delegates represented the West Bengal tea-producing areas of Darjeeling, Dooars, Terrai, neighboring areas of Siliguri and Bihar, and others. The northern tea-producing area of West Bengal (known as North Bengal) produces 25% of India’s tea. The total area under tea in West Bengal state is 88,957 acres, coming from 21,390 gardens. The famous Darjeeling tea makes up only 1% of India’s tea crop, with around 60% of it being grown organically. Interestingly, that 60% is half of India’s organic tea and most of that is exported.
Another interesting subject touched upon was the rising cost of labor. Although prices have remained unchanged or perhaps even fallen, the cost of labor has steadily increased, now accounting for 65% of the production costs. Another topic was the declining production volume of the aging tea bushes, with better than half of the bushes in the area being over 40-50 years of age. In general, older bushes do not produce as many leaves; however, it is expensive to uproot a tea garden and plant young bushes. Of particular concern are the changing environmental and climatic conditions. Average rainfall in the drier spring season is going up and the usually rainy autumn season is experiencing progressively lower than usual precipitation.
In contrast to all of these weighty and important presentations, the focus of my lecture was on the cultural heritage of tea and how the same thing (in this case tea) can mean something very different for people from different countries and traditions. I was also called upon to talk on the subject of world tea tourism, something I am more than happy to discuss. I was honored to be on the dais with such figures as Mr. Rajah Banerjee, the owner / manager of the Makaibari tea estate and pioneer in organic, bio-dynamic, and sustainable garden management. He spoke about tea tourism programs that include home stays in the Makaibari villages. Raj Basu, founder of HELP-Tourism and a long-time proponent of tour experiences with Nepali, Butanese, and Indian ethnic groups and tea gardens, was the more-than-capable session moderator.
As with last year’s event, a tea competition was held, with awards going to the top teas submitted from the region’s gardens. Castleton Tea Estate received the King of Darjeeling Teas award. After the two-day Forum had concluded, I continued my own education with a visit to a tea garden in Dooars. Under the progressive-thinking helm of Mr. Shiv Saria, also owner of the Gopaldhara and Rohini estates in Darjeeling, the Soongachi garden, producing primarily CTC black teas, has increased its leaf production by nearly double as a result of using extensive garden irrigation and water management.
Now, with the focus on next year, the organizers are considering broadening the scope of the event to include more international content, presenters, and exhibitors as well as potentially cooperating with the Darjeeling Tea Festival, which attracts tea lovers and producers from all across North Bengal.