Climate change, recession in global markets, competition from tea varieties from Nepal, and the mismatch between production costs and its price have put the tea industry in Darjeeling at risk, an IndiaSpend ground report from the tea gardens has found.
Known worldwide as the 'champagne' of Indian teas, Darjeeling tea stands its own against teas from the Nilgiri hills in South India and from Assam. Its unique flavour, believed to be induced by the right balance of sunshine, rainfall, mist and soil acidity in the Himalayas, and plucked by hand, has won Darjeeling tea "the patronage and recognition of discerning consumers worldwide for more than a century", says the Tea Board of India on its website. "Darjeeling Tea that is worthy of its name cannot be grown or manufactured anywhere else in the world."
Darjeeling tea with its bright metallic colour was the first product of the country to be awarded the Geographical Indication (GI) trademark in 2004.
Despite these accolades, production of the tea, and its demand in both domestic and international markets, has been falling, experts say.
This is the first story in a series on the Darjeeling tea industry. The first part will detail how climate change and economic considerations are impacting the industry, while the second will focus on the condition and rights of workers in tea plantations.
How Darjeeling tea became a household name
Leaves from a plant called Camillia sinensis produce what is known as Darjeeling tea to the world. The plant was first brought to Darjeeling by the East India Company's Arthur Campbell in 1841. By 1874 there were 113 tea gardens across the Darjeeling hills, Dooars and Terai region--foothills of the Himalayas--spread across modern-day Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts in West Bengal. The number rose to 156 by 1914 with crop production of over 8.16 million kilograms, wrote author Basant B Lama in his 2008 book, 'The Story of Darjeeling', quoting Bengal government statistics from 1915. Today, about 10 million kilograms of tea is grown every year, estimates the Tea Board of India.
The growing phenomenon of tea trade introduced a demographic change in Darjeeling as many labourers of the estimated 40,000 in 1914, at the tea gardens in the hills and Dooars Terai region were immigrants from neighbouring Nepal and from the Chhota Nagpur plateau.
The industry around Darjeeling became one of the main sources of livelihood in the region.
"Apart from directly employing a vast number of plantation workers, the tea industry also provides indirect employment to a vast number of other persons in transport establishments, warehouses, hotels, schools, hospitals, trading firms and agricultural input-manufacturing units," wrote Pratima Chamling Rai, professor at Raiganj University in West Bengal, in the International Journal of Applied Science and Engineering in June 2019.
Climate change crisis
Change in climate has hit the quality and production of Darjeeling tea. According to a 2013 study by researchers at the Darjeeling Tea Research and Development Centre, climate change reduced production by "41.97% and 30.90% as compared with 1993 and 2002 respectively".
The study said that the production of tea, a "rain-fed crop grown in different agro-ecological regions", is majorly influenced by environmental factors, such as the total annual rainfall and its distribution, temperature and solar radiation.
The study found that the temperature in the area has risen by 0.51 degree Celsius from 1993 to 2012, annual rainfall has declined by 152.50 cm and relative humidity by 16.07%, leading to "overall production declines".
Even though the total average rainfall is enough to provide the required 10 tonnes of water daily to mature Darjeeling tea plants standing in an area of one hectare, the distribution of rainfall is a major problem.
"The groundwater level has gone down while the season now starts with drought," said Sandeep Mukherjee, Principal Advisor of the Darjeeling-Indian Tea Association (DITA). The Indian Tea Association (ITA) is the oldest association of tea producers in India.
Anshuman Kanoria, the chairman of the Indian Tea Exporters Association (ITEA), echoed the same. "Every year there's drought in [late] winter which affects the first flush [harvested between mid-February and April, first flush tea is young and greenish]. Every year unseasonal rainfall starts in April and then we have torrential rainfall in May and June which is the peak quality period of the second flush [harvested between May and June, the second flush tea leaves are full-bodied and are darker than the first flush]. It is the high revenue period and the adverse weather is affecting the best quality of Darjeeling tea."
It is important to implement adaptation measures in tea plantations to minimise adverse impacts of climate change without a delay, as it takes a considerable period of time to bring about changes to a tree crop system such as tea cultivation, researchers say.
"The Tea Research Institutes are working on this to tide over the problem to develop 'climate-resilient clones'," the Deputy Chairman of the Tea Board of India, Saurav Pahari, said in response to an email seeking information about the steps the government has taken to combat climate change.
The demand and production of Darjeeling tea has been falling in both domestic and international markets for some time, and experts say the situation turned worse when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022.
According to statistics released by the Tea Board of India, the production of Darjeeling tea was only about 7 million kilograms in 2021.
Due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, and sanctions on Russia, major European buyers have either stopped purchasing Darjeeling tea or are paying less for it, explained Kanoria of ITEA.
"Export situation has worsened due to the recession in Europe," said Mukherjee of DITA, adding that only 2.84 million kilograms of Darjeeling tea was exported in 2022 (till November) in comparison to 3.5 million in 2021.
Other than Europe, Japan is also a major market of Darjeeling tea. However, with the Yen's value sliding against the US Dollar, Darjeeling tea sellers are failing to fetch good prices for their produce from the Japanese, explained Kanoria.
Kanoria, the ITEA chairman, said that despite an increase in the cost of production by 30% on a year-on-year basis, the average price for Darjeeling tea in the last four auction sales in 2021 had failed to compensate tea growers adequately.
Migration as a result of the Gorkhaland movement
The situation in North Bengal tea gardens worsened during the 104-day shutdown due to the 2017 Gorkhaland movement. Violent protests had flared up across the Darjeeling hills after the West Bengal government declared Bengali as a mandatory subject at all schools in the state. Calling it an imposition of Bengali culture on the Nepali-speaking population of the hills, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) reignited the longstanding demand of a separate state of Gorkhaland.
(If possible a file image of 2017 movement can be placed here or the above picture can be used as representative. Caption: The 2017 Gorkhaland movement reignited the violence that Darjeeling hills witnessed during the 80s.
"Since people were not paid when the tea estates were closed, many workers migrated out of the hills for work opportunities. Most of them have not returned to tea estates," said Sumendra Tamang, a social activist who works for the rights of tea workers in North Bengal, blaming the political upheaval for large-scale out-migration from the hills. "People have not just gone out to other parts of West Bengal or India, but also to middle-eastern countries like Qatar and Oman. As a result, a massive shortage of workforce has hit the tea plantations."
"It has become compulsory for tea workers to send at least one person from the family, if not everyone, outside for a better prospect," said Dawa Sherpa, a PhD scholar at the Centre for Economic Studies in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Remittance sent back home is keeping families inside tea gardens from falling apart." [The second part of this series will detail the conditions of tea workers in the plantations.]
Migration, however, has intensified another problem: human traffickers who deceive women into sex slavery or force them to work as labourers in metro cities.
"Generally, migrant women from the hills end up as sex workers if they fall into the wrong hands of traffickers, while people from Dooars and Terai region are lured to work in low-paying intensive labour jobs in construction sites or as maidservants," said Nirnay John Chetri of Marg NGO, which fights human trafficking in North Bengal and helps rescued survivors. "Most of them end up being trapped with no light at the end of the tunnel."
For instance, this report by The Print showed how young girls were trafficked out of tea gardens in North Bengal and forced into illegal surrogacy and smuggled to neighbouring Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. The Siliguri Police Commissionerate recorded 22 trafficking cases between 2019 and 2021, while Darjeeling district reported one in 2019 and Alipurduar three each in 2019, 2020 and 2021, according to the report.
But nonprofits say the numbers are underreported. "The police, at first, hesitate to lodge a complaint when a family goes to report a missing member from their household," said Chetri.
Even if they register a missing complaint and find the person, the family and the victim of sexual trafficking do not want the police investigation to continue due to societal stigma and public embarrassment, Chetri added.
This correspondent was referred to Inspector Biswajit Majumder by the Siliguri Police Commissionerate headquarter to speak about human trafficking incidents in tea gardens under its jurisdiction
Majumder, inspector in the Missing Persons Bureau of the Siliguri Police Commissionerate said, "As soon as we receive a missing complaint, an 'all concerned message' is raised through our CID portal if the case involves a minor. If the victim is over 18 years, we ask families to wait for two-three days before registering the case," he said.
Inspector Majumder refused to comment about the police protocol for investigation in human trafficking cases, as he is "not the right authority to speak about it". He said that the police offer all kinds of help to families considering the sensitivity of the situation.
We have sent an email to the police commissionerate requesting data on trafficking cases as well as for comment on the problems that Chetri laid out. We will update the story when we receive a response.
Competition from cheaper tea from Nepal
Meanwhile, as the workforce shrank due to outward migration, and the Gorkhaland shutdown impacted production, Darjeeling tea's cousin from Nepal appeared as a cheap alternative in the markets.
"[D]ue to large volumes of inferior tea originating from Nepal being wrongfully branded as Darjeeling tea, the premium prices of authentic Darjeeling tea in the global markets is experiencing an undercut," according to a 2022 report by a Parliamentary standing committee on Commerce, titled 'Issues Affecting the Indian Tea Industry especially in Darjeeling Region'.
The lower cost of tea from Nepal is because of "their low cost of production and inferior manufacturing process", the report said. The "tea industry is the backbone of the economy of Darjeeling district in West Bengal and the surge in duplicity of Darjeeling Tea poses a threat to the production of tea and the livelihood of small tea growers in the region".
The Tea Board, in association with the Ministry of Commerce, has disallowed distributors from distributing imported tea. Exporters have also been barred from exporting imported tea, said Mr Pahari's office.
Registered buyers have also been directed to not blend authentic Darjeeling tea with imported tea.
The first lockdown because of Covid-19, starting March of 2020, was the "final nail in the coffin" for many tea growers, who are still recovering from its impact, said Tamang, the social activist. Some tea plantation owners sold their estates, including six of 10 estates owned by The Darjeeling Organic Tea Estates Private Limited (DOTEPL).
In a bid to rescue the Darjeeling tea industry and improve the standards of living of workers and their families, the Government of West Bengal announced the 'Tea Tourism and Allied Business Policy, 2019'. It allowed for an extensive merger between the state's tea industry, a large employer in Darjeeling, and tourism, one of the main revenue earning sectors of Darjeeling.
The policy permitted tea estates to utilise 15% of their lands, or a maximum of 150 acres, for tea tourism and other allied business activities such as "wellness centres, educational institutions, cultural/recreational & exhibition centres, floriculture, medicinal plants, food processing units, packaging units etc".
Soon after the declaration of the new tea tourism rules, luxury hotel chain Taj set up a resort and spa, named Chia Kutir, inside the famous Makaibari Tea Estate in the hills of Darjeeling. The advent of a Taj hotel in a Darjeeling tea garden opened the floodgates for similar upscale tourism projects in other plantations, such as the Kanchan View Tea Estate.
Kanchan View Tea Estate, known as Rungeet Tea Garden till 2002, has reportedly planned tourism projects worth more than Rs 200 crore after the new tea tourism policy.
However, the decision has not gone down well with tea garden workers. Alleging that the tea garden management had failed to clear their dues and remaining salaries "due to lack of funds", workers told IndiaSpend they wondered how the owners [of Kanchan View] were managing funds for hotels and resorts.
"Our salaries and bonuses were due. The management said it did not have funds. But they had money to build five-star hotels. This is unacceptable," a worker at Kanchan View Tea Estate, who did not wish to be named, said.
They further alleged that the tea estate management was planning to construct a resort at the location of workers' basti or slum by demolishing their homes. Workers also accuse Kanchan View authorities of uprooting tea plants to make way for tourism activities, a strict 'no' as per the 2019 policy.
Experts say it is still early to assess whether this new policy will benefit the tea plantations and its workers.
We reached out to the Department of Tourism and the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation, via call and email to seek their comments about the new policy and how it is helping tea tourism in North Bengal. This story will be updated when they respond.
None of these problems in tea gardens popped up overnight; experts say they are results of decades-old negligence from owners, illiteracy of workers and opportunistic politics by local leaders and trade unions.
These challenges for the Darjeeling tea industry have meant that workers' wages and their living conditions have not improved. This, coupled with legacy issues in labour laws and a lack of government support, has led to dissatisfaction among workers at the tea plantations in the area, propagating a negative cycle for the industry. The second part of our series delves into the issues of workers rights at the plantations in Darjeeling.