Darjeeling Uproar Disrupts Tea Operations

Tea workers at the Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling

Tempers cooled in Darjeeling for the Muslim holy day Monday following 12 days of protests by Nepali separatists, some violent. The unrest has caused thousands of tourists and climbers to flee.

The second flush harvest is halted, factories stand idle and tea shipments are delayed or never departed from the high Himalayan gardens. The tea sector could lose 40 percent of its revenue as production is expected to decline by at least 20 percent due to protests and absenteeism.

Only 200,000 kilos of second-flush escaped the mayhem, compared to 1.8 million kilos last year. Production costs are projected to rise by $1.50 to $2.30 per kilo (INRs 100 to 150 per kilo).

“Second flush teas are typically picked young and constant plucking is required to get the young leaves. But because all Darjeeling tea plantations are currently closed, nobody is plucking any leaves, so the plants will overgrow and quality will deteriorate,” warned Kaushal Dugar, founder of Teabox, an online tea retailer based in Darjeeling.

“Even if tea estates open after a week, constant plucking will be required to get the high-quality summer flush tea leaves are known for. That will take at least two to three weeks and by that time, the weather will have shifted and the second flush season will be over,” Dugar told CNBC.

The second-flush harvests spans between 40 and 45 days ending in July.

The flashpoint was India’s decision to require students to learn Bengali. Nepali is an official language in the hill country but in May the government made Bengali compulsory. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Gorkha Peoples Liberation Front) or GJM threatened “a-fight-to-the-finish” that has left five dead and more than 100 injured, including police.

“They have been planning for a violent campaign for a long time. That is why they have stockpiled explosives and weapons and a lot of cash in their hideouts, some of which we could seize,” senior police official Anuj Sharma told the BBC.

Most tea workers in this region are of Nepali descent dating to a time when the Gorkha were ruled by Nepal’s king. A large number are determined to establish a separate state of Gorkhaland in the northern reaches of West Bengal. The group insists they are not seeking independence like those is Kashmir, instead they want to establish state rule.

“We are not Bengalis, Bengali is not our mother tongue, almost everyone in Darjeeling hills speaks Nepali, so why should we be forced to learn Bengali in schools?” GJM leader Bimal Gurung told the BBC.

Gurung is subject to a manhunt by police who have raided GJM offices and weapons caches.

India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh, in Delhi, asked both sides to show restraint and called for tripartite negotiations to restore normalcy. Officials are worried about the consequences of a long-drawn agitation in Darjeeling. Gurung intends the protests to continue for at least a month and has called for an indefinite strike that could cripple tea production.

In Kolkata Tea Board chairman Prabhat Bezbarooah told the The (Calcutta) Telegraph the situation is “tragic.”

“This is going to impact the finances of the garden owners. But what we can do from the Tea Board is provide some sort of assistance to promote the second flush when it comes to the market next year,” Bezbarooah said.

The largest growers have operations in Assam and in the south of India that will continue to generate revenue but a dozen of Darjeeling’s 87 estates are single-owned with little recourse. They appealed for emergency financial aid but the Tea Board said it will not fund their shortfall with a one-time grant.

On Monday the GJM, citing the Muslim Holy Day of Eid al-Fitr, ordered its supporters to stand down for 12 hours. The breather will likely help tourists fearful of street protests to depart even though GJM said only those attending services at local mosques will be allowed to travel by vehicle.

The gravest concern is that the unrest will lead to insurrection. From 1986 to 1988 more than 1,200 people died in clashes for a separate state. Fighting ended when the Gorkhas were granted a degree of self-rule under an autonomous council.

Source: BBC, CNBC, The (Calcutta) Telegraph