Darjeeling Wrecked or Reborn?

The 105-day strike in the hills of Darjeeling dealt a body blow to the tea industry. Disenchanted workers, few of whom reported for work immediately following the end of the strike, will prolong recovery.

DARJEELING, West Bengal, India

The overgrown tea bushes at Namring Tea Estate. Photo by Pullock Dutta.

Tea workers are gradually returning to their jobs in the Darjeeling hills following a national holiday, but uncertainties remain as to when production will resume. Workers must report to the gardens to collect the first installment of their annual bonus under an agreement reached with growers.

Returning to the gardens is a matter of urgency. Agronomists predict the unprecedented interruption has already lowered spring yields by 15–30 percent. Resting the plants will benefit quality but with global supplies nearly exhausted, quantity is an important consideration. The underlying concern is that tea drinkers have many more choices today than in the past. Those who prefer Darjeeling to all other teas will pay the higher prices but Darjeeling used in blends will be substituted for more readily available teas.

The scythe has emerged as a weapon of mass destruction as it is used to slash through assorted wild vegetation that is crowding out what were picture-postcard, manicured tea bushes.

During the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) led shutdown (the strike hoped to force the establishment of a separate state to be known as Gorkhaland), unwanted vegetation quickly encroached on the neatly groomed tea bushes.

Workers cleaning up the mess at Namring Tea Estate. Photo by Pullock Dutta.

Suman, a worker in the Namring tea estate, said he had never seen such a situation in the gardens, as he worked relentlessly, wielding his scythe to clear a jungle from around the overgrown and unkempt tea bushes. “It will take days to clear all this,” he said, in the second day of the cleanup that begun last week.

Several kilometers up the sharply winding and broken road toward Darjeeling, at one corner of Gielle tea estate, middle-aged Renu Tamang and her coworkers were making an effort to locate and pluck two-leaves-and-a-bud, a job that at any other time they would do blindfolded. “You can hardly see where the leaves are,” she said.

While workers at the gardens continue to clear the mess, they are also trying to salvage the situation by plucking as much as they can to make up for the losses they suffered during the strike.

Superintendent of Namring Tea Estate H.R. Choudhury at his office. Photo by Pullock Dutta.

The production season ends in a month, but hardly any tea is expected. “By even conservative estimates, the loss for the industry would amount to around INRs 300–400 crores ($62 million),” says a gloomy H.R. Choudhury, the superintendent manager of Namring Tea Estate.

The estate, located about 34 kilometers from the city of Darjeeling and at an altitude ranging from 3,000–5,000 feet above sea level, is the largest of the 87 gardens, producing about 300,000 kilos of orthodox black tea, oolong, some white, and green teas annually. In total, Darjeeling produces about 8–9 million kilograms annually, the bulk of which is exported.

“Our immediate task is to tend to the bushes,” said Choudhury, adding that for all practical purposes production for the year has almost come to an end.

The strike all but wiped out the second and the monsoon flushes, which is about 70 percent of the total production, and is likely to make a dent in the first flush next season, starting in March.

“All the tea bushes have overgrown and pruning has to be done much deeper than normal. It will take a longer time for the leaves to sprout during the first flush next year,” Choudhury explained.

He said that it would be a very difficult task for the tea gardens to come out of the crisis unless the government comes up with a “revival package.”

The Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), the apex body of planters in the hill district, has sought a Rs 200 crore ($30 million) revival package from the Tea Board of India. “This is the only way for us to survive,” Choudhury, who is also the chairman of DTA, said.

He also said that the industry would be ready to repay the amount in installments, but such a package from the Tea Board was the only solution for the gardens to stay afloat.

The chairman of the Tea Board of India, P.K. Bezbaruah, told World Tea News that the board was aware of the crisis in Darjeeling because of such a long period of closure of the gardens. “We are working to see how the Board can help the planters in Darjeeling at their moment of crisis,” he said.

At Ringtong Tea Estate, which is located on the southern side of the hills near Margaret’s Hope, activities to clear up the bushes have not begun.

“Most of the workers left looking for other jobs as it was a no-work-no-pay situation here. It would take time for them to return and only then we can clean up the mess,” said manager Niraj Pradhan, a local of Darjeeling.

Ringtong was closed for a long period after it was declared sick, and resumed production only in 2004 and was in the process of recovery. “It’s like we were in the ICU and the hospital had collapsed,” Pradhan said while referring to the 105 days of no work.

But it is not the planters alone who have suffered. Exporter Raju Lama had virtually stopped taking calls for placing orders. “After all, what would I tell them? Everything was so uncertain,” he recalled. Lama’s clientele, who are mostly individuals, are spread across Europe and the U.S.

The only positive impact of the strike is that the tea bushes enjoyed an unprecedented, long “rest period.”

“With no pruning and plucking for such a long period, the tea bushes would have rejuvenated and become healthier. We strongly believe that this will have a positive impact on the plants and they will produce more and quality leaves in the coming days,” a scientist at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute, the world’s oldest tea research station, said.

He said that the overgrowth of weeds and other vegetation in the tea gardens could also be used as compost after these are cleared and allowed to decay in the estates.

At Margaret’s Deck, a tea lounge of Goodricke near Kurseong that opened last October, a heady aroma from some of the finest teas of Darjeeling fills the air. Stretching below on the hill slope as far as the eye can see through the thin layer of fog are tea bushes of Margaret’s Hope. They look just the way the bushes of Namring or Gielle or Makaibari or Takdah or, for that matter, any other garden in the hills do.

The strike has given them all a level playing field to start afresh. And they are all bound together with the one big hope of tiding over one of the worst crises ever to have wracked the industry in Darjeeling.

As Joya Allay, manager of Margaret’s Deck said with a tone of finality: “We shall overcome.”

Source: Business Standard