The Last of the 2017 Darjeeling Crop is Auctioned

Gorkha Protest

The last lots of Darjeeling were auctioned last week as hopes of settling a three-month strike dimmed.

It was the first time in 40 years that the special auction in Calcutta had no Darjeeling to offer. This year’s harvest, which seemed promising following the early spring flush, plummeted by 89% in June with no appreciable tea plucked since. It now appears that 75 percent of the 2017 crop has been lost. India exports to 40 countries about 6 million kilos of the 8 million kilos harvested in Darjeeling each year.

Retailers still have stock that shipped early in the year but demand for first flush is less than for teas picked later in the year. There is no monsoon tea to process. The June to August harvest represents about 40 percent of annual sales. It would take more than a month to prune and weed the plants in time for the autumnal harvest.

“There is no chance of getting teas from Darjeeling in the coming months of this year,” Calcutta Tea Traders Association (CTTA) secretary J. Kalyansundaram told the Times of India.

Goodricke Group which owns five Darjeeling gardens experienced a 65 percent crop loss. All promotions have been withdrawn to protect the brand and conserve stocks. “As a producer, we have our own source of teas which we are now using in the blends, to protect our brands,” said Goodricke CEO Arun Narain Singh.

Hindustan Unilever, owners of the Lipton brand, cautioned buyers to avoid adulterated tea now making its way to market.

The tea on offer in Calcutta was sold at a 68 percent premium compared to the previous year. Growers managed to find 4,782 kilos which sold for an average INRs 1083 ($16.90) per kilo. In a normal week, the auction would have offered 75,000 kilos at an average price of INRs 336 ($5.25) per kilo.

The Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) estimates the strike has now cost growers INRs 450 billion ($70.5 million).

Anshuman Kanoria, a planter who chairs CTTA, said the “biggest loss is for the brand Darjeeling. To overseas buyers we have become an unreliable source of supply, and that is the biggest blow,” he said.

On June 15 the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), representing 55,000 permanent and 35,000 contract tea workers, enforced a shutdown in Darjeeling in hopes of attaining statehood. Traffic was stopped; schools and businesses closed.

Protests led to violent clashes with police. While there appeared to be progress following a meeting with state government officials two weeks ago, the GJM has since ousted its representative at the talks.

An IED exploded over the weekend, the second in three weeks, which brought large crowds to the streets subdued by baton wielding police with tear gas.

GJM chief Bimal Gurung remains in hiding, pursued by police. Meanwhile the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) is willing to attend talks with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee scheduled today in Siliguri. On Monday, NDTV showed a large number of shops were open in defiance of GJM and community leaders were appealing to resident to restore normalcy.

All told the cost of the strike to tourism, lost retail revenue and tea is estimated at INRs1200 billion ($187.7 million). Currently 350,000 tea workers and their families are out of work.

“In 170 years of the existence of Darjeeling tea, the industry never faced such a serious crisis,” said Sandeep Mukherjee, principal advisor to the DTA.

Sources:  The Hindu, The Economic Times, The Calcutta Telegraph, NDTV