Talks with organizers of a Darjeeling uprising that has halted tea production in Darjeeling since June 15 may begin soon. Government officials are now open to meeting with a coordinating committee representing several Gorkha groups seeking statehood.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister in West Bengal, previously refused to meet until the strike, nearing two months, ended. On hearing the news the Gorkhaland Movement Co-ordination Committee (GMCC) asked protestors to refrain from confronting authorities for the next five days.
A spokesperson said the Gorkha must decide now whether to attend. A meeting time and date has not been set.
The decision was made Wednesday at Uttarkanya, the North Bengal secretariat, with senior officials of the Darjeeling district administration, and Banerjee herself agreeing to speak to GMCC members.
Nothing can be done to salvage the second flush harvest. The Tea Board of India reported an 89% drop in production in the region, compounded by heavy rains in Assam that cut production there by 10% compared to the previous year. The June harvest in the Darjeeling region was 140,000 kilos, down from 1.33 million kilos in June 2016.
The price of Darjeeling in India has doubled to INRs1000 ($15.70) per kilo but little can be found since most of the first flush is exported. Tea retailers in the west have the tea in stock but supplies are dwindling. The strike has cost tea growers an estimated $25 million. The cost of closing down local commerce for 50 days is estimated at $40 million. Food is in short supply and basic commodities, including water and fuel, are scarce.
Chief Minister Banerjee must also contend with the costs of policing the region and $6 million in property damage from arson and rock throwing. Seven people have died during altercations stemming from the decision to require Gorkha school children to master the Bengali language. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh reportedly advised Banerjee to speak to representatives of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and try and break the impasse.
Harkha Bahadur Chhetri, member of the GMCC, told reporters: “We want to continue our movement in a democratic manner, instead of resorting to violence. We are glad that the Chief Minister herself wants to speak with us, but now we have to speak with other members of the committee to finalize a decision.”
Growers say that even if the strike ends this week it will be months before the bushes are restored due to neglect. In the meantime, buyers are exploring alternatives from other tea producing countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal.
The GJM led an uprising in the mid-1980s that resulted in the deaths of 1,200. The Gorkha were eventually granted partial governance of their native land, but now insist on formal statehood.