Darjeeling tea: a cuppa that cheers

Covid, dipping sales and labour problems have not dented the world’s much-loved brew’s resilience to overcome challenges, as the industry gathers itself together to reinvent the wheel.

By Joydeep Sen Gupta

Published: Sun 13 Jun 2021, 12:01 AM

Here’s a trick question for diehard Darjeeling tea lovers: (without Googling) what does the acronym ‘SFTGFOP’ stand for? My guess is almost everyone will be at their wit’s end to figure out how it is related to the champagne of teas.

So, here’s the answer. SFTGFOP is an abridged ode to the exquisite craft of Darjeeling tea: super-fine tippy golden flowery orange pekoe. There is also a facile way to describe the healthy and unbroken leaves from the very top of a tea bush that are culled by ethnic Nepali women with nimble fingers who toil in the rolling plantations come rain, hail or snow; they describe it as dui path, ek suiro — or two leaves and a bud.

The hot brew, which comes in multiple hues, from ubiquitous black to red/rust to dulled green and dark brown, is steeped in colonial charm and intrepid Scottish enterprise. Dr Archibald Campbell, a Scotsman and a surgeon-major in the Indian Army, was the brain behind the experimental tea cultivation in the Darjeeling hills — where the eastern Himalayas rise out of nowhere around 20 km from the nearest airport, Bagdogra, in the north Bengal plains — in 1841. The tarred track seamlessly blends with rolling tea gardens in the foothills, or the Terai, and a gradual zig-zag climb opens up an expansive view of the tea country overlooking the majestic eastern Himalayas.

The sector evolved into a robust economy. Darjeeling tea, true to its vintage, was the first Indian product to get the geographical indication (GI) tag in 2003 and was endorsed by the European Union in 2011. The accreditation allowed 87 gardens in the Darjeeling hills to use the GI tag and fetch handsome prices at international markets for its produce.

The onset of plantation woes

Even before Covid hit the carefully-terrained landscape, there had been troubles plaguing the Darjeeling tea industry. Industry insiders cite labour absenteeism, militant trade unionism, the vagaries of nature, smuggling of green tea leaves from neighbouring Nepal (that shares a porous border with the eastern Indian state of West Bengal), and mismanagement of a section of tea companies as some of the reasons playing spoilsport in the past two decades.

Poor labour supply was the biggest deterrent. Trade unions cite the (approx.) Dh50 daily wage as a paltry sum. Majority of the workers comprise the ethnic Nepali minority, who migrated from neighbouring Nepal in search of livelihood and a better life. These workers had been tied to the plantation for four-five generations, where they wallowed in near-subsistence economic conditions in the labour-intensive sector. Reforms have been few and far between.

Consequently, there was a discernible shift in the socio-economic fabric: Nepali youth from far-flung tea estates gravitated towards the service sector and hospitality industry, reluctant to follow the footsteps of their parents and forefathers. Many are bitten by the foreign bug.

This paradigm shift took a toll on the annual plucking cycle, with many tea estates hiring daily-wage pluckers — mostly indigenous people who trace their origin to central India — from the Terai. On an average, the annual plucking cycle reduced to 18 from 26.

It was amid this backdrop of the industry’s downturn that Covid dealt a heavy hand in March 2020.

Today, over 10 per cent of Darjeeling tea estates are up for grabs — with few takers. Data shows that the annual production of processed tea has come down to 6.5 million kg in 2020-21, as compared to 8.5 million kg in the previous years. The imports in the corresponding period have whittled down from 4.2 million kg to 3.1 million kg.

To make matters worse, the first flush production, harvested in mid-March, was down by over 40 per cent this year because of drought-like conditions. The first flush holds the key, as it accounts for 20 per cent of the annual production and is known to fetch the highest price in international markets. (The second flush, harvested in June, accounts for another 20 per cent, followed by the monsoon and autumn flushes that are 50 and 10 per cent, respectively, and are for domestic consumption.)

The massive dip in first flush production has hit the tea estates’ top-line hard coupled with 40 per cent of absenteeism of daily-wage earners owing to the second and lethal wave of the contagion.

Pandemic antidote

The Indian Tea Association (ITA), founded in 1881 as the premier advisory and supervisory body of the industry, got into the act after the pandemic spread its tentacles across tea estates. Nayantara Palchoudhuri, vice-chairperson, ITA, explains how the research-based think-tank is working in tandem with the West Bengal government to ensure that plantation workers’ health is safeguarded: “Normal operations are in progress while adhering to all precautionary measures. Though this is the high season for the industry, the deployment of plantation workers has been kept at 50 per cent, who are strictly maintaining social distancing norms. We’ve sensitised around 750,000 people associated with the industry in the region by adopting various measures such as labour-line sanitation, hand washing, door-to-door campaigning, and dissemination of precautionary messages through public address systems and mobile phones for the benefit of all workers and their families.”

Inderjit Singh Chauhan, chairman of the Dooars Branch of ITA, concurs. “Workers were not adhering to norms when gardens were shut last year during the lockdown. However, the situation improved after the estates reopened. The viral outbreak has been severe in the second wave. Fortunately, we acted in time to ensure it didn’t spin out of control,” he says. The Dooars has 154 tea estates of the total 283 in north Bengal.

Palchoudhuri maintains that the learnings from the first wave helped ITA to be better prepared for the second one. “The vaccination drive has also started in earnest. So far, over 15,000 garden workers in the 45+ age group have been given the jab. Our aim is 100 per cent vaccination of those associated with the industry in the region at the earliest.”

Atul Asthana, managing director of the Goodricke Group — which runs five and 12 tea estates in the Darjeeling hills and the Dooars, respectively — weighs in on tea having therapeutic properties: “Darjeeling tea helps boost consumers’ immunity because it possesses high contents of polyphenols and antioxidants. Tea, whether black or green, is a versatile beverage. It can be easily combined and infused with other ingredients that are beneficial to health such as honey, cinnamon, tulsi, turmeric, ginger and pepper to make herbal or kadha variants.”

Will Battle, director of London-based Fine Tea Merchants, “treasures the inimitable character of Darjeeling teas”. “The unique combination of location, plant material, seasonality, and skilled workforce create genuinely outstanding teas that work well in a number of different guises. Drunk on its own, Darjeeling can have a seductive aroma and fine grassy notes in the first flush followed by fruity muscatel character in the second flush.”

A woman who read the tea leaves

Laxmi Limbu-Kaushal has bucked the tea industry’s patriarchal mindset. In 1997, she created history when she became the first “tea lady”, after she was appointed as the assistant manager of Seeyok Tea Estate, owned by Tea Promoters, and Barnesbeg Tea Estate, owned by Goodricke, in the Darjeeling hills. A woman planter, that too an ethnic Nepali, she broke several stereotypes in one fell swoop.

In 2007, she joined the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), a trade body, to represent north Bengal and neighbouring Sikkim, and emerged as the strong feminine voice in a male-dominated industry.

Limbu-Kaushal cites several positive aspects of the tea industry: “highest employment in the private sector in West Bengal; 80 per cent of plantation workers belong to the marginalised Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) segments; a symbol of women empowerment as over 58 per cent of the workforce are women”. She also draws attention to the eco-friendly nature of the sector because it is “not polluting and is carbon positive”.

She suggests that the “tea workforce should undergo upskilling training at regular intervals, educated youngsters must sign up for management courses and an impetus is required for rural entrepreneurship to take them to the next level”.

Limbu-Kaushal has become a role model for women tea professionals such as Joya Allay, manager, hospitality, Goodricke Teapot — the hospitality vertical of Goodricke that, in 2016, opened Margaret’s Deck, a scenic tea lounge bar, located in the iconic Margaret’s Hope tea estate (established in 1864), with a breathtaking view of the Kurseong valley. “The success of Margaret’s Deck has led to its brand extension in urban India, including Mumbai, Kolkata and Bhopal. Plans are afoot to take it to other parts of the country, which, unfortunately, has been delayed due to the pandemic,” she adds.

The plantation workers are enthused about their community’s success stories. Shakuntala Bhujel, 54, a fourth-generation plucker, is a daily wage earner at (the Goodricke-owned) Castleton Tea Estate in Kurseong, which was set up in 1885. “My husband and I work in the garden, which has been our home for generations. The management of our garden has been supportive. Unlike those who went to cities and other urban centres in search of livelihood and had to come back after they were rendered jobless because of the pandemic, we consider ourselves lucky,” she says.

Ratna Khawas, 56, is a fourth-generation worker and supervisor in the women’s plucker section at Castleton for the past 17 years. She lost her husband 12 years ago, and has a son who is jobless, despite a hotel management degree. “I’m the sole breadwinner in the family, and my work pressure and responsibilities have increased since Covid struck last year. I’ve been going around spreading awareness among my colleagues and peers of the importance of complying with Covid-appropriate behaviour. I hope the crisis blows over soon,” she says.

Tea tourism — and tea innovation

In December 2020, after a six-month Covid-induced wait, Indian Hotels Company Limited’s (IHCL) iconic brand, Taj, opened Taj Chia Kutir Resort & Spa, in the renowned Makaibari Tea Estate, which is home to the world’s first tea factory. “It’s a luxurious haven in the Himalayas where guests can enjoy plucking and tasting tea at the Makaibari Tea Estate or go on nature trails with naturalists in the hills,” says Jitendra Lote, the property’s general manager.

Investment in tea tourism augurs well for the region amid financial analyst Kausshal Dugarr’s bid to give the industry a makeover. Indian tea went digital in mid-2012, thanks largely to online retailing start-up, Teabox, Dugarr’s brainchild. The new-age retail sales are driven by algorithms that help online customers make an informed choice. There are also data analytics and personalised recommendations to boost online sales. Teabox’s success has spawned many rivals, as e-commerce is the new magical retail wand.

While these two examples, you may argue, are only ancillary, empathy seems to have emerged as a binding force for the industry’s stakeholders. Here’s what is on the tea table: Planters are seeking to safeguard workers’ rights. Industry captains have been clamouring for a minimum selling price. Planters unanimously suggest that the industry, currently under the ambit of the commerce department, needs to be moved to agriculture to avail farm sops periodically offered by the Bengal and Union governments. All stakeholders are in consensus that a concerted marketing push is required to shore up domestic consumption amid a consistent dip in exports.

If these weren’t enough, here’s yet another reason why you should sip the good cheer from the Darjeeling cuppa: the eagerly-anticipated Dubai Expo 2020, which kicks off in October, will showcase Darjeeling tea in all its glory.


More news from Opinion