Darjeeling… the picturesque mountainside tea growing region of India, home to 87 or so tea estates, known the world over for their quality high-altitude teas, faces a multitude of compounding problems that pose a serious threat to the region’s tea industry.
Darjeeling has been in the clutches of a drought since 2012. Each year, the workers and farmers of the region hold their breath to see whether the mist will come and the rain will fall. Each year, this looks increasingly unlikely. The rain comes very sporadically and if it comes at all, it tends to downpour, causing floods and eroding away the topsoil. This weakens the tea bushes, some of which have been growing for over 150 years, since the birth of the Darjeeling tea industry itself. In turn, the weakened bushes and skittish rain have allowed for more pest attacks, from red spider mite, tea mosquito bug, and blister blight.
Production has fallen as a result. The first decade of the 21st Century, from 2000 – 2009 saw average yields of 10,000 metric tons a year. From 2010 onward, the output has steadily declined. 2015 saw yields of around 8,700 metric tons, while 2016 saw barely over 8,000 metric tons. 2017 isn’t looking to shape up any better. The steady decline has seen a slightly sharper decline in revenue. For many growers, the first flushes of the year can be irreparably lost due to consistent bad weather. With a total employment of 70,000 workers, lost revenue can drive them to seek better opportunities closer to cities, further influenced by the Indian government abolishing large cash bills.
Some owners are working in the hopes that the industry will stabilize.
“I don’t think that Darjeeling tea production will come crashing suddenly, but every year its production is deteriorating, given the climatic and other challenges,” said Kaustuv Roy, head of the tea division of Andrew Yule and Company.
Only a few tea gardens are working earnestly, some managing to augment revenues by combing it with tourism like the Happy Valley Tea estate. They have an advantage as they are close to the city. “Most planters are running at a loss, most managing because they see value in the real estate in future,” echoes a senior officer in the government refusing to be named.
Others… are not so hopeful.
“We meet PT Sherpa, president of the Tilak Chandra Roka is Darjeeling and Dooars Plantation Labour Union, the largest tea garden workers union in the region. He said absenteeism has gone up by 40% in [the] majority of the tea gardens. The workers get barely Rs 127 [$1.89] a day and most are now steadily moving to the cities in hope of a brighter future, few are left to work. Production has gone down by nearly 30% and so has the quality.
“No one cares about the tea estates, all the three players, the owners, the workers and the government are running in different directions. If nothing is done soon the industry will collapse,” Sherpa said.
Experts point to a need to replace the older plants with newer ones, but this process takes time and money, two things Darjeeling may not have. Irrigation may help as well, but locals site a lack of water even for its citizens.
You can see for yourself. With a traditional first plucking only a month away, it’s unlikely some estates will be able to salvage the sparse growth they have for a strong first flush. This photo and the one above were taken at Rohini and Giddapahar Tea Estates and were graciously provided by Vivek Lochan, of Doke Tea and Lochan Tea.