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Identity crisis for Darjeeling Tea

July 17, 2007 11:34 IST

Real glory of Darjeeling, queen of hill stations, stems from its 87-odd tea gardens producing the exotic stuff for connoisseurs of the brew across the world. Those who have once relished it would go for no other substitute.

"No doubt, the Darjeeling Tea has its genesis from China. But the Chinese tea seeds-bred tea plants in Darjeeling have acquired unique traits which even the Chinese have failed to bestow upon their plants despite relentless research and efforts," says Rannen Datta, a senior consultant to various Darjeeling Tea gardens and the erstwhile secretary of Darjeeling Planters' Association, which has now been rechristened as Darjeeling Tea Association.

But the grandeur of Darjeeling Tea could be in peril. The consumers have been growing sceptical about the authenticity of Darjeeling Tea. Statistics indicate that less than 10 million kg of tea is being churned out by the 87 gardens in Darjeeling annually. But some 40 million kg of 'Darjeeling Tea' is being traded globally every year.

Seventy-five-year-old Datta says such a gap between the actual production and quantity being sold could be glossed over a few decades ago. But today it is not possible.

Connoisseurs of Darjeeling Tea are elites of the society. They have access to all information and data to verify if the tea in their cups is original or a progeny of adulteration. "This has dealt a big blow to the tea industry here which the planters and workers have virtually nurtured for the past 150 years," adds Datta, who has spent almost four decades helping Darjeeling Tea gain its reputation.

Shailesh Sharma, an organic farming veteran associated with the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology, which has of late begun monitoring and fostering organic farming in Darjeeling Tea gardens, told Commodity Market that adulteration and blending have badly hit the coveted high price of genuine Darjeeling Tea. "This has marred the earnings of tea gardens. Subsequently, planters have resorted to massive use of chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides to jack up yield in order to compensate the plummeting prices."

"But use of fertilisers and pesticides proved to be a bane for Darjeeling Tea. Almost 98 per cent of Darjeeling tea is exported. Consumers are mainly in the West. For the past few decades, there has been a radical change in their psyche. They have begun to spurn inorganic food and drinks. So such a metamorphosis in the preference of consumers has threatened the demand of Darjeeling Tea, even the authentic ones," says Sharma. The organic farming expert said: "All together, the Darjeeling Tea industry is in a shambles. Quick measures are needed to rescue it."

However, there is ray of hope for the dying Darjeeling Tea. In the recent past, both the Tea Board of India and DTA have taken steps to combat adulteration.

Sandeep Mukherjee, secretary of DTA, says Darjeeling produces only one per cent (9.5 million kg) of the total Indian produce which is 950 million kg a year.

"And what we have estimated over a period of time that worldwide around 40 million kg of tea is sold as Darjeeling Tea. This obviously means that demand for Darjeeling tea is more but because of the unscrupulous blenders and importers this situation is being taken advantage of and the actual Darjeeling Tea producers are not fetching the right price.

"So, we are monitoring on a day-to-day basis the production and marketing of our tea. Out of 120 gardens in Darjeeling district, only 87 gardens are on the hills. So the TBI has agreed that only these 87 gardens' tea would be termed as Darjeeling Orthodox Tea."

Mukherjee said recently an electronic data processing centre was opened in Darjeeling to collect data of these gardens' produce. This data would be supplied to the TBI. If one garden wishes to export tea, then the Tea Board would issue a certificate of its origin, saying that this garden's tea originates from the Darjeeling Geographical Identification area. That certificate would be given only on the basis of the collated data which the EDP would make available to the board.

Another step is that the Indian Geographical Indication Act, 1999, has empowered the TBI to deregister any garden which is found to be adopting unscrupulous means.

Again, for using the word Darjeeling and for using Darjeeling Tea logo a particular producer has to register itself with the TBI. Darjeeling Tea is the trade mark of the board and none can use it without its permission. Swiss-based IMO has been given audit of all these 87 gardens. It would not only see the data collated, but even its representatives would be visiting the gardens.

The Central Excise department would also be conducting surprise checks in the gardens and their factories and the marketing points in order to ensure that the Darjeeling Tea does maintain its originality.

Tea Board has even tied up with almost all importing countries like Germany, European Union, UK, USA, Australia and Japan to fight adulteration gangs. "Earlier, there was a practice in Germany that if any tea, even if it was blended, contained 51 per cent of Darjeeling Tea and 49 per cent other teas, it could be sold as Darjeeling Tea. But that practice has been stopped now after TBI's pressures on the German tea industry to honor the GI status of Darjeeling Tea," says Mukherjee.

Basudeb Banerjee, chairman of TBI, said with the GI Act coming into force in December 1999, the board has been successful in checking adulteration. "We have spent Rs 70 lakh during the past seven years to fight against GI status infringement of Darjeeling Tea all over the world. We are relentlessly pursuing the cause."

Anindita Ray, TBI's director of tea promotion, claims that the board has successfully registered Darjeeling Tea in countries like USA, UK, Canada, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, France, former Yugoslavia, Italy, India, Australia and a few others. "If we are registered as Darjeeling Tea in the importing countries, we automatically get the right to fight any infringement on the very soil of those countries," she added.

Sandeep Mukherjee said the commerce ministry has agreed to accord agro-export zone status to the 87 gardens in Darjeeling. When that happens, the Darjeeling tea would be better placed. There would be government subsidy for various things. "Even we hope for some tax moratorium."

TBI chairman also said that the board is planning to collaborate with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for satellite mapping of tea gardens in India. "This would enable us to procure satellite data about the Darjeeling Tea gardens and then match them with the data furnished by the gardens to the EDP centre." The board is also mulling to revise subsidy to ensure quality Darjeeling Tea producers are rewarded adequately for their efforts.

Darjeeling Tea gardens are also waking up to the growing global consciousness about the organic authenticity of agricultural produces. They have begun switching over to organic tea production.

Sudan Gurung, manager of the Happy Valley Tea Garden, one of the few tea gardens perched over 6,000-feet height in Darjeeling region, says it is a myth that use of chemicals boost yield. Actually, use of chemicals mars the fertility of soil which could eventually lead to zero yield.

Even the use of chemicals affects the health of workers and contaminates the underground water resources. Our experiences now show that switching over to organic farming helps natural boosting of soil fertility and subsequently the yield and the quality of tea. Most of the 87 gardens are going for total organic farming now."

Despite the recent setbacks, Darjeeling Tea remains the finest and most coveted in the world. The TBI and DTA are engaged in reviving the old glory and aura of Darjeeling Tea.

Darjeeling Tea is botanically known as 'Camellia Sinensis' which is a hardy, multi-stemmed, slow-proliferating evergreen bush which can grow up to 2.5 metres in height. Dr Campbell, a Scottish surgeon and the first superintendent of Darjeeling, had introduced it in the hills in 1841. He brought the tea seeds of Chinese genesis from the Kangra and Kumaon hills of Himachal Pradesh and planted them in his garden at Beechwood, 2134 metres above sea level.

The bush matures within four to six years and is known to yield tea leaves for over 100 years without any deficiency in quality and flavour. It is gifted with the potential to withstand chilliest winters, long spells of drought, heavy downpour and all the vicissitudes of high altitudes. Growing amidst such natural vagaries, its yield is low compared to the non-Darjeeling bushes and its harvesting is expensive and highly labour intensive.

A Darjeeling Tea bush gives only 100 gm of tea product a year. This means over 20,000 individually hand-plucked shoots yield barely one kg of fine tea. The real grandeur of Darjeeling Tea lies in the fact that the same bushes have four-staged harvesting, yielding four varieties, each unique and distinct from the other.

The four different varieties have varying connoisseurs and solicitors, hailing from different countries. Such peerless traits of Darjeeling Tea have helped it survive the whims of consumers, overcome the vagaries of nature and combat the perils posed by unscrupulous blenders. Hope it will continue to do so.

Prakash Dubey/Commodity Online