Storm In A Teacup: Troubles Are Boiling Over For Darjeeling Tea, Says New Book

03/12/2015 8:56 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A gourmet cup of tea is served in one of the tea-houses of Darjeeling town, West-Bengal, India.

India's only GI-patented product, the exclusive Darjeeling tea, grown on 86 designated estates in the region, is fighting for survival on the frontlines of climate change as yields have declined by up to half on some estates.

Planted in the heart of the Eastern Himalayas, the rows of emerald green shrubs produce less than 1% of India's tea, considered by connoisseurs as the best in the world. Bright amber in colour with subtle muscatel, fruit and flower flavours, it is the champagne of teas and is India's only Geographical Indication product patented by WTO.

Touching a record price of US$1,850 a kg in 2014, the bulk of tea from Darjeeling finds its way to Germany, Japan, France, North America and, of course, the UK where it's a fixture at Buckingham Palace. The Queen received some as a gift from Prime Minister Modi, on his recent visit.

"If we don't do something to preserve these Victorian estates, arguably one of the finest legacies of the Raj, the storm in our teacups may spread to consume the industry."

"However the weather is changing, streams carry less water, temperatures are rising and Darjeeling receives less snowfall than before," says Jeff Koehler, food writer, researcher and author of Darjeeling: A History Of The World's Greatest Tea, published recently by Bloomsbury in UK and India.

"The future of Darjeeling tea is also threatened by deforestation leading to devastating landslides in the tea gardens, poor farming practices, labour problems and insurgency," says Koehler, whose book is a veritable potboiler of India's colonial past and its chaotic present -- the story of a nation told through the prism of tea.

In Darjeeling, yields have declined by half in some estates during this decade. The monsoon is increasingly erratic and unseasonal droughts and deluges are playing havoc with crops. In Glenburn Estate, for instance, the tea gardens received 9 inches less of rainfall in 2013 followed by a deluge of 6.6 inches in October when less than an inch would be normal.

"The tea bushes are dying and are replaced at the rate of only 2% a year, " writes Jeff, as it takes upwards of five years for a tea bush to mature.

The rains also cause the topsoil to erode on the steep tea garden slopes causing landslides. "Deep V-shaped gullies scar the hillsides. Seen for miles around, they are eyed with concern as they threaten to expand and slide further."

At a time when the world's attention is focused on the discussions in Paris, the impacts of climate change are hitting the Indian economy on many agricultural fronts, pushing millions back into poverty, according to a new World Bank study.

The book documents the decline in tea production on various estates caused by changing rainfall, hailstorms, unseasonal cold and drought. The picture isn't all gloomy, however, with estate owners taking mitigation measures and finding new markets, notably in Iran and South Korea. But years of insurgency and high levels of worker absenteeism are taking their toll on an industry which provides cradle-to-grave employment insurance and benefits.

Despite these challenges, India remains the world's biggest producer of tea at 9 billion tonnes annually though it has ceded its place as the biggest exporter to China last year.

"The consumption of masala chai as the beverage of choice of millions of Indians began in the 1960s with mechanised processing of more widely grown varieties," says Jeff, and while it remains a favourite excuse for avoiding work in government offices, one wonders whether the competition from coffee and Starbucks culture is making tea passé.

If we don't do something to preserve these Victorian estates, arguably one of the finest legacies of the Raj, the storm in our teacups may spread to consume the industry.

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