The weather used to be perfect in the Dooars and Terai regions of West Bengal.
It was never too hot, never too dry. Light showers would follow spells of sunshine.
The perfect weather was the reason tea planters set up their plantations in these parts of the Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling districts over a century ago.
Jalpaiguri (about 600 km north of Kolkata) and Darjeeling are adjacent districts.
Now, all that is changing, affecting the yield and quality of one of India’s most famous exports.
“For the past five years, we have had long rainless spells, followed by deluges and floods,” said Prabir Bhattacharya, secretary of the Dooars branch of the Indian Tea Association.
“The annual rainfall has stayed at 200 inches, but we’re getting it in sudden squalls and storms rather than spread evenly through the year. And some months are completely parched and dry.”
This shift from evenly distributed rainfall to recurring storms is exactly what experts had predicted would follow from global warming.
And, as rising carbon emissions heat up the earth’s atmosphere, rising temperatures and falling humidity levels in the Dooars and Terai regions are wreaking further havoc on the tea plantations.
Between November 2008 and May 2009, tea gardens in the region reported a 30-50 per cent drop in production because of a five-month drought, preceded by dry spells in previous years.
Swarming new pests made 2009 a particularly difficult year.
Now some plantation managers are wondering how long the crop will be viable here.
“The drought we saw from November to March was the longest in 15 years,” said Manoj Tyagi, manager of New Chamta Tea Garden, West Bengal’s oldest. “Temperatures of 32 degree Celsius or less are good for tea. But we are seeing much higher temperatures, which is affecting soil moisture and photosynthesis, hitting quantity and quality.”
Photosynthesis is the process by which plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into sugar.
It is the enzymes and chemicals produced by plant during photosynthesis that give tea its flavour.
Four droughts in five years — against four in the previous 30 — mean that not only are yields falling, but even the tea produced may not taste the same.
And, as pests thrive in the rising temperatures, plantation managers are being forced to use more pesticides, which is further affecting quality.
“The pest invasion has already hit 153 gardens spread over nearly 80,000 hectares in the Dooars plains,” said Pradip Ghosh, who recently retired as chief advisory officer to the West Bengal unit of the Tea Research Association.
“Some of the estates in the hilly Terai too are being infested, introducing chemicals in a region where planters have always shunned pesticides to ensure that their famous Darjeeling tea meets international standards.”
For now, says Ghosh, planters are pinning their hopes on finding newer, more drought-resistant varieties of tea.
Will they taste the same?
“We can only hope so,” he said.