How ‘substandard’ tea from Nepal is threatening to wipe out Darjeeling plantations
Tea leaves imported under the free trade agreement from Nepal are being sold in the Indian markets as Darjeeling tea, reported the Deutsche Welle news agency on Friday. Raising concern over the matter, tea growers in West Bengal's Darjeeling district have now sent a letter to the tea board as well as to the state's chief minister Mamata Banerjee, requesting measures to curb the problem. A few of the producers even alleged that Nepal is purposely sending ‘substandard tea’, imported from China, to flood the Indian markets.
The increasing inflow and availability of tea from Nepal has had a direct impact on the prices of prestigious Darjeeling tea. According to the report, the price of Darjeeling tea has fallen by 20-25 per cent in the span of just one year.
Nepal accused of delivering ‘substandard tea’
People in the tea industry allege that a section of traders, in particular, are selling Nepal's tea as Darjeeling tea. Under the free trade agreement, anyone in India can import tea independently from Nepal. The price of Darjeeling tea on average varies from ₹320 to ₹360 per kilogram in the wholesale market, but Nepal's tea leaves cost less than half this rate.
“It is not possible for the consumer to understand whether he is drinking Nepali tea or Darjeeling tea,” the report quoted an official of a tea company that runs a plantation in Darjeeling. “Both these tea leaves have the same taste and even the aroma to a great extent.”
Industry sources say about 160 million kilograms of Nepali tea arrive in India every year, of which about 30 to 40 million kilograms are ‘traditional’ in nature. This particular variety of Nepali tea is the one affecting the sale of the Darjeeling tea now, according to the report, which elaborated that traditional Nepali tea – especially the Elam variety – is a close alternative to Darjeeling tea in terms of taste, aroma, and even the appearance.
Practice proving ‘difficult’ to stop
The nearly 87 established tea plantations in Darjeeling produce around 80-85 lakh kilograms of tea annually. People associated with the industry explained that when the tea gardens in Darjeeling remained closed for four months in 2017 due to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha agitation, the sale of Nepali tea in India increased.
“It is difficult to ban Nepali tea because India has a free-trade agreement with Nepal,” said DTA president BK Saria. “We have asked the tea board to increase surveillance on Nepali tea so that it cannot be sold in the domestic market as Darjeeling tea.”
He pointed out that Japanese buyers of Darjeeling tea also pulled out of a trade deal after facing irregular supply in 2017. Earlier, they used to buy 10 lakh kg of Darjeeling tea annually.
The Tea Association of India, in the meanwhile, has appealed to the Union commerce ministry to take concrete initiatives to curb the problem. It has raised the issue regarding the sale of Darjeeling tea and pointed out that the brand's credibility is being damaged due to the growing dominance of Nepali tea.
According to data from the National Tea and Coffee Development Board in Nepal, more than half of the 2.52 crore kg of tea produced annually in the 157 tea gardens of the Himalayan country is exported to India.
Mamata Banerjee gets a letter
The Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), an organisation of 87 tea garden owners in the Darjeeling area, recently sent a letter to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee demanding a complete ban on the import of “cheap and substandard tea” from Nepal, urging her to take proper measures to “save the industry”.
"Darjeeling tea production declined from 9.5 million kg to just 6 million kg in 2020 due to agitation in the hilly region in 2017," wrote Saria in the letter. “In the meantime, the salaries of the tea garden employees increased by about 50 per cent.”
Following the agitation, the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic arrived, further affecting the domestic and foreign markets due to the subsequent lockdown, the letter explained. Now the cheap tea being imported from Nepal has managed to flood the Indian markets, being sold as Darjeeling tea, it added.
Demand to set standards
The DTA estimates that about 9 million kilograms of tea imported from Nepal were sold in the name of Darjeeling tea during the year 2020. “The situation is really serious,” the report quoted says Sandeep Mukherjee, principal advisor to the DTA, as saying. “Darjeeling's tea industry is not being given enough attention. If the tea from Nepal keeps flooding the Indian markets like this, the situation of the entire industry will get worse and many plantations here will have to shut down. This will affect the daily livelihood of thousands of people.”
According to DTA data, 67,000 people are directly employed while nearly 400,000 are indirectly associated with the tea industry in Darjeeling.
Meanwhile, reports said that Mamata Banerjee has taken stock of the situation and sought a detailed report from the state's chief secretary on the matter. The issue is then expected to be raised with the central government. The tea board, too, has also urged the Union commerce ministry to prepare standards for the import of Nepali tea. It has demanded that the name of the manufacturing country be imprinted on imported tea to curb the practice of selling Nepali tea as Darjeeling tea.
(With inputs from Deutsche Welle)