Darjeeling shutdown to hit tea export

June 18th, 2008 - 2:16 pm ICT by IANS  

By Soudhriti Bhabani
Darjeeling, June 18 (IANS) India’s most famous commodity export, Darjeeling tea, is being hit hard by the shutdown in the Himalayan region where it is grown. The country is losing Rs.20 million ($470,000) a day. The delay in plucking of leaves and transport of tea for export auctions due to the ongoing Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) sponsored shutdown in West Bengal’s Darjeeling hills will get worse if the indefinite shutdown continues and will give an edge to tea from Sri Lanka, say traders.

“It is impossible for us to continue work at any of the tea gardens in Darjeeling although the tea estates are outside the purview of the shutdown. There is no transport available and life has come to a standstill,” Siliguri Tea Traders Association secretary Rajiv Lochan told IANS.

“If people are so agitated, how will the work continue? The industry is thoroughly disturbed and we expect tea exports to fall drastically this time. Production will decrease and the quality of tea, which is the only trademark of Darjeeling tea, will definitely deteriorate,” he added.

The indefinite shutdown that began Monday evening has paralysed life in the three hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling district - Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong.

Each day of shutdown means a loss of Rs.20 million ($470,000), Lochan estimated. It is especially galling because exports of Darjeeling teas were targeted to rise 20-25 percent over last year’s six million kg. But now the industry is looking at a 20-25 drop in exports, Lochan said.

Over 70 percent of the 10 million kg of tea produced by the 87 tea gardens in Darjeeling is exported. Though Darjeeling tea accounts for only 7-8 percent of India’s tea exports, which were worth Rs.1.85 billion ($407.42 million) in 2006-07, it fetches 5-6 times the price of the usual CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea.

Of the 10 million kg annual production, the best one million is produced in June, the well-known “second flush” of tea leaf pickings that start with the beginning of the monsoon rains.

The shutdown means uncertainty for over 50,000 permanent workers in the tea gardens, and no wages for around 100,000 temporary workers.

“Since the movement started from February this year, the tea industry has suffered a lot. The best plucking season starts mid-May and continues upto mid-June but the shutdown has badly affected the plucking of second flush tea,” Lochan said.

Second flush tea is the prime quality tea, highly priced in the international market.

Indian Tea Association joint secretary Sujit Patra conceded that the shutdown would have an adverse impact on tea export.

“Not only Darjeeling tea, but Assam tea will also face hassles in reaching Kolkata, because of the road blockade,” he said.

“The tea will not reach Kolkata in time for the auction. So there will be a ripple effect on the tea market in India and overseas. There is a big possibility that Sri Lankan tea, which also has a huge international market, will stand to gain as Darjeeling tea suffers losses,” Patra said.

He said the affect of the Gorkhaland movement on the tea industry “is a very serious issue and should be addressed” by the state government.

Tea is one of the three pillars of Darjeeling’s economy along with timber and tourism.

Following the recent flare-up, all three have been hit.

Tea consumption is very high in India. According to a rough estimate, the per capita consumption of tea is about 700 gram per year.

The industry overall is also registering a year-on-year growth of nine percent. India exports Rs.20 billion worth of tea annually.

The GJM has been leading the movement in the hills for a separate state, besides opposing the Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling district that ensures greater autonomy to the district’s governing body - the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.

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