The world-famous brew of Darjeeling tea could soon be in short supply.
Dealing a blow to brands dependent on the area’s prestigious teaplant, in India’s famed Himalayan town, political chaos has forced the closure of tea plantations and estates.
Amid ethnic strife between Indians of Nepali origin — known as Gorkhas — and the Indians of West Bengal, or Bengalis, with most businesses, including shops, hotels, ATMs and tea gardens, closed – Darjeeling, a popular hill station in the state of West Bengal, is currently in shutdown mode.
Not only is it peak tourist season in Darjeeling, it’s also second flush tea season and therefore the timing of the political turmoil couldn’t be worse.
mature leaves known for their full bodied flavor, which are highly sought after by both connoisseurs and consumers, is typically produced in the second flush stage, from May to June as the world-renowned Darjeeling tea plant yields new leaves at different stages year-round.
“Second flush teas are typically picked young and constant plucking is required to get the young leaves. But because all Darjeeling tea plantations are currently closed, nobody is plucking any leaves, so the plants will overgrow and quality will deteriorate,” warned Kaushal Dugar, founder of Teabox, an online tea retailer based in Darjeeling.
“Even if tea estates open after a week, constant plucking will be required to get the high quality summer flush tea leaves are known for. That will take at least two to three weeks and by that time, the weather will have shifted and the second flush season will be over.”
While international players could have more trouble even though since it purchased 70 percent of its Darjeeling tea supplies before the political agitation started, it isn’t significantly impacted, Teabox says.
“Bigger brands may have problems as they are not based in Darjeeling and typically buy in bulk from auctions, but if they can’t confirm the level of quality, they may not buy at all,” said Dugar.
A firm can’t label its tea product ‘Darjeeling’ if it’s not from the area — just like France’s Bordeaux wine and hence Darjeeling tea is India’s only geographically-indicated product.
“Having learned of the political strife and resulting disruption to tea production, naturally we have serious concerns about supply,” said Dilhan Fernando, director at Dilmah Tea.
While a smaller slice of sales comes from other terroirs, including Darjeeling, the lion’s share of Dilmah’s business is Ceylon tea form Sri Lanka.
“In the event that disruption to operations continues for more than a month, we will not be able to supply Dilmah Darjeeling tea,” Fernando continued. “There are no alternatives possible since we believe in the purity of origin and therefore only use pure Darjeeling.”
Dugar says that they will have to increase the price or discontinue the product itself, if major tea brands want to continue with their Darjeeling summer flush products.
And the issue of Gorkha culture is at the crux of the current political instability.
Fierce protests from local political faction Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, were sparked off in May when the government added the Bengali language as a compulsory subject for school students even though Nepali is one of the official languages in the hills.
A recent report by New Delhi-based think tank ObserverResearch Foundation explained that the GJM “seized this moment to reignite the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state where the Gorkhas’ identity would be protected and not trampled upon by outsiders, namely, Bengalis.”
“It is Gorkha pride versus Bengali supremacism,” the report continued. “Old grievances like state run Nepali-medium schools not getting textbooks in time from the West Bengal government have surfaced all over again.”
(Adapted from CNBC)