Gurkhas disrupt Darjeeling tea industry in West Bengal
India's ethnic Gurkhas, fighting for separate state in West Bengal, shut economy down, disrupting tea industry at peak production time
Its fragrant, delicately flavoured leaves have enthralled tea drinkers for generations, but stocks of Darjeeling are being threatened as India's ethnic Gurkhas fight for a separate state in the hills of West Bengal.
The demand for "Gurkhaland", a separate political and administrative unit to be carved out from the Gurkha populated districts of West Bengal state, has enforced a total shutdown in the Darjeeling hills since August 3.
For the past 10 days, Gurkha men, women and children have taken over the winding roads and hill habitations in the 3,150 square kilometre region, stopping traffic, closing shops and restaurants, and preventing all economic activity.
Even though the tea industry has supposedly been "exempted" from the shutdown, the knock-on effect could mean losing two months of production.
The Indian Tea Association was holding emergency talks in Calcutta yesterday as companies deal with the crisis.
"It's an extremely worrisome situation," said Manojit Dasgupta, the association's secretary-general. "All the 74 operational tea estates in the region are facing insurmountable problems. At risk is the entire July and August production of Darjeeling tea, amounting to nearly [3,000 tonnes]. This is around a third of the annual production."
The region was ruled by the Gurkha kings of Nepal until it was annexed and incorporated into British India in the 19th century.
Not coincidentally, this is also the region where, in 1841, a Scottish doctor planted seeds stolen from China to create Darjeeling's first experimental tea garden.
Darjeeling's terrain and climate, at an altitude of around 2,000 metres, were perfect for the transplantation of the Chinese Camellia sinensis tea. It did not take long for the tea rooms of London to acknowledge the superior quality of Darjeeling leaf, which came to be known as "the champagne among teas".
On Monday, the Gurkha People's Liberation Front announced a three-day let-up in action from Friday to Sunday. But there has also been talk that the fight for a separate state will take a new form, with a "curfew" descending on the Darjeeling hills. The population of 1.8 million is being asked to stay indoors.
"In a worst-case scenario, we face the prospect of huge losses at a time of peak production, threatening our future operations," said Dasgupta. He said the action meant trucks with coal supplies used in furnaces to turn the green leaves to black tea are failing to get through.
The supply of rice to tea gardens has also stopped and with pickers partly paid in rice, harvesting could be delayed. Finally, almost 65 per cent of Darjeeling's production is exported, but the black tea is stuck in the factories. "The factories have limited storage space, and have to take the tea out," said Dasgupta.
Nick Gandon, the director of Britain-based Reginald Ames tea merchants and brokers, said the action in Darjeeling would inevitably disrupt the market and lead to a rise in the price of the tea.
"Production is still continuing but it's only going to go on for a little while longer because everyone's coal stocks are running pretty low," he said.
"As soon as they run out, they're not going to be able to manufacture and that's going to have an impact on prices. If you miss out on a week's worth of production, you've still got to pay the workers and there's not going to be that tea to sell. When it does start selling again, there's going to be a lot of people wanting it, so it's going to push prices up."
There is only one silver lining to the gloom in the tea gardens - the tea now in the factories and on shrubs is what's known as "rains tea", an inferior grade of "monsoon tea" used largely in blends. The superior "first flush" and "second flush" Darjeeling teas are in the global market.