With strikes and riots currently unfolding across West Bengal, India, tea companies across the world are finding their supply of Darjeeling tea severely affected. The current unrest in the otherwise idyllic Indian Himalayan foothills has meant that the production of one of the most valued and expensive teas has come to a grinding halt worldwide.
What is Darjeeling Tea?
Darjeeling tea, also known as the ‘Champagne of teas’, originates from the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India. Prised for its delicate taste and floral aroma, Darjeeling tea is available in black, green, white and oolong.
Tea bushes have been planted and harvested in the Indian district of Darjeeling since 1841, when a British civil surgeon of the Indian Medical Service was transferred to Darjeeling from Kathmandu, Nepal. Bringing with him seeds of the Chinese tea plant, he started to experiment with tea planting. Since this time, tea gardens have been established in the area by companies such as Kurseong and Darjeeling Tea Company. The tea industry is now one of main significant contributors of the region’s economy and the area boasts 87 flourishing tea gardens.
What Lies Behind the Riots?
Strikes began earlier this year in certain parts of West Bengal following a government decision to make the learning of Bengali compulsory in all schools across the state, including private English medium schools of the state. This was a decision which had far-reaching political and social implications. In a predominantly Nepali-speaking region, decisions to enforce Bengali culture on the hills have not been taken lightly.
Protests rapidly escalated into demands for a separate state of Gorkhaland and strikes soon degenerated into violence, causing unrest in Darjeeling’s 87 tea gardens. The recent stir has had a severe effect on the production of the region’s most in demand crop, as the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) called for an indefinite strike on all government facilities in the northern parts of the state.
For now, Darjeeling tea bushes have been left neglected, un-plucked and un-processed, meaning more than half of the region’s production of tea has been lost this season.
How has this Affected Tea Companies in the UK and Worldwide?
Unfortunately, the political and social unrest in West Bengal could not have come at a worse time for tea companies. Clashing with the summer season, or ‘flush’, of the Darjeeling tea harvest, which accounts for half of the yearly crop, the strikes and riots across the region have seen sales plummet. In turn, there seems to have been a knock-on effect on tea companies across the globe.
Darjeeling tea is mainly exported for sales in the UK, Europe and Japan, although companies worldwide have felt the crunch caused by the recent Gorkhaland strikes and riots. With no fresh supply of Darjeeling tea, many wholesale dealers and tea companies are being forced to cancel future orders and source alternatives from Eastern and Southern India, or countries like Sri Lanka and Kenya. Final lots of Darjeeling tea are set to go to auction this month, meaning the UK may be particularly dry of Darjeeling tea. Many have become concerned that the popular tea is running the risk of becoming a ‘limited edition’ beverage.
Alternatives to Darjeeling Tea
Although Darjeeling tea is unique to its region, for now, tea connoisseurs are being encouraged to opt for alternative teas with similar flavours and harvesting processes to Darjeeling.
Many companies are now using the recent drought of second flush Darjeeling tea as a motive to explore alternative markets and find organic, environmentally friendly substitutes. Some companies have started their searches by sourcing similar Himalayan teas from Nepal, or high-mountain teas from Sri Lanka. The ‘Nuwara Eliya’ black tea from Sri Lanka, for example, has been suggested as a respectable alternative for Darjeeling, for its highly aromatic qualities and similar manufacturing processes.
What Lies Ahead?
Strikes and riots in the region have undoubtedly left the tea industry in Darjeeling weak and vulnerable and there could be disastrous long term effects. Shortage of second flush Darjeeling tea in the global market this year has been a ghastly blow to the industry’s annual revenue. For now, there is uncertainty as to how much of this damage is irreversible, but tea companies around the world are maintaining hope that the industry will be up and running again soon, ready for a fresh flush of the world’s favourite tea.
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- Tags: Champagne of teas, Darjeeling Riots, Gorkhaland, Indian Himalayan, Kathmandu, Nuwara Eliya, West Bengal