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Gorkhaland agitation: Darjeeling tea gardens lose 70% crop worth Rs500 crore

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-10-2017 Soumonty Kanungo

Kolkata: Estimates vary, but tea estates in Darjeeling are bracing for a loss of up to 30% of their crop in 2018 because of the 104-day strike in the hill district of West Bengal, which ended last week. Due to the disruption, the 87 estates in Darjeeling have in the current year lost at least 70% of their crop, the combined value of which is estimated at Rs400-500 crore.

The strike was withdrawn on Wednesday after the Centre agreed to intervene to resolve the standoff between the Gorkhas and the West Bengal government over the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. Because of Durga Puja celebrations, tea estates have not yet reopened, but initial estimates suggest that production will not start until 7-8 months later.

Tea estates, which have so far been spared the brunt of agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state in Darjeeling, have never before experienced such a prolonged shutdown. The bushes are overgrown and will have to be cut to make them productive again, said estate owners. Managers and workers have started to return to the estates, and work to revive the plantations is expected to start in full swing on Tuesday.

Best part of the first flush, or the early harvest of February-March, is going to be lost, said S.S. Bagaria, a garden owner and former chairman of Darjeeling Tea Association, a lobby group. It will take at least 7-8 months to restore the plantations, and by the time the first harvest is ready, estates will lose at least 15% of the annual crop.

Darjeeling produces around 8.5 million kg of tea a year. The spring and monsoon harvest are considered to be the most premium and fetch the best prices. In the current year, almost the entire monsoon harvest was lost. Tea from neighbouring Nepal has made inroads into the market due to the disruption in supply, and this may have long-term price implications, according to an auctioneer, who asked not to be identified.

A lot of retailers and bulk buyers have this year switched to Nepali tea, which is similar in character, but significantly cheaper than the crop produced in Darjeeling, the auctioneer said. Switching consumers back to the Darjeeling variety may not be easy, and it is not clear if this is going to impact auction prices next year, he added.

Another estate owner is more sceptical, and fears that even the second flush, or summer harvest, could be lost before the plantations are restored. This person, who did not wish to be identified, fears the crop loss in 2018 could be as high as 25-30% because of delayed maintenance. “The first flush is completely gone,” he said. That alone will take away at least 20% of the annual crop.

Ziaur Alam, general secretary of the All India Plantation Workers’ Federation, a Left-backed trade union, said prices of Darjeeling tea should firm up next year because of the disruption in supply. Asked if there’s going to be any further crop loss next year, he said it can only be determined once workers start to prune the overgrown bushes.

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