KOLKATA (Web Desk) – World-famous Darjeeling tea gardens in India’s West Bengal state immediately whip up picturesque visuals of clouds floating over rolling hills covered in tea bushes where women, draped in colourful sarongs, pick tea leaves that they collect in woven baskets tied to their backs.
But there is another reality behind those postcard visuals: a drop in production and demand as buyers turn to cheaper alternatives from neighbouring Nepal, endangering the future of an area, and its workers, once known for producing the “champagne of teas”.
“The future of Darjeeling tea is bleak and the end seems near if the situation remains the same,” warned Subhasish Roy, the manager of Arya Tea Estate in Darjeeling. “Several thousands of people will lose their livelihood and this heritage will be lost forever.”
The iconic Darjeeling tea industry was started by the erstwhile British rulers who replanted bushes on the Indian hills from China in the mid-19th century.
Today, the hills have 87 tea gardens spread across 17,800 hectares (44,000 acres) with a total production of about 6,640 tonnes (6.64 million kg or mkg) of organic tea in 2022, lower than the 7.69mkg produced in 2019, according to the Tea Board of India, the apex body of the tea industry.
Tea experts attribute several reasons for the falling production, including a nearly 40 percent decline since the gardens were converted to fully organic to meet buyer demand, said Sanjay Choudhry, the owner of Ringtong tea estate.
The premium quality tea caters mostly to the international markets of Russia, Japan, Iran, the United States and European countries. But there has been a decline in exports to these nations in the past five years.
In 2022, Darjeeling exported 3.02mkg of tea or 45.48 percent of all production, down from 3.71mkg or 48.24 percent of the production in 2018, as per the Tea Board.
Even the overall export of Indian tea was down to 226.98mkg in 2022 from 251.91mkg in 2017, it said.