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24 May 2017

Nepal tea steals Darjeeling’s flavour

Sovon Manna | TNN | May 24, 2017,KOLKATA: The tea gardens of Darjeeling, which produce some of the world's costliest stress-busting brews, are under severe strain. Already reeling under the impact of climate change, fall in global prices, scarcity of skilled labour and high production cost, the 'champagne of tea' has another demon to fend off: cheap Nepal tea.
The legal and illegal influx of these cheaper Darjeeling-type tea leaves from Nepal is stealing the business and glory of the original Darjeeling brew. Although Darjeeling produces less than 1% of India's total tea output, it is the torch-bearer of Indian tea for its unmatched quality. The Nepalese tea estates enjoy all four climatic factors — sunshine, rainfall, elevation and the mist — which have helped the Darjeeling gardens produce the iconic leaves.
According to Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), approximately three million kilograms of Nepal tea enter India each year. "This high quantity of deceptively similar-looking but cheaper variety is passed off as GI-registered Darjeeling to unsuspecting Indian and overseas consumers. The unregulated import of this tea with questionable food-safety standards is a threat to consumers. It is killing Darjeeling tea's global reputation," said DTA chairman Binod Mohan.
Darjeeling tea growers have been urging the Centre to take steps to stop the unregulated imports from Nepal. According to some in the industry, production of this lookalike tea in Nepal may have crossed the five million kg mark. The porous border is paving the way for this inferior tea to flood the Indian market although the tea distribution and export control order makes it mandatory to register any imports with the Tea Board. Anshuman Kanoria, chairman, Calcutta Tea Traders Association (CTTA), and vice-chairman of Indian Tea Exporters Association (ITEA), told TOI that the full price realization of Darjeeling tea gets affected by this 'bought-leaf' production from Nepal. "The Himalayan kingdom produces tea of a lower grade at much lower cost of production. Their traceability and pesticide compliance are questionable. But their tea doesn't have the unique muscatel flavour, which is key to Darjeeling's iconic status. Darjeeling should focus on quality, better generic promotion and a mandatory 100% sale through auctions to foster more competition and price discovery," said Kanoria, who also owns the Tindharia tea estate in the Hills. However, some experts feel that the fall in Darjeeling's quality over the years has given Nepal tea wider acceptance among consumers with its price advantage.
"A part of the crisis is due to vicious undercutting of prices among producer-exporters who want to squeeze the middleman out. Also the Geographical Indication (GI) requirement of percentage of Darjeeling tea in the blend has made some packers turn to Nepal teas which have been branded as Himalayan teas. Hence, the challenge is to develop a synergy with importers for overall benefit," said Prabhat Kamal Bezboruah, who has been named the new chairman of the Tea Board of India.
The Indo-Nepal Free Trade Agreement empowers any trader to legally import tea from Nepal. But selling it in India or abroad in the name of Darjeeling tea is an infringement of intellectual property rights (IPR). "The situation is getting worse and needs to be controlled. The bilateral treaty is also up for renewal in 2017. We are hopeful that some amendment will be made to the treaty by the government in this regard," said Mohan.
According to Santanu Kejriwal, owner of the renowned Jungpana Tea Estate, the demand for Darjeeling tea is very limited. "Only a limited amount of top quality Darjeeling tea fetches proper price. The mass production from Darjeeling — around 70%-80% — is getting hit as it seldom recovers cost of production," he said.
Darjeeling tea growers are slowly getting vocal against the influx of Nepal tea. "The plucking quality in Nepal is not up to the global standard as farmers, not specialists, are entrusted with plucking and nurturing of tea leaves there. The primitive manufacturing and firing techniques account for a huge difference between the Nepal brew and a vintage Darjeeling cuppa," added Mohan.
However, some industry people are sceptical of the real extent of damage done by Nepal tea. A N Singh, MD of Goodricke, said, "We have no authentic source to specify the quantity of Nepal tea entering our market. That the prices for broken and fannings are better is a different story and could be attributed to various other reasons."







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