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24 Jun 2017

Second flush time running out - Morcha sticks to strike diktat, Tea Board refuses relief

Sambit Saha, TT,  Calcutta, June 23: The Tea Board has turned down the demand for a one-time grant made by beleaguered Darjeeling planters to tide them over the crisis precipitated by the unrest in the hills that threatens to wreck their crop of second-flush tea this year.
An indefinite strike called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has created a situation where the Darjeeling gardens face the prospect of suffering huge losses as they have been able to produce only 200,000kg of second-flush teas - popular for their pronounced aromatic muscatel flavour - this season against 1.8 million kg last year.
In spite of an appeal by the Darjeeling Tea Association, the Morcha today declined to exempt any segment from the indefinite strike. "The strike will go on and there will be no relaxation. We are in no mood for celebration," Morcha leader Bimal Gurung said. The statement suggests the strike would cover Id too.
Gurung, who is in damage-control mode after his outburst against other hill parties last evening, appeared reluctant to immediately announce measures that might be construed by others as signs of compromise.
The Darjeeling planters put out their collective hats for a one-time grant from the Tea Board - taking the cue from the announcement of farm loan waivers across several states - to highlight their own distress.
Tea Board chairman Prabhat Bezbarooah told The Telegraph there was no possibility of offering any financial aid to the garden owners while admitting that the situation was "tragic".
"It would not be possible to create any special corpus as such. There are no small tea growers in Darjeeling," Bezbarooah said.
The Darjeeling Tea Association had written to the Tea Board earlier this week to highlight the crisis in the hills and requesting the tea promotion body, which functions under the Union commerce ministry, to assess the extent of damage and offer a one-time grant.
In its reply, the board offered to inform the appropriate authorities of the situation.
Bezbarooah, who took charge a month ago, described the strike as purely a state subject and defined the board's role as that of an observer.
"Darjeeling is the flag-bearer of Indian tea. It is a tragic situation no doubt. This is going to impact the finances of the garden owners. But what we can do from the Tea Board is provide some sort of assistance to promote the second flush when it comes to the market next year," Bezbarooah said.
The second-flush crop consistently fetches the best price for Darjeeling gardens and contributes 40 per cent to their annual revenues.
Even if the strike is withdrawn tomorrow, it will not be possible for the gardens to organise more than two plucks before the season ends.
DTA secretary-general Kaushik Basu said the strike would push up tea production costs at the gardens by Rs 100 to Rs 150 per kg.
Industry veterans said that owners who have gardens only in Darjeeling would be the hardest hit. There are 10-12 single-garden owners in the region.
But the big players will also feel the heat. The Ambootia Group of Sanjay Bansal has the highest number of gardens in the hills at 14, followed by Ashok Lohia's Chamong (13 gardens). The Goodricke Group and Jayshree Tea own multiple gardens as well.
"This is an irreparable loss. Not even the best gardens will be spared (financially). Those with other sources of revenue will cross-subsidise and survive. But what happens to single-garden owners who have no other sources of income?" asked a large garden owner.
Darjeeling has seen longer periods of unrest in the past, such as when Subash Ghisingh called a 40-day strike in 1988. But those usually took place during winter (January-February) when there is no tea production .
The annual tea production in the Darjeeling hills hovers between 8 and 9 million kg depending on climactic conditions. The prices have remained stagnant or even declined marginally on constant currency basis over the past year due to the unusual strength of the Indian rupee against the pound sterling, euro and the US dollar.
Darjeeling gardens are known for low yield and high quality. The cost of tea production varies between Rs 300 and Rs 350 per kg for gardens in the lower elevation, and Rs 600 and Rs 650 per kg for those at higher elevations.
The first and second-flush teas are usually exported and constitute half the tea produced annually in terms of volume and nearly 70 per cent in terms of value.
This year, the first-flush tea production was better than last year. The second flush -which has a 40-to-45-day window from end-May to early July - started on a good note before the sudden unrest sparked the tea garden crisis.
A pall has descended over the hills but the garden owners are not looking to shut operations.
"The long-term story for Darjeeling Tea is intact. This is the best we have and no one wants to let go of such a prized asset. This is what we are known for," said an owner who has gardens both in Assam and Bengal.

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