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2 Jul 2017

Why is the Darjeeling stir killing tea and tourism?

Indrani Dutta , TH, JULY 01, 2017 What runs the hills' economy? Tea and tourism are the twin pillars of the economy of the Darjeeling region. It also has some horticulture, floriculture, spice and cinchona cultivation, but the main income and employment generators are tea and tourism. These two are now under attack as the hills are caught in a fresh spiral of violence.

What is the status of the tea industry?

Let us take tea first. The 87 operating tea gardens in Darjeeling indirectly employ over a lakh people and directly around 60,000 people, 60% of whom are women. As per existing laws, the estates also provide housing and medical facilities to about four lakh people — families of the workers. However, the output of the exotic crop has been on a decline, nearly halving over the last few decades. Most worrisome is the fact that the industry for many reasons is not only losing crop but also revenue.

Why has it been hit hard?

The current agitation does not help matters, as it comes during peak production season. The two leaves and a bud, plucked during the summer months between April and July, yield some of the best Darjeeling teas, fragrant with their unique muscatel flavour. These are also the teas that fetch the best prices in domestic and international markets, giving the industry 40% of its annual revenue.

The industry’s initial optimism on the agitation being a short-lived one has been dashed. Not only is productivity being affected due to the closure but the movement of inputs to the gardens and output of the made teas are also jeopardised.

The industry has already sent out SOS appeals, saying that this may lead to closure of many gardens even after return to normalcy.

What about tourism?

Despite having a palette as rich as the Sundarbans and the Darjeeling Hills, West Bengal was never a top tourist destination. The steps taken by the present government to augment and enhance the state’s tourism potential have yielded results and now the State is among India’s top 10 tourist destinations.

As per latest official statistics of the Union Tourism Ministry, in 2016 West Bengal attracted 74.5 million domestic tourists, slipping to the eighth position from fifth in 2015. It attracted 1.5 million foreign tourists during 2016. A significant portion of them headed to the eastern Himalayas to get a view of the Kanchenjunga range as also to soak in the ambience of this former summer capital of the British Empire. Many of them rushed to scamper back to the safety of the plains as the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha agitation fanned across the hill district.

Aware that Darjeeling is literally the crown-jewel of the State’s tourism assets, the government has taken several steps to spruce up the existing accommodation while adding new ones at Darjeeling and its neighbouring subdivisions like Kalimpong and Kurseong. It has also rolled out a home-stay policy and many people have invested to make their homes a pleasant tourist accommodation. All these are aimed at boosting the employment generation in a State where the scope of generating employment through large industries is limited. These now lie in waste.

What does the future hold?

Very little, unless the current agitation is resolved. The 18.5 lakh population of the district has a fairly high literacy rate of around 79.6%, according to the 2011 census figures. The tea industry is already losing able hands to a population which is migrating from the district, leaving the women and the infirm to their fate on the tea estates. The tourism industry is run by plains as well as hills people providing employment to the local youth. Little changes for the political leaders in such agitations but much is at stake for the locals, and the Queen of Hill Stations as Darjeeling was once lovingly referred to.

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