For years now, the Darjeeling tea industry has been in a crisis weathering labour problems, political instability, a declining export market, and most recently—climate change. Most of the 87 tea estates in the region are in a bad shape, changing hands frequently. And competition from Nepal has not helped either. Though Darjeeling tea is protected by the Geographical Indicator tag (the first such Indian product to get such a tag), the reality is far from different as Nepal tea is also being sold as Darjeeling tea in domestic and international markets. The industry forms the economic backbone of the region and about three lakh people in the hills directly or indirectly are dependent on it.
The past four years have been especially hard for the industry. In 2017, during the violent Gorkhaland movement demanding a separate state, the tea estates in the region were shut for around three months. This period coincided with the 'second flush' crop and led to huge losses. But just as the industry had slowly started recovering from the losses, COVID struck the world and India. The resultant lockdown led to the entire first flush, which is considered to be the most premium and is mostly exported, going to waste. With travel restrictions in place, it lost out on the export markets. The industry was facing the biggest challenge— COVID-19.
'A Second Chance'
Situated about 30 km from Darjeeling, Selim Hill Tea Estate found itself in a similar predicament. Spread over 1,000 acres (of which 450 acres is under tea bush cover) and established in 1871, it is one among the 87 operational tea gardens producing Darjeeling tea, which is also referred to as the 'Champagne of Teas'. Owned by Sparsh Agarwal's family since 1990, they considered selling it last year after the lockdown. It employs about 350 people.
Till then, Agarwal was not actively involved in the running of the tea estate. He was working with a think-tank in New Delhi. "I did not want to become involved with the family business and wanted to in fact pursue my PhD in political science," he told The Logical Indian.
Agarwal has fond memories of bringing his friends over the estate during the holidays. "Selling it would be the easier way out. But there are livelihoods involved and also there is a whole ecology around the tea garden that needs to be protected. While some hotel and resort owners did show some interest in acquiring it, we decided to give one last shot at revival."
To get the revival process off the ground, Agarwal and his friend Ishaan Kanoria (who was an investment banker and quit his job) shifted base in May last year to Selim Hill to know more about the local tea business and the problems plaguing the tea estate. "Being in the thick of things is important. It is absolutely crucial for the tea estate owner to be present at the site and to be in the grind of things and be involved in the day-to-day business. Absentee landlordism is affecting a lot of gardens adversely," he added.
Agarwal says that the Darjeeling tea market is primarily geared towards the export market.
"There is this notion that the first and second flush is premium quality and mostly exported while the third and fourth flush is of inferior quality. This is completely wrong and therefore the first and second flush is sold at exorbitantly high prices while there are hardly any takers for the third and fourth flush. The sales from the first and second flush make up for the losses incurred by the third and fourth flush," said Agarwal.
Another problem is the grading system requirement in the international market, wherein clients require that all tea leaves be of the same size. "Therefore the tea is machine-sorted and in the process a lot of it gets wasted and the rest sells at a loss," he added.
To address all these issues, Agarwal and Kanoria started Dorje Teas in June this year. One unique feature about it is that it has a subscription model. "In the export market, Darjeeling tea is sold anywhere between ₹5,000-15,000 which is a lot for an Indian audience. So we have decided to charge ₹2,100 for an annual subscription under which all four flushes of our tea will be sent to customers throughout the year," said Agarwal.
So far, around 500 people have subscribed to it. The aim is to have 50,000 subscribers by the first year.
They are being mentored in this venture by Rajah Banerjee, former owner of the Makaibari tea estate which produces one of the most expensive teas in the world.
Selim Hill Collective
Agarwal and his family have also launched the Selim Hill Collective, helmed by Rajah Banerjee, which aims at protecting the rich biodiversity around the garden, work towards community welfare, and reimagining the space of the tea estate. The garden is home to a variety of species of birds and animals, including the hornbill, leopards, and elephants. "It is important to help preserve the biodiversity as a loss it will mean a loss of livelihoods," said Agarwal.
They have embarked on a large-scale afforestation campaign under the programme and have planted at least 450 saplings so far. "For every subscription we get, a sapling is planted. And as part of community welfare, we want to create self-help groups for women who will participate in waste management," he added.
To create and spread awareness, they have launched 'Echoes' a series of conversations on the state of the hills. The collective's larger objective is to enlist the help and skills of researchers, writers, artists, conservationists, and ecological historians.
"We want to reimagine the space of a garden and move away from the colonial model of exploitation to a model that is more inclusive and sustainable. With commercial interests, we also have to think long-term and that includes measures to mitigate the impact of climate change as well," said Agarwal.