Unrest in hills hits tea industry

The 87 tea estates in the Darjeeling hills employ nearly 55,000 people, a large number of whom are local residents. Owing to the agitation, these workers have been losing the daily minimum wage of Rs 132, but most of them continue to support the movement for a separate state.

Written by Esha Roy | Darjeeling | Published:July 15, 2017 5:14 am
At a protest rally in Darjeeling on Friday. Partha Paul

A month into the Gorkhaland agitation, Darjeeling’s tea industry has already lost business worth Rs 200 crore. Binod Mohan, chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association, said: “The condition of the industry is very bad right now. The annual turnover of Darjeeling tea is between Rs 450-500 crore. The past month, we lost over Rs 200 crore.”

He added: “There are four flushes of Darjeeling tea, of which the first two are of high quality. It’s these two flushes that we export.” The first and second flushes are produced from new leaves in the summer months. The second flush is picked around June and accounts for 20 per cent of the annual production and 40 per cent of the annual revenue.

Underlining the challenges the industry faces, a leading tea grower said, “In other parts of the country, tea is produced for 11 or even 12 months. But in Darjeeling, owing to the topography, altitude and climate, tea is produced for only eight months. Since tea does not fall under the agriculture ministry, but the ministry of commerce, it does not get subsidies available to other agricultural produce.”

“Because of the agitation, the second flush has suffered. Export orders have been cancelled and those who have committed have not been able to deliver. Our loss is not financial alone. There is also a loss of reputation in the world market,’’ said the tea grower.

The 87 tea estates in the Darjeeling hills employ nearly 55,000 people, a large number of whom are local residents. Owing to the agitation, these workers have been losing the daily minimum wage of Rs 132, but most of them continue to support the movement for a separate state.

Among them is Meena Pradhan, 56, who has worked on the Happy Valley tea estate as a tea picker for 30 years. “We have seen many strikes since 1986. Every time, the tea gardens shut down for a while. We aren’t getting wages now. But, we have enough food stocked up. When a family runs out of food items, we share. This is not hardship for us. This is our andolan. Even if the strike continues, even if we starve to death, it’ll be worth it, as long as we achieve Gorkhaland.”

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