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‘Good quality’ Nepal tea spoils Darjeeling’s party

Grown on similar Himalayan terrain and climate across the border in Nepal, the tea made its way into Bengal’s cuppa during the 104-day strike Gorkhaland strike that hit production in Darjeeling.

Updated: Nov 18, 2017 07:45:59

By Pramod Giri, Hindustan Times, Darjeeling

The Darjeeling unrest affected the 87 gardens in north Bengal’s tea belt. (Mint File)

The unrest in Darjeeling is whipping up a stir in the tea cup as well. The premium Darjeeling tea is getting competition from a Nepalese rip-off, which is as good as the original in aroma and flavour.

Grown on similar Himalayan terrain and climate across the border in Nepal, the tea made its way into Bengal’s cuppa during the 104-day strike in the Darjeeling hills for a separate Gorkhaland state this summer. The strike, marred by violence, affected the 87 gardens in north Bengal’s tea belt.

“The strike extended from mid-June to September-end and paralysed the gardens in Darjeeling. It turned into a golden opportunity for Nepal tea,” said Anil Bansal, a tea trader in Siliguri, north Bengal’s largest city and trading hub. Labourers from gardens producing one of the finest Indian teas migrated to Nepal, looking for greener pastures.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which was spearheading the statehood movement, called off the shutdown but the labourers haven’t returned. The migration affected the gardens in north Bengal. “If Nepal produces 4.5 million kg of tea, only 0.5 million is consumed in the country. The rest enters India,” said Binod Mohan, chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA).

The Nepal crop enters India as part of a free trade agreement.

According to traders, customers are not familiar with Nepal tea and don’t ask for it. The Nepal product enjoys a cost advantage. It is blended with Darjeeling tea — the first Indian product to obtain a geographical indication (GI) tag — and sold loose to boost profit margins of traders. The blend is sold as Darjeeling tea.

Sometimes, unblended Nepal tea is also passed off as Darjeeling tea, the traders said.

According to the Nepal Tea and Coffee Development Board, the country produced 5.5 million kg of orthodox tea in 2015-2016, which is about 65% of Darjeeling’s produce. That year, Darjeeling’s orthodox tea production was about 8.5 million kg.

The total area under orthodox tea plantation is increasing in Nepal — from 8,786 hectares in 2013-2014 to 16,245 hectares in 2015-2016. In Darjeeling, production is likely to stagnate because there’s no land available for new plantation and tea bushes are old.

“The demand for Nepal tea is on the rise due to its quality,” said Trilok Chand Agarwal of Sagar Tea House. He said fertile soil, young tea bushes are the two major advantages of Nepal tea.

Cynics admit the cost advantage. DTA chiarman Mohan said: “Though there is no comparison with Darjeeling tea, the cheap quality of fake Darjeeling tea is posing a challenge.” He said the Tea Board of India has been sou- nded out about the import that does not conform to standards.

According to KK Mintri, chairman of the Terai Indian Planters Association, Nepal tea is emerging as substitute and is going to give stiff competition to Darjeeling. “With almost similar flavour and aroma, Nepal tea is produced at nearly half the price of the Darjeeling crop,” Mintri said.

“In the past 10 years, Nepal tea has made progress in global markets,” said Niraj Lama, owner of Happy Earth Tea in New York.

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