Downgrading of Darjeeling tea gardens invites growers' ire

The Tea Board of India is in the firing line again, this time with the industry expressing its ire over a tea garden gradation system it recently undertook.

According to its new grading, given for the first time, tea gardens in Darjeeling in Eastern India have been given a lower grade than others. This has not been received well by tea gardens, as Darjeeling tea has a GI tag issued by the Geographical Indications Registry (GIR) and is known internationally for its aroma.

In the course of grading 1,413 tea gardens across India, which the Tea Board recognises, not a single garden in Darjeeling was accorded an A+ grade and only one qualified for an A grade. Out of the 87 gardens in the Darjeeling hills, 35 were classified under the B+ category and another 39 were B grade. Seventeen gardens were classified under the C category, one under the D grade and another two were accorded the S grade.

A senior Tea Board official said that no Darjeeling garden was able to score an A+ grade as there has been no replantation in the gardens in these areas. 

The industry, however, has opined otherwise. Prateek Poddar, director of Darjeeling Impex and owner of the fabled Namring Tea garden, whose tea fetched a staggering Rs 11,000 a kg through a recent private sale, has challenged the Tea Board's finding.

"I can speak for my garden. At Namring (in Darjeeling), since 2009, we have already replanted 70 hectares out of 450 hectares; so how can someone say there has been no replantation in the region," Poddar told Business Standard. Further, the Darjeeling Tea Association has disputed the parameters and the methodology involved in the gradation process.

"The parameters used by the Tea Board are not convincing. We'll write to the Tea Board as well as the Union Commerce Ministry on this next week," S S Bagaria, the association's president, told this newspaper.

Asked about the replantation parameter, Bagaria said in Darjeeling, it takes 7-10 years for replantation to yield any produce while it takes much lesser time in Assam and South India. Besides, the produce per hectare from Darjeeling was also too low compared to these regions because of the inert quality of the soil, altitude and the plants.

Will lower grading impact high value Darjeeling tea exports? No. "It is unlikely that garden gradation will affect exports or the prices. In the export market, people consider sustainability parameters and labourer welfare measures while buying the tea," A N Singh, CEO of Goodricke, one of the largest tea exporters from India, told Business Standard.

Industry officials opined that parameters like Rainforest Alliance, quality grades like FSSC 22000 and ETP certifications, along with organic mode of production and non-use of child labour in the gardens, were important parameters for international purchase. Although, Darjeeling annually accounts for only 7-8 million kg (mkg) of exports out of a total of 198 mkg, this tea variant, renowned for its premium quality, fetches a substantial part of the $595 million forex inflow into India.

Although industry officials commended the Tea Board's initiatives to grade the gardens to find out concern areas, it pointed out that the Tea Board needed to tailor the parameters for Darjeeling according to the geographical uniqueness of the region.

While the majority of the Assam plantations use variants of the indigenous Camellia Assamica plant variant where yield is high, a majority of Darjeeling gardens use clones and cross-breeds of the Camellia Sinensis or the original Chinese tea variant, where the yield is low but its quality far surpasses other clonals.

According to industry estimates, the average yield for the 18155.23 hectare under tea cultivation in the Darjeeling hills is 400 kg per hectare in Darjeeling while it is 2,000 kg per hectare in Assam and elsewhere.

The Tea Board has reasoned that the grading tool will help ascertain the reasons and shortcoming of a particular tea estate and steps can be taken to address the same.

"This will also help the tea gardens to know about the wellness or sickness at any point of time and may be considered as a precautionary measure," the Tea Board official told this business daily.

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