Industry officials alleged that buyers, primarily operating in the loose leaf market, have been procuring this tea.
A section of dishonest traders have been passing Nepal tea as Darjeeling, which is a protected and has a Geographical Indication trademark. Legally, tea from Nepal can be freely imported by anyone in India under the free-trade agreement.
While Darjeeling tea, in bulk sales, is priced anywhere between Rs 320 and Rs 360 per kg on an average, the orthodox variety of Nepal tea is not even half that price. In 2019, prices of Darjeeling tea
had been down by Rs 70-80 per kg.
“It is not possible for the consumer to understand if he is drinking Nepal or Darjeeling tea
as both are so alike in taste, aroma and flavour. Some deceitful sellers pass on Nepal tea as Darjeeling variety,” an official from a tea company having estates in Darjeeling said.
Industry sources said as much as 16 million kg (mkg) of Nepal tea enters India every year. Of this, around 3-4 mkg are of the orthodox variety.
It is this tea variety which affects the produce from Darjeeling. Particularly, the llam variety of Nepalese tea is the closest substitute of Darjeeling tea
in terms of looks, flavour and aroma.
Even experts and tea connoisseurs find it hard to differentiate between the two.
“There have been some malpractices going on with Darjeeling tea, particularly in the domestic market. This has been pulling down the price realisation of Darjeeling tea,” an industry official said.
In fact, for the Goodricke Group, which has gardens across West Bengal as well as Assam and produces some of the top quality teas from these areas, prices of Darjeeling teas fell by 18 per cent while prices of Assam and Dooars teas rose by 3 per cent and 1.5 per cent, respectively.
Although similar, most of the tea from Nepal is uncertified with no pesticide and residue declaration while 70 per cent of the 87 estates in Darjeeling are certified organic.
Rough estimates pegged loss to the Darjeeling tea industry (including bulk and retail sales) around Rs 120 crore every year on account of the uncanny substitution of Nepalese Illam tea as Darjeeling tea.
Industry officials estimated that the Darjeeling tea industry’s annual market size, estimated to be around Rs 600 crore, could have crossed Rs 700 crore had Nepalese tea not played spoilsport.
One of the costliest teas in the world, Darjeeling’s Indianised camellia sinesis is produced in limited quantity at just above 8 million kg (mkg).
Quality and limited availability of this tea keeps the average prices higher than the Assam or Nilgiri varieties.
“However, price is bound to fall if supply of this variety increases in the domestic market; and it is here that Nepal or Himalayan tea is playing a spoilsport,” a planter from Darjeeling said.
The Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) has blamed the inferior quality this year for the dwindling prices.
According to Kaushik Basu, secretary general at DTA, the quality of the produce hasn’t been up to the mark this year owing to erring weather conditions and a disruption in the pruning cycle.
“Apart from a demand-supply mismatch, owing to availability of Nepal tea, the demand from quality buyers has fallen as well,” Basu said.
Industry sources estimated that there has also been a 10-12 per cent drop in exports of Darjeeling tea this year. This has kept prices muted.
Apart from mixing with Darjeeling tea, Himalayan tea is also used as a filler to add flavour and colour to Assam, Dooars and Nilgiri crush, tear, curl (CTC) tea.
Average Darjeeling tea prices were down by Rs 70-80 per kg in 2019
Prices fell despite production stagnating at around 8 mkg
Around 3-4 mkg import from Nepal is a dampener for Darjeeling tea