Why Dooars is losing out to Assamese and other tea varieties

Over years of production, each of the tea varieties in the country has been able to carve out a name for themselves in the export market. While Darjeeling enjoys the dominant position as the flagbearer of Indian tea, fetching exorbitant prices, Assam tea is best known for its strong musky flavour and drives sales volume. Niligiri tea, particularly the spring and winter Orthodox variant, produced in the Tamil Nadu-Kerala-Karnataka belt, is revered for its flowery note and makes up for special private sales. The Dooars tea, on the other hand, which started off on a healthy note during the British Raj, has not only lost out its entire export market now, but is headed towards obscurity.

The tea variant used in Dooars is the same that dots the Assam plantations – the Camellia Assamica. However, years of soil corrosion, unhealthy upkeep of tea bushes, plucking issues and several other managerial issues have lead Dooars tea to now become a mere filler for the Assam CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea.

Industry officials and garden owners opine that the primary reason for Dooars teas fetching lower prices than Assam CTC is the quality of the yield. While on account of elevation and greater advantage of drainage, Assam tea is full-bodied and wholesome than Dooars, which is cultivated on lower altitudes (at the foothills of Darjeeling), the primary issue is depletion of soil quality and lack of investments by the garden owners.

Kaushik Basu, secretary general at the Darjeeling Tea Association is of the opinion that years of negligence by garden owners has resulted in the soil quality depleting rapidly. 

“But the owners cannot be blamed alone. In the past, these gardens were the most infested with militant trade unionism and often it led to lockouts. With hostile trade unions operating and uncertainty looming after lockouts, will the management be interested to invest in the gardens”, he asks. 

Industry estimates suggest that while the average yield per hectare is between 2,200-2,400 kg in Assam, the same in Dooars is 1,200-1,500 kg per hectare, making Dooars tea costlier to produce. 

This tea from the Darjeeling foothills accounts for over 200 million kg (mkg) of the total tea production in India and is entirely consumed domestically.

Plucking of the tea leaves is another issue leading to low quality. Azam Monem, chairman of the Indian Tea Association, said that while in Assam, a 7-8-day plucking time is maintained which results in higher quality of the yield (on account of a single nimble bud and two tender leaves), the plucking in Dooars happens in a 10-12-day cycle. 

“Naturally, the leaves are overgrown in Dooars as compared to Assam, which results in lower quality”, he reasoned.

Assam CTC, as compared to Dooars CTC has been fetching 20-30 per cent better prices in the auctions. In in September 16 auction, Assam CTC’s on the average, were sold for Rs 149.57 a kg while Dooars tea fetched Rs 126.73 in the same auction.

As a result, industry experts opine, the gardens in Dooars face greater stress as compared to their Assam counterparts. Currently, the Dooars-Terai area jointly has 290 gardens of which around 20 per cent are potentially sick and another 18 are in an abandoned state.

Although Dooars tea was able to hold its ground amid such hardships, as it found popularity among the Russian blenders (owing to cheap price) who used this tea to blend high grade Assam CTC, its death blow came in 1991 when the Indo-Soviet bilateral trade agreement ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Owing to the bilateral trade agreement, Dooars tea was priced much below Kenyan CTC and enjoyed a favoubale currency conversion at home. However, the moment the treaty ended, Kenyan CTC, which was of much superior quality, suddenly became cheaper than Dooars and the Russian blenders abruptly stopped buying Dooars tea. Around 100 mkg of tea from the Dooars-Terai region was exported overseas in the early 1990s.

“It (Dooars) is not an exportable item anymore. In case Dooars tea plans to regain its international market, heavy investments to improve the soil and plant quality, as well as mechanise the gardens is needed,” a garden owner from the Dooars region said.

As a result, the production in this region is tilting more in favour of bought leaf factories and estates are procuring the leaves from thousands of small tea growers who dot the landscape. Industry officials say that in turn, this is leading to further compromises on quality.

Devoid of any forex earnings, Dooars tea stares at a bleak future ahead unless reinvestment in the gardens is started on an urgent footing. 

Tea scenario in Dooars-Terai region
Total gardens: 290
Estimated number of sick gardens: 58
Abandoned gardens: 18
Annual production: 200 mkg (Dooars) and 143 mkg (Terai)