Darjeeling Tea - Protests and Violence *UPDATE*
* UPDATE * - Darjeeling Tea Update - 21st October 2017
As of 21 October 2017, tensions in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal, India, have been easing. However, the troubles that plague the world-famous tea growing region are far from over. Since the most recent troubles arose in June - as opposed to the issues that have been ongoing for decades - much doubt has been cast with regard to the potentially momentous impact this upheaval may have on Darjeeling’s tea industry.
The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company report on the latest information coming out of the Darjeeling District, and why - despite some progress being made within the West Bengal state - you might still be missing out on your favourite cup of tea for at least a while longer.
The latest eruption of political turmoil within the Darjeeling District - home to 87 tea gardens employing 55,000 permanent workers and 120,000 during the harvesting season - began on 8 June 2017, and came to a complete halt on 15 June 2017. This saw much of the vital work carried out in these tea gardens immediately stop, following a resurgence of separatist sentiment among the majority-Nepali-speaking Gorkhas of the district.
Dating back to the 1980’s, movements led by a large proportion of indigenous Nepali Gorkhas and followers of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) have often staged violent demonstrations demanding the establishment of a separate ‘Gorkhaland’. Between 1986 and 1988 alone, an estimated 1,200 lives were lost amidst the fierce clashes. Since the 2017 summer, protests have begun again after a recent decision by the West Bengal Government to introduce Bengali as a compulsory subject in schools across the state, including Darjeeling.
Once again, lives have been lost on both sides. It is known that several Gorkhaland agitators, both armed and unarmed, have been killed in clashes, as well as a number of police officers. Most recently, Sub-Inspector Amitabha Malik of the West Bengal Police was killed in a shootout with independence supporters surrounding the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) faction leader, Bimal Gurung.
The GJM likewise supports a free Gorkhaland, however, a major split in the party has lately weakened their position. In the last few days, the Indian government’s Home Ministry ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 paramilitary personnel - which comprises of 10 of the 15 companies currently stationed in the Darjeeling hills. This controversial move has been met with protest from the West Bengal state government, who have since requested reconsideration.
A statement from the Home Ministry in reply stated that these paramilitary forces “can’t substitute the state police force as their deployment is related to emergency crisis in states for maintaining law and order”. As of 17 October 2017, the Calcutta High Court has ruled against this move.
Now, after months of unrest - and following a halt to the strikes (27 September 2017) - an estimated 40% of tea workers have allegedly returned to the gardens, which are now infested with overgrowths, weeds, and insect manifestation. A spokesperson for the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) said: “Attendance has been very thin in most of the gardens”. It is believed that many other workers who have not yet returned to the gardens may have migrated to neighbouring states for work.
Barring the essential service staff in charge of security, water supply, and maintenance, no workers have been paid for the period of the nearly four-month strike. In terms of overall output, Darjeeling’s tea industry is set to close at 2 million kg, as opposed to 8 million kg in 2016. Consequently, the prospects of a fine quality First-Flush Darjeeling Tea by February 2018 remain very slim.
In stark contrast, India’s total tea output during the financial year 2015-2016 was at 1233.14 million kgs; the highest ever recorded by the country. Export figures, meanwhile, were at 232.92 million kgs; breaching the 230 million kgs mark after 35 years. Compared with that of the 2014-2015 financial year, tea exports have increased by 33.84 million kgs (17%).
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to have a great impact on Darjeeling First Flush Tea, or even Second Flush. The ever-changing circumstances in the Darjeeling District have created uncertainty among many UK suppliers, and while current statistics indicate that less than a third of the last year’s crop of 8.32 million kg has been harvested before work stopped mid-summer 2017, many companies have reluctantly started cancelling advance orders. The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company will follow this story as it develops. However, our customers should be prepared for limited stock in Darjeeling First and Second Flush for longer than first suspected. We would like to apologise for any inconvenience this may cause in the near future.
For the first time in 156 years of rich Darjeeling Tea history, experts are predicting that UK supplies of the renowned ‘Second Flush’ tea will likely run out in the coming months. Currently very little is on offer at the Calcutta auctions. This is in addition to retail prices rising at a rapid rate, as the Indian district grapples with catastrophic internal affairs that risk losing approximately $40m in tea revenue.
From as far back as the 1980’s, movements led by the indigenous Nepali Gorkhas , predominantly members and followers of the Gorkha National Liberation Front have often staged violent demonstrations demanding the establishment of a separate ‘Gorkhaland’ state within India. This, however, reached its peak between 1986 and 1988 – at the cost of 1,200 lives - yet efforts to form the majority Nepali-speaking state would continue long past the founding of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council near the end of the decade.
Once the initial turmoil subsided, Darjeeling’s tea trade recovered, and markets rebalanced accordingly. But as the troubles begin once again, the worldwide tea industry is now preparing itself for another shake-up, as approximately 120,000 workers in 87 gardens halt proceedings.
Protests in Darjeeling
With the situation in Darjeeling now surpassing 50 days since protests began, The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company explores the potential outcomes of this great upheaval, and why connoisseurs across the world might be missing out on their favourite cup ofDarjeeling tea for the foreseeable future.
The uncertain times that currently plague Darjeeling have, in fact, been ongoing for decades, despite countless Government-led attempts to ‘stamp out’ separatist sentiment throughout the region. This unrest is largely due to a sizeable population of Gorkhas, ethnic Nepalese residents living in India’s West Bengal state, who seek to protect their Himalayan culture.
With constant clashes on the streets, as well as almost every shop, school, and college closed within the area, the region of Darjeeling is suffering greatly under the strain of this political uncertainty. The protests initially began after a recent decision by the West Bengal Government to introduce Bengali as a compulsory subject in schools across the state, including Darjeeling.
Many lives have already been lost due to the violence that followed, while the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) now threaten further action if the government do not take appropriate steps to meet their unwavering demands.
Government to Resolve the Darjeeling Tea Crisis
Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, has since repeated her offer of talks to resolve the Darjeeling Tea impasse, but despite the faint potential of reaching a settlement with the GJM, tea-analysts are not hopeful for this year’s Darjeeling Second Flush crop.
“The continuing troubles in and around Darjeeling are responsible for the loss of over half the region’s tea production this season, which has been the worst ever,” said Kaushik Bhattacharya, of the Darjeeling Tea Research and Management Association.
Further adding to this, declining forest cover, soil erosion, the threat of landslides and even aging tea plants, could mean that limited supplies continues for many more years.
What will Happen to the Darjeeling Tea Harvest
Famously known as the ‘Champagne of teas’, Darjeeling boasts some of the finest quality Teas in the world. Of Darjeeling’s total tea output, an estimated 35% is shipped to the UK every year.
Traveling through the nurturing hands of establishments such as The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, it is then sold on to darjeeling tea drinkers worldwide, who enjoy its unique, yet delicate flavours.
However, it must be advised that this may be subject to change if ongoing circumstances 5,000 miles away are not attended to. Hopes for a peaceful conclusion to Darjeeling’s ordeal rest largely on the shoulders of the Chief Minister who, despite expressing willingness to negotiate with the GJM, has stated that there will be no division in West Bengal.
She said: “Darjeeling is an integral part of West Bengal. I will not allow Bengal’s division and will not tolerate any intervention by external forces. But, having set these things aside, I am ready for any discussion on the matter.” This comes at a time where neglected tea bushes need weeding and pruning before the Second Flush can be successfully harvested.
Even if demonstrations were called off, and amends were made to appease the Gorkhas, it would likely take more than a month before harvesting could properly begin. Since June 8th, when the first troubles began, the vast majority of tea workers have not tended to the plants. This could likewise cause lasting damage to future crops. “Destruction takes a minute; construction takes a lifetime.
Even if the situation is stabilised right now, the problem will take three to four years to sort out,” said Nirmal Sethia, who works closely with many Darjeeling teas and their respective gardens.
History of Darjeeling Tea
Historically, the region’s tea market is no stranger to disaster. In fact, most of the tea bushes found within the region owe their origin to British medical professional, and superintendent of Darjeeling, Dr. Arthur Campbell, who in 1841, “smuggled” many tea seeds into the foothills.
From then, seeds were quick to thrive across the rich landscape, and by the mid-19th Century, English traders turned to Darjeeling for much of their tea supply as British-Chinese relations began to sour. By 1866, a total of 39 plantations had already been established, with 1,000 acres being used for the production of approximately 133,00 lbs of tea.
This would continue into the Post-Independence era of 1947, where the ownership of most darjeeling tea gardens transferred to Indian entrepreneurs. 20 years later, however, Darjeeling was embroiled in a mass communist uprising. The first of many clashes would occur during this period, as garden management and trade unions struggled to find common ground amidst the great political upheaval.
Many gardens were forced to close, and with the breakup of the USSR in 1991 – one of the region’s biggest buyers, major setbacks saw plantations struggling to make up for their catastrophic losses.
Today, Darjeeling has, for the most, recovered, and now stretches over 17,500 hectares. But now, yet again, its stability hangs in the balance until terms are agreed on both sides. Unfortunately, however, this seems unlikely at the present time.
The Latest from Darjeeling
Just this week (9, August 2017), Bimal Gurung, leader of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, has stated that he "is prepared to intensify the agitation in Darjeeling if the government does not intervene to resolve the crisis". The GJM leadership, on July 30th, had given a 10-day “deadline” to the authorities to meet their demands.
Meanwhile (4, August 2017), activists for the GJM have also held rallies, hunger strikes and protests over the last two months which, unfortunately, has resulted in loss of life. It is now believed that this could be escalated over the coming days if no agreement is made, while other groups have likewise taken to the streets with black flags and placards demanding the establishment of Gorkhaland.
On (18th June 2017), internet services were banned throughout the area, and police forces were withdrawn from the hills. Prior to their removal, however, there had been a number of accounts of police brutality in the area, with calls being made from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to examine these findings. Union Minister SS Ahluwalia, who represents Lok Sabha, has made demands for a “high level” probe into the alleged police firing in Darjeeling in which three protesters were killed, calling it “unpardonable.”
Tourism in the area is also expected to take a major hit on the back of these troubles. Over the course of this summer, tens of thousands of visitors were left stranded in the hills when the violence began. This may deter future tourists from venturing into the region if tensions do not cease.
Every year, around 50,000 foreign and 500,000 domestic tourists travel to Darjeeling to experience its incredible tea culture and history. It is allegedly the third most googled travel destination in India, and is renowned for its tea garden tours and quaint festivals.
Disruptions in public transport have also affected local populations, while there have been a number of reports of after-dark looting on privately owned vehicles. These acts of vandalism have been denied by members of the GJM, who have since released a statement rejecting accusations of involvement. GJM Assistant Secretary, Binay Tamang, said: “This [accusations of looting collaboration] is nothing but a conspiracy to defame the Morcha that is conducting a peaceful and democratic movement. We have heard that in a few instances, supporters of opposition parties were involved and the West Bengal government is doing this in a planned way.”
What if Darjeeling Leaf Tea Runs Out
With no real end in sight, fans of Darjeeling Second Flush tea may eventually have to turn their attention to other origin Teas such as Nepalese Teas from across the border with Nepal until the crisis subsides. While stocks begin to dwindle already, Tea Companies across the world are reluctantly cancelling advance orders of the product and are currently examining possible alternatives.
According to one credible source, prices have already risen to record highs, as the overall demand rapidly surpasses the availability. This is only expected to increase as, tragically, much of this year’s produce will likely be deemed useless by the end of the year.
Later flushes, meanwhile, will likely not compensate for the loss of the Second Flush, since they are well-known to yield comparatively poorer crops. This, as well as many of the Darjeeling tea plants being over 100 years old, and in dire need of replacement, means that devotees to the blend may have some time to wait until Darjeeling Second Flush Tea is in abundance once more.
Here at the Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, we advise ardent fans of Darjeeling Second Flush Tea to stock up on their favourite blend. Unfortunately, the ever-changing circumstances in the West Bengal district have created uncertainty with suppliers, and it is expected that only a third of last year’s crop of 8.32 million kg has been harvested before the vital work was stopped mid-summer.
If predictions are correct, this could mean a worldwide shortage of Darjeeling Second Flush Tea by the end of 2017. Mr. Richard Smith, owner of the Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, said:
“ The current tragic circumstances in Darjeeling have been spiralling out of control. We are not optimistic that planned meetings in the coming week will solve the situation. Our main concern is that the tea gardens return to production as soon as possible to have time to prepare the estates for next years crops, this years having mainly been written off. We could be without stocks of mid seasons Darjeeling Teas until Autumn 2018, a catastrophe !”