Harrods happy with valley tea

Darjeeling, May 28: From court cases and crores in dues to a tie-up with the best-known department store in the world — Happy Valley Tea Estate has turned its fortune around in just two years.

Today, the tea garden earmarked a portion of its plantation for exclusively supplying handcrafted Darjeeling Tea to the Knightsbridge Store of Harrods in the UK.

Sanjay Bansal, the proprietor of Happy Valley, said: “We will sell the exclusive handcrafted tea from a special one-acre section of our plantation, known as Snowfields, to Harrods. The very fact that they are willing to take our tea gives us the stamp of high quality as Harrods has the strictest standard in quality control mechanism.”

Representatives of Harrods today visited the garden in Darjeeling and tasted eight handcrafted varieties of tea named Special While, Cloud White, Imperial White, Golden Snowflakes, Silver Snowflakes, Snow Mist, Snow Pearls and Millennium.

“We prefer second flush as the first flush has a shorter shelf life,” said one of the representatives, H. Rahman.

Handcrafted teas are made of one bud and leaf instead of two leaves and a bud, withered and hand-rolled into shape before they are dried. Every batch of the product is expected to have a different flavour and characteristics. “The production cost of handcrafted tea is almost 10-20 times the normal cost. Wastage is also very high (because everything is done by hand) but the teas fetch good prices,” said Bansal.

Normal production cost of Darjeeling Tea is around Rs 250 a kg.

The garden hopes to produce about 200kg of each of the handcrafted teas this year along with 30 tonnes of normal teas.

The Knightsbridge Store of Harrods was set up in 1849 — five years before Happy Valley came into existence — and always had “a special interests in tea”. “We have tie-ups with almost 22 gardens in Darjeeling, but we are looking to take handcrafted teas from Happy Valley,” said Rahman. Harrods already sells different varieties of tea from the hills, like Opulence Darjeeling Okayti Treasure and Darjeeling Castleton Muscetal Tea.

The department store has not specified how much handcrafted tea it will import from Happy Valley, but is expected to take about 40,000kg of Darjeeling Tea a year from the various gardens in the hills.

Harrods will also market the product in Japan. The produce from Happy Valley is also likely to feature in a month-long publicity campaign that Harrods will launch in London from September 1.

“We are extremely happy in tying up with Harrods as it has huge brand equity and the visibility of our brand will also be enormous. We are looking for a tie-up with Harrods whereby its niche customers can come and stay at our garden where tea tourism is expected to come up soon,” said Bansal, who is also the chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association.

Bansal has been instrumental in turning around the fortunes of Happy Valley after buying it in 2006. Before that, for nearly a decade, the garden had been declared “sick”. It ran up around Rs 2 crore in dues and got embroiled in more than 50 court cases.

"Happy Valley has come a long way since then. As production is low in this garden, we have decided to go for exclusive products so that Happy Valley can be made viable,” said Bansal.

Tea cost study to frame policies

Siliguri, May 27: A five-member team from the Calcutta-based Institute of Cost & Works Accountants of India (ICWAI) is in north Bengal now to assess the cost involved in the cultivation of tealeaves and the production of made tea.

“Assessing the costs incurred by the stakeholders of tea industry is essential while deciding on policies and schemes,” said Amal Roy Choudhury, the deputy director (plantations) of the Tea Board of India. “The team is here to determine separately the costs of production in the Terai, Dooars, and Darjeeling.”

The cost determination exercise was earlier conducted in 2003. The report was taken into consideration by the Union commerce and industry ministry, which, through the tea board, finalised the price sharing formula among small growers and bought-leaf factories (BLFs).

Led by A. K. Kar, the chief executive officer (accounts technician), the team went to Jalpaiguri today and met small tea growers.

“We hand over questionnaires to the stakeholders and explain to them about the contents,” Kar said over the phone from Jalpaiguri. “They need to fill them up with information pertinent to the costs. These include financial data, age of tea bushes in plantations and the productivity of workers.”

“We will determine the costs of producing tealeaves in small plantations and estates and the manufacturing cost incurred by bought-leaf factories (BLFs) and estates in this region,” said the ICWAI official.

The task has already been completed in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu and the ICWAI’s next destination is Assam.

“Given the nature of information we need, it is not possible for the stakeholders to provide the data immediately,” said Kar. “We are now concentrating on distributing the questionnaires and will be back after a fortnight or so to collect them. Correspondences would be made with companies to obtain information on estates.”

The data, experts said, can be of use by the government when it executes proposals and plans. If the centre mulls over the proposal of the planters to share the social costs, the data will be considered, they said.

Flavoured brew soon

The Tea Research Association (TRA) is trying to develop different kinds of the beverage in a bid to augment its consumption.

Mridul Hazarika, director of the TRA, said the association was carrying out research on the diversification of the produce.

Talking to The Telegraph over phone from Jorhat in Assam, Hazarika said the attempt was to attract the younger generation to the brew and ultimately, increase consumption.

“Unlike other kinds of tea, to which flavours are added, we are planning to develop tealeaves containing flavours of spearmint, peppermint, ginger and pepper,” said a researcher.

The TRA, as a part of its diversification plans, has so far succeeded in making tea-based items like biscuits, tablets and even wine.

“The research on mixing tea with other products that are preferred and largely consumed by the new generation will continue,” said Hazarika. “We need to be innovative to create products that are compatible with its taste.”

Although he refused to be more specific, sources said potato chips and other snacks could be the next products the TRA would bring out.

In another development, the TRA researchers in north Bengal have started working on improving the quality of the beverage produced in the region. The project is being funded by the National Tea Research Foundation.

“We have identified six tea gardens, two each in the Terai, Dooars and Darjeeling. Our team will compare the quality of tea produced in these gardens and try to ascertain the factors that are making the difference in quality,” Pradip Ghosh, the chief advisory officer of the TRA sub-station in Nagrakata, said.

“A comprehensive research would be conducted by checking the plantations, clones of tea bushes, fertilisers used, the manufacturing process and other relevant factors that determine the quality of tea produced in an estate,” Ghosh added.

Gaur dies after chase

Alipurduar, May 26: A gaur from the Diana forest died today while being chased out of Chengmari Tea Estate by a group of workers. Foresters hinted that the animal’s heart probably gave away.

In another development, the Regional Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Calcutta has said the blood slides of the female elephant that died in the Kalimpong forest division on May 18 did not contain anthrax, putting to rest fears of an outbreak.

This morning, two gaur, or Indian bison, entered the Chengmari garden in Nagrakata from the adjacent Diana forest. When they were spotted near the labour lines, the workers tried to chase them out of the estate.

“Suddenly, one of the gaur slumped to the ground and died,” said Tapas Das, the divisional forest officer of wildlife-II, who went to the garden later. He said the animals did not gore anyone.

“We will conduct a post-mortem to find out the cause of death, but usually, the gaur has a very weak heart and when the workers chased the animal it ran around aimlessly. That could have caused its death,” Das said.

About the negative anthrax report, S.S. Bist, the chief wildlife warden of Bengal, told The Telegraph from Calcutta: “Today, we have received the result of the tests conducted on the blood slides (of the dead elephant) sent to the Regional Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. The report says that there is no anthrax in the sample. A thorough screening of wild and domesticated animals in the area did not reveal any outbreak either. We are relieved that the local reports that said the elephant might have died of anthrax have been proved wrong.”

After the adult elephant was found dead in the Noam range, foresters had conducted a thorough search within a 5km radius of the area, including fringe villages, for signs of an anthrax outbreak.

‘Bad-year’ fund for small tea

Siliguri, May 25: The Union ministry of commerce and industries has created a fund to compensate small growers of tea, coffee, rubber and tobacco for crop loss and low prices.

The Price Stabilisation Fund Trust, formed by the ministry, has also floated accidental insurance cover for the small growers and their workers.

Small growers are those with plantation area of not more than four hectares.

“A corpus of Rs 500 crore has been created by the Centre for this purpose,” Amit Chatterjee, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Trust posted in Delhi, told The Telegraph here. “Small growers will be paid compensation in bad years, when prices are low.”

The Trust will ascertain good, bad or normal year on the basis of average domestic price of Indian CTC tea vis-à-vis the price it fetches in international markets.

“The average domestic price should be plus or minus 20 per cent of the average international price,” the CEO said. “Lower than 20 per cent will mean a bad year, within the lower and upper limits, normal and more than 20 per cent, good.”

For example, in 2006, the average international price of CTC tea was Rs 64.02 a kg. The average domestic price, on the other hand, was Rs 63.62/kg, which means it was a normal year.

“Growers need to join the scheme by opening a savings account in a bank with a contribution of Rs 500. In a bad year, we will deposit Rs 1,000 as compensation. In a normal year, the grower and we will contribute Rs 500 each and in a good year, the grower alone will deposit Rs 1,000. The amount can be withdrawn only in a bad year,” Chatterjee said.

The Centre also plans to help growers by insuring their crop and will pay them the average price of the total yield of their plantation plus 20 per cent as compensation if they suffer crop loss because of inclement weather, pest attack or for some other reasons.

During his visit here, the CEO briefed small tea growers on the Trust’s accidental insurance scheme.

“A grower or a worker serving in a small tea plantation can claim up to Rs 1 lakh in case of partial or total disablement or death,” Chatterjee said. “A worker who falls sick and remains absent from duty for over three months can get compensation up to Rs 15,000.”

For this, the Trust and the grower/worker will pay Rs 7 each as annual premium.

The Trust plans to bring in 12.77 lakh growers and 51.08 lakh workers under the insurance scheme. Of them, 85,000 growers and 3.40 lakh workers will be from the tea industry.

Growers in north Bengal have welcomed the initiative taken by the Trust in association with the Tea Board of India. “We appreciate the initiative. Although the compensation for low prices is not a huge amount (Rs 1,000), in a bad year all help is welcome,” said Bijoygopal Chakraborty, the vice-president of the United Forum of Small Tea Growers Associations. “The workers can also reap the benefit of the insurance.”

Instant tea auction to take on private sales

Siliguri, May 8: The Siliguri Tea Auction Centre will introduce instant auctioning by May-end or early June to counter private sale of tea, which accounts for nearly 50 per cent of the production in the region.

In instant auctioning, the cycle of production-sale-payment gets over in two weeks. Experts said this would allow planters to sell tea when the prices are high, as they do in private sales. The entire process through regular auctions takes around six weeks.

“The governing body of the auction centre has passed the decision (about instant auctioning),” said S.K. Saria, the chairman of the Siliguri Tea Auction Committee (Stac). “We are working out the modalities based on suggestions from all sections of the industry. Since it is a new concept, some sections have expressed apprehensions.”

A meeting of the governing body will be called in a day or two before implementing the scheme in “May-end or early June”, Saria said.

The Stac chairman added that instant auctioning would initially be run on a trial basis for a month or two. “It will run alongside regular auction and will be entirely optional.”

Instant auctioning does away with the elaborate sampling process where samples are sent even to buyers on the far end of the supply chain. Now, planters will send 4kg of sample to the broker, who will circulate it to local traders on the basis of which bids will be made. “The sale will be held three days after the samples are issued,” Saria said.

“In the regular system, buyers enjoy a prompt (time by which payment has to be made) of 13 days. In instant auctioning, this will be seven days (see chart). So a planter will get his money within two weeks of bringing the tea for auction, unlike the six weeks in the regular system,” said Anand Agarwal, a seller-member of the governing body.

An incentive of two per cent cash discount will be given to buyers. “They will also have to pay only one per cent value-added tax, compared to four per cent in private sale,” Agarwal added.

Stac hopes that the new system will attract greater volumes of tea. “Currently, most of the good tea is sold through private sales because of the 22-23-day gap from production to sale in the regular system,” Saria said. “A study of Sales 14-20 reveal that prices steadily fall as the season progresses. If a planter is able to sell tea when the graph is high, he can get better prices.”

Bajrang Sethia, a buyer-member of the governing body, said he would reserve his verdict until the trials were over. “We are concerned how trade will fare when buyers in Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta cannot get to test the samples,” he said.

Brokers are worried about instant and regular auctioning running side by side. “It will increase the workload of the broker, which may cause delays,” M.C. Lohia, a broker-member of Stac, said. But he admitted that because all sales would be institutionalised in instant auctioning, it would bring more transparency in tea trade and give greater financial security to buyers.

Garden manager assaulted

Dibrugarh, May 8: A tea garden manager was injured after he was attacked by two labourers of Bamunbari tea estate under Moran police station in Dibrugarh district of Upper Assam this morning.

The incident took place around 8.30am when brothers Mewalal Rabidas and Karthik Rabidas, after a brief altercation, attacked the manager, Amlan Kishore Dutta.

Moran circle inspector of police N.N. Borgohain said both brothers have been arrested and the situation in the tea garden was under control.

The tea estate belongs to the Andrew Yule Tea Company, a government of India enterprise.

Dutta, 52, who suffered hand and head injuries, was provided first aid at a private nursing home in Dibrugarh and then was flown to Calcutta for further treatment.

Sources at the tea estate said there was some altercation between both the sides over alleged encroachment of a tea garden plot by the two brothers.

“The garden management had been serving notices to them for quite some time to vacate the land, but both of them were adamant. The manager had called the duo to discuss the issue this morning, when the incident took place,” an employee of the garden said.

Abita chairman Satyakam Hazarika described the incident as an unfortunate one.

and expressed hope that the situation will remain under control.

Tea prices on 6yr high - First flush from Dooars, Terai sells for Rs 90 per kilo

Siliguri, April 30: Consignments of first flush tea from the Dooars and Terai have fetched the best price in six years, thriving on a combination of high demand and low supply.

Figures obtained from the Siliguri Tea Auction Centre (STAC) suggest that this year’s tea is selling at an average price of Rs 91.18 per kilo in Sales 14-17 (see chart). “In the past five years, the average auction price never went over Rs 85 during this period,” said S.K. Saria, chairman, Siliguri Tea Auction Committee.

“The season’s first tea is generally put up for auction from the first week of April (Sale 14, the number corresponding to the week of the year),” Saria said. “A study of Sales 14-20 from 2003 till now shows that this year’s prices have been the best. This time, the average auction price in this period has as been as high as Rs 93.22 (Sale 14). The lowest is Rs 89.43 (Sale 17).”

The prices have been bullish at the Guwahati and Calcutta auction centres as well with this year’s average prices hovering about Rs 10 higher than that of last year. The average price in yesterday’s auction (Sale 18) in Calcutta was Rs 95.14, up from last year’s Rs 79.19, according to figures available with Parcon India Pvt. Ltd.

“We expect the bullish trend, which began with the end of the last season, to continue at least till June-end,” Saria said.

S.K. Bhattacharya, the president of the Siliguri Tea Traders’ Association, said the “dry pipeline” was a major contributing factor. “At no point in the supply chain are there any stocks piled up,” he said. “Plus there is a shortfall in crop production worldwide and India’s increasing internal demand.”

Production in Kenya, India’s major competitor, in March this year was only 16.9 million kg, compared to last year’s 32.2 million kg (Van Rees-Tea Market Report-April 21-25, 2008).

Shortfall in north Bengal because of lack of rain in March has pushed tea prices up. “In Terai, the shortfall is about 25 per cent,” K.K. Mintri, adviser to the Terai Indian Planters’ Association, said.

Mintri, however, said the price rise, though welcome, is “not in proportion to the rise in costs.” “Since the days of the late 90s, workers’ wages have more than doubled, diesel prices have gone up about seven times and coal, four times,” Saria said. “The price realisation is nowhere close to that. The industry has to first recoup the losses it has made in the years of recession.”