Darjeeling strike fills Assam teapot

Calcutta, June 19: Darjeeling’s loss is Assam’s gain — and Calcutta’s pride.

Calcutta airport clocked its largest single consignment of tea when 48 tonnes were loaded into a Singapore Airlines cargo carrier today.

But the tea was from Assam, not Darjeeling, because the indefinite bandh for Gorkhaland has choked supplies from the hills and stepped up demand for the beverage from the northeastern state. Chests carrying more than a million kg of tea are said to have piled up in the warehouses of Darjeeling gardens following the strike.

“Today’s consignment is going to London through Amsterdam. The export order was received by us at a short notice of five days,” said Amin Khan, manager, eastern India, Singapore Airlines cargo division.

Usually, orders are given a month in advance and big consignments weigh around four tonnes, Khan said. Yesterday, a 6-tonne consignment was sent to Melbourne by the airline.

Cargo officials at the airport, too, said more Assam tea had been passing through the airport in recent days. Excluding today’s consignment, around 30 tonnes of Assam tea have been carried by different airlines out of the city over the past 10 days, they said.

“Under normal circumstances, the amount would have been half,” an official said.

Since June 10, not a single tonne of Darjeeling tea has been exported through Calcutta airport or port because of the disruptions caused by the agitation of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.

“There has been a definite increase in the demand for Assam tea. However, we don’t want the tea export in Darjeeling to suffer,” said Pradyut Bordoloi, the industries and power minister of Assam.

Assam produces around 450 million kg of tea every year, out of which 20 per cent is exported, Bordoloi said. The state earns around Rs 1,000 crore from exporting tea.

In Darjeeling, the annual production is 10-11 million kg, of which 70 per cent is exported to meet the huge demand in the US, the UK, Germany, Japan and other developed countries.

Assam’s premium quality tea costs around Rs 200 a kg in the international markets, compared to Rs 800-1000 for the second flush Darjeeling Tea.

“The demand for Assam tea has increased over the last two weeks. We are getting SOS calls from exporters to urgently fly consignments to Europe,” said Abhijit Biswas, business unit head, eastern India, Panalpina World Transport, a multinational freight forwarding company which handled the 48-tonne consignment.

“The importers’ problems overseas have increased by the insignificant movement of Darjeeling Tea. Kenya, which has a substantial market in the UK, has lowered output. So blenders need a substitute,” said Sujit Patra, joint secretary, the Indian Tea Association (ITA).

Although the bandh enforcers had promised smooth operation for tea gardens, it has not been so. “Since all banks are closed, no wages can be paid to the workers and production is stalled,” said Basudeb Banerjee, chairman, Tea Board of India. “The supply of Darjeeling Tea has been severely affected and dispatch is entirely closed. The condition has become worse.”