Darjeeling unrest poops tea party

Calcutta, June 15: Calcutta’s port and airport have not exported tea for the past five days, the hills unrest preventing cons-ignments worth around Rs 7-10 crore from reaching the city.

“This is the second flush season, when we get the best-quality Darjeeling tea. If the situation doesn’t improve we may lose export markets,” said Aditya Khaitan, chairman of the Indian Tea Association, the apex body of tea companies.

A brief spell of showers in May kicks off the second flush season, after the first flush has ended in late April. As monsoon sets in well and proper, tea quality deteriorates and fetches lower prices.

Although the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which called an indefinite bandh last Monday, relaxed it from Thursday, the truckers who ferry tea from the gardens to Calcutta aren’t prepared to take chances, traders said.

Production too has been hampered with workers often unable to report for work although tea gardens are exempt from the bandh, which resumes from 6pm on June 16.

“The bandh and unrest have affected both production and exports, because of low worker and staff attendance and transport problems,” Khaitan said.

Arvind Nevatia of Chamong Tea, which owns the highest number of tea gardens in the region, said the bandh had hit planters, traders, exporters and even the airlines and shipping companies that transport tea outside India.

“The losses can run into several hundred crores. This is because the tea companies have entered into forward contracts with other countries,” he said.

The smaller tea growers are suffering too, prevented by the unrest from sending their plucked leaves to bought-leaf factories or the bigger gardens that have their own factories. So they are forced to sell at reduced prices to factories outside the area earmarked as “Gorkhaland”, with whom they don’t have tie-ups.

Sources said these gardens were selling at Rs 8-8.50 a kg, down from the Rs 10-10.50 a kg at the beginning of the season.

Calcutta airport exported its last loads of tea on Tuesday. These had arrived before the bandh. “Since then, nothing. All bookings have been cancelled,” said Amin Khan, manager, east, Singapore Airlines cargo division.

Other carriers too have suffered huge losses, international cargo department officials at the airport said.

A 100-tonne consignment of Darjeeling tea, scheduled for London, has been deferred, an Emirates airline official said. Of this, 48kg was to arrive at the airport this week. “We are worried,” the official said.

Darjeeling produces about one million kilos of tea in June, the average price being Rs 800-1,000 a kg. Tea worth Rs 2 crore is exported every day and a day’s loss in production costs the planters Rs 3.33 crore.

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.

Darjeeling accounts for 7-8 per cent of the Rs 1,800-2,000 crore India earns from tea export per year. One kilo of second-flush Darjeeling tea can fetch up to Rs 8,000 in the international market.

“Most of the superior-quality tea is exported. It is unfortunate that at a time we are trying to increase exports — Darjeeling being the flagship brand — such disruptions have taken place,” said Basudeb Banerjee, chairman, Tea Board of India.