1st flush tea wiped out, Darjeeling may lose 2nd too

For the first time in the history of the iconic Darjeeling tea, the entire lot of the expensive and exportable first flush leaves withered away amid the suspension of garden operations due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Garden experts confirm that it will take a few weeks to a month to get the tea bushes back in shape after re-opening on April 15, which may also affect the equally prized second flush crop of May-June. Tea planters in the Hills are already grappling with losses of Rs 150-200 crore for the erosion of the first flush. Now, they fear a never-seen-before liquidity crisis.

Famous for its light-coloured and flowery muscatel aroma, the Darjeeling first flush is generally plucked during the spring – mid-February to early April at an interval of not more than five days to maintain quality. The prized revenue-earning period produces about 20% of the annual output and accounts for 35-40% of revenue. According to Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) chairman Binod Mohan, it is unfortunate that the lockdown has coincided with “our prime first flush plucking season”, which generates revenue to meet half the year’s expenditure. “So, there will be economic consequences, which may increase depending on how long the lockdown continues.”

The planters believe that the industry will find it difficult to move past the current crisis, considering the carry-over deficits that had resulted from the 104-day-long Hills shutdown in 2017. “Darjeeling tea estates are yet to recover from the blow received during the 2017 strike. The incident forced many top global importers to drop Darjeeling tea from their list. Another disruption in supply could be fatal for the variety,” said Indian Tea Exporters’ Association (ITEA) chairman Anshuman Kanoria.

Goodricke MD Atul Asthana estimates the total loss for the tea industry at close to Rs 1,500 crore. “Even if the gardens open around April 15, we will lose the entire crop of April. Darjeeling will be the worst hit.” Dooars, Terai and Darjeeling produce around 353 million kg (mkg) of made tea annually and it may come down by 45-50mkg this year. There are 3.5 lakh labourers (along with their 15 lakh direct dependents) on payroll across the 290 tea gardens (Dooars 158, Darjeeling 87 and Terai 45) in north Bengal.

Meanwhile, the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA), the largest apex body of tea associations in India, wrote to the central government requesting a relief package. “The industry is facing a severe cash crunch, impeding its ability to cope with wage and other related obligations of the 1.2 million workers,” wrote Vivek Goenka, the chairman of both CCPA and ITA. He has asked for an assistance of Rs 1,000 per week for three months for each tea garden worker.

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