Cautious re-opening of Darjeeling Tea Estates after lockdown

West Bengal Government has instructed stringent rules such as ensuring social distancing in tea-processing factories, office rooms and tea fields. Image courtesy of Namring Tea Estate.

India has been implementing a nationwide lockdown since 25 March to contain the spread of Covid-19 infections. The lockdown is the world’s largest as it covers a population of 1.38 billion. Initially, the lockdown period was set for three weeks – until 14 April – but was extended to at least until 3 May. At the same time, some relaxations were permitted after 20 April including the agricultural sector where nearly a half of the population is involved.

The Darjeeling district in the State of West Bengal is famous for its flavoury tea unique to the Himalayan foothills. The first flush, which is produced in March and April, and the second flush, which is manufactured in May and June, are their premium products favoured by tea connoisseurs worldwide. Consequently, producers expect the most attractive prices in these two main quality seasons, which keep the tea estates economically sustainable. Furthermore, the Darjeeling tea estates are still recovering from the impact of the 104-day closure between June and September in 2017 caused by the political strike that took place across the entire Darjeeling region. Therefore, some producers were seriously concerned about the recurrence of a huge crop loss in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The government’s decision to conditionally relax tea production in Darjeeling has brought a great relief for the producers. Although there are no Covid-19 cases reported among all 87 tea estates in Darjeeling so far, the West Bengal Government has instructed stringent rules such as operating with 25 percent of the workforce, washing hands and applying hand sanitiser and wearing face masks (provided by the State Government) by all workers as well as ensuring social distancing in tea-processing factories, office rooms and tea fields.

Namring Tea Estate, located northeast of the region, started first flush production in the beginning of March, and manufactured about five metric tonnes before the lockdown was ordered. Following the announcement of the partial relaxation, they first guided all workers to follow the government norms accurately. After the reopening of the tea garden, workers may produce some late first flush, but mostly begin to prepare tea bush for the second flush with clearing weeds.

Prateek Poddar, the owner of Namring Tea Estate, estimates they will lose 80% of first flush and 30% of annual production, which is about 300 metric tonnes in a normal year, even if they can continue producing tea by early December 2020. To protect Darjeeling tea estates from the Covid-19, Poddar suggests some restrictions for the visitors from outside of the region, maintaining hygiene and cleanliness standards, as well as educating workers to keep following rigid safety manners.

Binod Mohan, managing director of Tea Promoters (India) Pvt Ltd, who operates five tea gardens in Darjeeling (Selimbong, Seeyok, Singell, Samabeong, Snowview) commented, “Due to the cold weather experienced in this winter, the first flush production in upper elevations was delayed by about a week to ten days. Many tea gardens in higher elevations did not commence manufacturing or produced just small quantities before the lockdown. First flush season is still going on, but the quantity of premium teas will be limited. After the reopening, the primary focus is to ensure safety of workers and staff, and urgent tasks are to pluck, level the bushes and start weeding. We have requested the government for support at this critical time.”

Despite restarting tea production, the tea auction for the Darjeeling teas, warehousing, transport, and issuing the Certification Trade Marks (CTM) of Darjeeling Tea by the Tea Board India are all still suspended. Even the five metric tonnes of the first flush manufactured in Namring in early March could not yet be delivered to their buyers. The normalisation of the Indian tea trade seems to take more time. However, utmost cautious measures are expected under the current difficult circumstances caused by the Covid-19.

This week’s guest blog is contributed by Yumi Nakatsugawa. Yumi is a contributing tea writer to T&CTJ. Based in Japan, she may be reached at: [email protected].

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