|Turning over a new leaf: Tea planters
in Darjeeling have struck gold by going organic
|Green Fingers: Workers at Makaibari
Tea Estate processing the best teas for high-end buyers
clichés were sounding a little tired -and tiring: Darjeeling
teas are the best in the world; they are the "Champagne of
Teas"; they are the world's most expensive teas; etc., etc.,
etc. At one level, all these statements were (and remain) true.
But at another level, these rah rah descriptions almost mocked
the harsh reality that existed at these gardens. Most of them
were losing money, they had little control over the geographical
indication "Darjeeling Tea", and the future seemed bleak.
Then things began to turn-almost by chance.
In 1988, T'Classic (Darjeeling) Pvt Ltd, which owned the famous
Makaibari Tea Estate, faced a major cash crunch; it couldn't afford
to buy fertilisers and pesticides. Result: it began experimenting
with locally sourced organic inputs. Says Rajah Banerjee, the
fourth generation scion of the family that runs the world's oldest
single-owner tea estate: "It was partly compulsion and partly
a conscious decision. I realised that nature doesn't require any
external help to sustain and evolve the myriad life forms that
make up the ecosystem. How do so many varieties of trees exist
cheek-by-jowl in a sub-tropical rain forest and sustain the wide
diversity of organisms that exist in them? The mulch (a protective
covering of leaves placed around tea bushes to prevent the evaporation
of moisture) created a wonderful topsoil, but millions of useful
organisms were annihilated by a single dose of fertiliser. I,
therefore, banned all chemical applications." It's paying
off. Earlier this year, he sold a 55 kg lot of Makaibari Silver
Tips at an astronomical Rs 18,000 per kg-a world record-at an
international tea auction in Indianapolis, us. This wasn't just
a flash in the pan. Makaibari regularly sells small lots of organic
teas at Rs 10,000-plus per kg. The buyers: high-end stores in
the West, pop stars, leading industrialists and royalty. Queen
Elizabeth of Great Britain, Emperor Akihito of Japan and pop icon
Elton John are among the host of celebrities who are driving this
Yes, the Rs 3,500-crore Darjeeling tea industry
is reinventing itself in line with the National Programme for
Organic Production (NPOp), formulated by the Centre, which provides
an institutional framework for implementing standards for organic
| DARJEELING TEA: THE BIGGER PICTURE
| No. of Gardens: 86
Organic Gardens: 28
Total Production: 11 million
Organic Tea Production: 1.9
Projected No. of Organic Gardens by 2010: 44
There are, at present, 86 running gardens
in Darjeeling, covering an area of 19,000 hectares. Of these,
28 have already gone organic and account for 18 per cent of the
district's annual tea output of 11 million kg. "By 2010,
50 per cent of tea gardens in Darjeeling will go organic,"
says Ashok Kumar Lohia, Chairman, Chamong Tee Exports Pvt Ltd,
which owns 10 organic gardens in Darjeeling. There is compelling
economic logic behind this. Contrary to popular perception, organic
tea farming does not result in lower yields. "In general,
the perception is that organic farming leads to a crop loss of
up to 50 per cent and a 50 per cent rise in production cost. But
our experience shows that organic tea yields are 15-20 per cent
higher than those of regular teas and production costs come down
in the long run," says Lohia. The cheapest organic teas sell
for Rs 250 per kg compared to Rs 100 per kg for regular varieties.
Thus, it presents planters with a win-win option.
The Organic Path
|"We will eventually
convert all our gardens in Darjeeling and Assam into organic
estates. Yields are higher and production costs lower in the
Chairman/Chamong Tee Exports
An estate wanting organic status has to abjure
the use of all chemical fertilisers and inputs and receives an
"Organic in Transit" certificate from the Tea Board
for the first three years. A regular organic certificate is issued
only after this. "It's not easy to get this certification.
It's even more difficult to maintain the status because these
certificates are reissued every year after inspections,"
says Lohia. Adds Vijay Singh Parmar, Advisor, Chamong Tee Group
of Gardens: "Organic tea is defined as tea grown on estates
that use absolutely no artificial or chemical inputs. Tea bushes
get their nutrition from vermiculture (the use of specially bred
earthworms to regenerate soil) and largescale application of composts,
neem cakes and castor cakes to the soil (the last two are natural
insect repellents). And the Tea Board monitors the soil in organic
estates at regular intervals throughout the year to ensure strict
compliance with organic norms." The post-harvest treatment
and curing of tea leaves, however, is identical for both organic
and non-organic teas.
Healthy Growth Rate
The growing global demand for and high realisations
from organic tea are obviously fuelling this organic revolution.
Since its introduction in the late 80s, organic tea consumption
has been growing at 10 per cent annually. There is also a growing
demand for organic tea within the country, mainly in Mumbai, Bangalore,
Delhi and Hyderabad. Currently, the break up of domestic consumption
and exports is 20:80. The Chandigarh-based Alchemist Group (which
owns several large tea gardens like Kalez Valley, Dooteria, Balason,
Tung Sung, Simripani and Peshoke Tea Estate in Darjeeling), too,
is planning to tap this burgeoning demand by going organic. The
group, which is a big player in the floriculture industry, is
also establishing synergies between its tea and floriculture businesses,
planting orchids, roses and other special category flowers on
its tea gardens, as the first step towards this conversion, informs
K.D. Singh, Chairman, Alchemist.
A Tea Board spokesman says: "The production
of organic (or organic in conversion) tea was 150,000 kg in 1990;
this increased to 2.15 million kg in 2000 and further to 3.5 million
kg in 2005-06." The Tea Board has recently come up with a
proposal to standardise organic tea production techniques. "We
also provide garden owners financial assistance and provide their
staff with training on organic methods of tea cultivation,"
he says. On average, it costs a 1,000 hectare tea estate about
Rs 25-30 crore over three years to convert itself into an organic
| THE O-WORD IS SPREADING
owners in Darjeeling aren't the only ones who're latching
on to the organic trend. Chamong Tee Exports, which is at
the forefront of the organic tea revolution in North Bengal,
is converting six properties in Assam to organic tea estates.
"We will eventually convert all our gardens in Darjeeling
and Assam into organic estates," says Ashok Lohia, Chairman,
Chamong Tee Exports. K. Manibhai & Co, Ambootia Tea, Castleton
and Jayashree Tea are some of the other companies that have
converted their gardens. Assam now has 10 organic tea gardens.
The Union Commerce Ministry is considering a plan to extend
the organic tea experiment beyond Darjeeling and Assam to
South India. This is expected to boost the demand for Indian
teas and lead to much better realisations in the global
market. "We will actively promote the consumption of
organic teas in India and abroad," says Basudeb Banerjee,
Chairman, Tea Board.
The law of unintended consequences has also
started working in favour of the Darjeeling tea industry. Since
most of these organic teas are single garden brands, there is
very little scope for blending. This is expected to provide a
fillip to the Darjeeling tea brand and arrest the widespread practice
of blending only a small quantity of Darjeeling tea with teas
from other regions and then selling the mixture as the real thing.
Last year, Darjeeling produced 11 million kg of tea, but the total
volume of "Darjeeling tea" sold worldwide was more than
20 million kg.
Organic tea is extremely popular in the UK
and Japan, the two largest export markets for this variety of
tea. It is also gaining acceptance in Australia, Germany, the
Netherlands and, wonder of wonders, the US. Its reported therapeutic
properties are drawing increasing numbers of converts in these
countries. The way forward, the Tea Board spokesperson says, "is
to set up a few model organic tea estates and then launch a sustained
awareness and brand promotion campaign for organic tea across
the country and abroad. Planters will have to realise that this
is the future and people at large will have to be made aware that
organic tea is the safest for human health and the environment."
The story of Darjeeling tea is 160 years
old. It began when a Dr A. Campbell, a British civil surgeon,
planted tea seeds in his garden at Beechwood Estate, 7,000 ft
above sea level, just for kicks. That simple (and largely unplanned)
act laid the foundation for the world's most famous tea industry.
The makeover that it is now receiving is also the result of a
similarly unplanned act by Makaibari's Banerjee. But the others
who are following his lead are doing so consciously. Because they
realise that the path is strewn with gold.