Indrani Dutta

KOLKATA: With little signs of a let-up in the Gorkha agitation in the Darjeeling Hills, India’s foreign exchange earnings from tea exports are likely to dip this year.

The finest tea from the slopes of the eastern Himalayas, which once fetched Rs.10,000 a kg through private sales, is lying packed in factories and warehouses, thanks to the indefinite bandh by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha. The organisation has been demanding a separate Gorkhaland state.

Average price

Tea Board chairman Basudeb Banerjee said that while the overall export volume target — 210 million kg in 2007-08 — might not be affected, the value or the average price of the premium tea might be lower. The reason is the output of the best crop — the second flush tea available between May-end and July beginning — is likely to be lower as there is widespread absenteeism in the gardens. “About 25 per cent of workers are not reporting for duty,” Mr. Banerjee told The Hindu.

Major buyers from Japan and Germany, two of the biggest destinations for quality Darjeeling tea, are camping in Kolkata as they have not been able to go to Darjeeling. Normally, they visit the gardens around this time to check quality.

Auctions

Of Darjeeling’s average annual production of 11 million kg, 80 per cent is exported. Darjeeling tea does not bring much by the way of volume, but accounts for 7-8 per cent of the total export value. Pointing out that around 50 per cent of the output is sold through auctions with an average price of Rs.160 a kg for Darjeeling tea, sources at the Calcutta Tea Traders Association said the best tea is sold through private sales though big buyers such as UniLevers buy Darjeeling tea through auction. While the auctions had been stopped at Siliguri, it was continuing in Kolkata. “If this situation continues, then we may face shortage from the sale beginning on June 30,” said an official.

Exporters’ worry

Exporters are worried on another front too. Hoping for an early resolution of the matter, they say that it is difficult to find freight carriers to clear the backlog.

Union Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh is more worried about the multiplier effect of this problem on the economy of the Darjeeling hills. “I am hoping that efforts can be made to make up for the loss in value through increased exports to other markets, like Iraq, where a revival is expected, and also to Egypt,” he told The Hindu.He expects Iraq to buy at least 15 million kg of good quality tea in 2008 (which dropped to two million kg in 2007 due to payment problems).

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