Darjeeling Tea Revisited II
In my previous notes on Darjeeling Tea Revisited, I have briefly mentioned the evolution of tea in the hill station of Darjeeling, which more than a century ago was principally covered by virgin forest and supported only few hundred inhabitants whom we now claim to be the ‘Gokhas’.
The little town re-established by a few officers of the British Government grew rapidly, natives of the surrounding country were quick to avail themselves of the blessings of life under the aegis of the Pax Britannica, and in a very short period the population rose to 20,000, and was extending by leaps and bounds.
There was a common saying in Nepali at those times that went, “Chiya ko butta ma paisa fallcha,” literally meaning tea bushes yield money. This proverb was used extensively to lure immigrants from neighboring countries. The remarkable growth of the tea industry and the local population required a need to connect the plains and the hill tracts permanently.
Lieut. Napier started to set the foundations of the Pankhabari road which still exists and is widely used today. Later this road was found to be too steep and too narrow for wheeled traffic, and so in 1861, a new cart road with an easy gradient was commenced. The cart road connected with the great road built across Bengal, with Calcutta as the epicenter of business.
Hospitals, schools and huge buildings for social meetings were built in Darjeeling during this time. Apart from tea the British, now fairly in good numbers, also started venturing into Cinchona, Rubber, Silk and Timber. But amongst all the biggest achievement was the thriving tea industry that was worth millions of pounds.
The first Garden to be of commercial importance and of notable size was Tukvar started and planted by Capt.Masson in 1856. Along with him Mr.Smith also planted tea in the Kurseong subdivision. Many people acquired land and started planting tea. In 1860, Mr.David Willson completed planting Happy Valley which was then known as ‘Ulsing Kaman’ and nearby Dr. Grant also planted the Windsor Tea Estates. Mr.Martin established the Hopetown Tea Estate and Capt. Samler extended Allobarrie Tea Estate. Dr. Brougham established the Dhooteriah Tea Estates in 1859 and Mr. Martin, Mr. James White, Mr. George Christison as well as a local resident Mr. Bhagatbir Rai started the pioneering work of planting different tea estates in different zones or valleys of Darjeeling.
As stated earlier, as per a rough census carried out in 1874, there were 113 tea gardens in Darjeeling planted over approximately 6,000 hectares producing 20,000 kilograms of Tea per annum. By 1905 the numbers of these small tea gardens were already 148 and covered over approximately 18,475 hectares. The production of these estates was 58,50,311 kilograms then but by 1947 the number of tea estates commercially producing teas was 102 and producing 14 million kilograms of tea per annum.
The contribution of the Gorkha community to build this English dream to a reality was overwhelming but has been historically misstated by many. Many also have used ‘Coolie’ in direct reference to a ‘Gorkha’, in their books of wisdom. Let us visualize these mammoth tasks carried out by simple humans with basic tools. Wasn’t that awesome! Courageous!
At present we have 74 tea estates covering 17,500 hectares of land planted with tea, producing a little over 8-9 million kilograms of Darjeeling Tea. The reasons that Darjeeling tea is diminishing in numbers are various.
Firstly, amalgamation or merger of smaller plantations with larger ones has been very prominent.
Secondly, natural calamities (mud slides) swallow away huge chunks of plantation area from time to time. This is one of the greatest losses as these areas cannot be reclaimed or reinstated. For example in 1899,1900 and 1968 monsoon rains hit Darjeeling hard and many areas suffered severe mud slides and human loss.
Gardens with large plantation areas were closed down such as Chaitapani, Poobong, Ringtong, Dabaipani (mineral springs), Downhill, Allobari, Passting, Okayti, Rohini, Pashok, Vah Tukar etc. (After 1947) Post independence large Indian businesses hardly realized the importance of this industry and thought it to be un-economical. Some of these estates do not exist anymore. Some of the few which have been revived are still struggling to reach the break even crop. Small families who promisingly maintained the gardens could not sustain long term investments like nurseries, extension planting and replanting programs.
The disintegration of the USSR has also made a major impact on the production of Darjeeling as planters had to change their methods of production and cultivation according to the needs of the new markets which were very demanding in terms of quality. Switching over to organic agriculture practices has further pushed the production lower.
So why should we be surprised to hear that 40 million kilograms of tea is sold under the Darjeeling brand?