Fake tea issue: Solution to Indian tea industry's problems lies in cooperation with Nepal and Bangladesh
India should assist Nepal and Bangladesh to obtain GI certification for their teas
Tea is the centrepiece of the food processing industry in West Bengal and Assam and is their premier source of export earnings. Recently, the industry has been in sharp decline, and one of the reasons is the adulteration of premium teas from the Darjeeling gardens, for instance, and erosion of its quality quotient. Its revival needs detailed analysis and planning by both government and owners working together to turn it around, but efforts in this have not yielded satisfactory results yet.
The problem of adulteration of Indian premium teas - or fake teas from Nepal and Bangladesh - is many decades old. It was once reported that while the annual production of tea from the Darjeeling gardens was around three million kilos, over ten million kilos - three times that amount - were sold worldwide as Darjeeling tea, mainly in Europe. The mounting travails of the Darjeeling tea industry make it difficult for plantation owners/managers to replace tea bushes on schedule; so older bushes are yielding less tea of lower quality.
Rising labour costs and unwillingness among the younger generation to serve as plantation labour, financial and management issues, etc., are all contributing to the continuous decline of the tea industry there, which neither owners nor state/central government have been able to stem.
The problem has been compounded by some unscrupulous traders and blenders importing high-grown Himalayan tea from eastern Nepal and blending it with low-medium quality output from Darjeeling to sell the unholy blend as 'Darjeeling Tea', and thereby increase their average value realisation. The solution to this is for India to assist Nepal, if necessary, to obtain a GI certification for Nepal tea, and then market it as such, to create their own niche in the world market, as Sri Lanka and Kenya have already done.
India should also encourage and assist Bangladesh to do likewise. The Indian Tea Association and Tea Board and other competent authorities may be invited by the Government of India/Government of West Bengal to provide the necessary expertise in this regard
This will enable Darjeeling tea - as also Assam tea - to maintain its high niche and reputation in the world market while helping Nepal and Bangladesh boost their own exports and realise higher hard currency income. This will also help in reducing adulteration and criminality as well as helping India's tea gardens recover their lost glory by renewing plantations from the higher profits accrued.
Such a gesture will also demonstrate another instance of India's continuing and firm commitment to our Neighbourhood First foreign policy and all three countries will benefit together and prosper by this process.
(The writer is a former Indian diplomat who was Deputy High Commissioner in Bangladesh. The views are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)