The West Bengal government’s decision to allow tea tourism and associated real estate development on 15% of tea garden land has prompted a number of garden owners to spin off tea plantations, although workers’ demands to give them rights to tea garden land have gone the way of one such conversion.
Most of the workers have lived in the gardens for generations and have demanded land rights to home on for tea tourism. “There is a conflict of interest among tea garden owners and workers that has resulted in very little tea tourism borne fruit in the hills of Darjeeling,” said a Darjeeling Tea Association member who asked not to be named.
While the state government has allowed 15% of tea plantation land to be developed for tea tourism, it has also announced that garden workers will be allowed to set up homestays in their respective homes. But gardeners have called for legislation to get land rights, which the state government has yet to work through. The West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) formulated the policy back in 2019 to allow 15% of land use in tea gardens to develop tourism.
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While none of the big players owning gardens in Darjeeling are thinking of spinning off their tea plantations for tourism, individual garden owners – mainly small local players – are looking for opportunities to either sell their lands directly or to get involved with a partner to develop Tea tourism, related real estate or tea tourism products.
According to Sanjay Sarkar, an allotment owner in Alipurduar, there have been a number of deals between allotment owners in the recent past, but opposition from gardeners is growing.
There are around 377 tea plantations in North Bengal employing 26.4 million workers. Of these, 87 tea plantations are in Darjeeling, 188 in Jalpaiguri and 102 in Terai. Total tea production from the tea plantations was 22,163 million kg for the fiscal year, compared to an annual average of 188 million kg.
According to Darjeeling MP Raju Bista, the 28-member Parliamentary Standing Trade Committee has lobbied for the transfer of land rights to tea garden workers in the Darjeeling, Dooars and Terai regions and has asked the center to enact legislation giving land rights to workers . Although granting land rights to workers falls within the purview of state legislation, the Center could intervene through legislation in Parliament.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already directed Chief Secretary HK Diwedi to bring about appropriate legislative changes to allow workers to stay at home. But so far nothing has happened in this regard.
Some of the larger and historic tea gardens such as Happy Valley, Glenburn, Margaret’s, Singtom and others have opted for homestays and resorts within the gardens, but these are costly and beyond the average visitor’s affordability. These gardens have opened up an additional channel for tea tasting and the sale of aromatic, premium and premium tea, which is generally sold in smaller quantities in world markets. Tea tourism has survived on a small scale under such models. Although these homestays were mainly looking for foreign tourist arrivals and joined forces with various operators around the world to market their tourist products along with tea sales, foreign tourist arrivals in Darjeeling were not at the expected levels.
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The growers were unable to run the garden smoothly due to the lack of international buyers from Europe and Japan who used to buy large quantities of Darjeeling tea. A liquidity crisis, high wages and falling tea prices are hurting Darjeeling growers’ profitability and forcing them to look for buyers. Recessionary pressures in Europe, a top export destination for Darjeeling tea, are keeping buyers away from the premium brew. Japan has reduced purchases from Darjeeling since 2017 as unrest in the hills halted operations at the estates for four months. Japanese buyers never came back in full force as they were skeptical about supply issues, said PK Bhattacharjee, secretary-general of the Tea Association of India.
The increasing demand for orthodox black tea in the Iranian, Saudi and Turkish markets has offset the drop in demand in the traditional European and Japanese markets. The Department of Commerce estimates that the value of exports will increase by 9-10% in FY23.