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ECONOMY-INDIA: Famed Darjeeling Tea Growers Eye Tourism for Survival

Daniel B Haber

DARJEELING, India, Jan 13 2004 (IPS) - The famed tea estates of this hill station are weighing tourism as a means of ensuring their economic survival amid slumping markets for Darjeeling’s most celebrated crop, long celebrated as the "champagne of teas".

The town held a 10-day Darjeeling Carnival last November to promote the locale as "the nicest place in the world", according to an official slogan. Its plantations, situated at the northern tip of West Bengal state and bordered by Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, evoke the town’s long-held title as "Queen of the Hills."

The tea industry, however, has fallen on hard times. Local newspapers tell almost daily of plantation labor disputes, workers laid off, tea estates closed and workers stricken with malnutrition-some even dying.

Ajay Edwards, owner of the Glenary’s chain of restaurants and resorts and a principal Carnival organizer, says the tea industry "is both a curse and a blessing for us. Although it has provided employment, it has always been a hand-to-mouth existence."

Happy Valley Tea Estates, which this year marks its centennial and is Darjeeling’s oldest plantation, has become a symbol of the turmoil that plagues the region’s growers and of their hopes for survival.

Happy Valley, located about two kilometers from town, was first established in 1854 as Wilson Tea Estates. In 1903 T.P. Banerjee, scion of a wealthy Bengali family, bought the estate from its British owners and renamed it Happy Valley. In the 1950s and ’60s, after India gained its independence, the Indian planters who took over from the Europeans lived like maharajahs, locals recall. Parked Mercedes-Benzes were a common sight outside the Darjeeling Planters’ Club.

India’s tea boom eventually turned to bust. Suppliers in other countries including Bangladesh, Kenya and Sri Lanka had begun exporting cheaper tea, which they sometimes mixed and labeled as "Darjeeling". Demand for the local tea also plummeted amid the growing popularity of soft drinks and coffee.

Indian tea planters say that labor regulations requiring that workers be given housing, medical care and pension funds added to the industry’s woes, driving the cost of producing Darjeeling tea to an unprofitable level of five dollars per kilo or more.

Edwards, however, says the planters continued to simply extract profits and give nothing back to the plantation workers. In violation of the law, nothing had been deposited into the workers’ pension funds.

Due to a glut in the world tea market and six months of bad business during which the workers were not paid, the Banerjees packed up and fled Happy Valley in August 2000.

The 235-odd abandoned workers and their families decided to keep the plantation and tea factory running as best they could. A committee now runs the estate and aims to turn it into a workers’ cooperative modeled on India’s powerhouse Amul Dairies.

Sandeep Gaushal, assistant manager of the estate’s ethnically diverse workforce, says the plan includes turning Happy Valley into an organic tea plantation and raising money for the estate by making it a tourist resort.

"We want visitors to experience the friendly atmosphere here," Gaushal says.

Happy Valley produces 55,000 kilos of manufactured tea annually. It is not sent to Calcutta tea auctions, as is common for large estates, but is sold in local markets with some exported directly to Japan and Germany.

The average salary for a tea plucker is only 45 rupees (about one U.S. dollar) a day for collecting 6-8 kilograms of leaf – less than the price of a pot of tea at Darjeeling’s posh Windamere resort.

The Happy Valley workers’ cottages are surrounded by small gardens of vegetables for their own consumption, and a few have their own chickens and livestock. The workers rely on these assets as they have not been paid in months and have not received their rations of rice, kerosene, firewood or medical treatment.

Workers and managers discuss ongoing operations and plans for the future around the dining room table in the Banerjee family’s abandoned planters’ bungalow. Everyone participates, from Gaushal and senior manager Prahlad Thulung to labor union leader Kishor Gurung and Kapil Rai, the estate’s 19-year-old driver.

If the estate cannot feed its workers simply by producing tea, the game plan is to turn the bungalow into a guesthouse and to build some additional rustic cottages for paying tourists.

Among the estate’s reasons for optimism, Darjeeling is the world’s most famous tea producing region and already draws thousands of tourists annually. And with the unstable political situation in neighboring Nepal, many backpackers are turning to the Darjeeling hills instead.

Edwards, the restaurateur and hotelier, echoes community sentiment when he says more is at stake than the survival of Happy Valley and other estates.

"We want to make Darjeeling’s tea gardens economically viable," he says. "If the local people aren’t making money, then we all suffer."

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