If your morning cuppa of famed Darjeeling tea no longer tickles your taste buds, blame Nepal.
Tea planters have warned that some of the Darjeeling tea sold in the country could well be a “fake” version from the neighbouring country, prompting the West Bengal government to urge the Centre to regulate tea import from Nepal.
The state government moved the Centre after the tea planters raised the concern at a recent meeting with Bengal Labour minister Becharam Manna. However, New Delhi has been pussyfooting over the pleas of protection from the Tea Board of India for over a year now.
“After the tea planters raised the issue, I took up the matter with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee explaining in detail about the challenges posed to Darjeeling tea by the tea imported from Nepal,” said Manna.
“The state chief secretary (Hari Krishna Dwivedi) has now taken up the matter with the government of India for regulating the imports,” the minister added.
This is not the first time the matter has been brought to the notice of the Centre, said a state government official pointing out that the Tea Board has been flagging the issue for the past few years. Despite assurances that they would look into the problem, the Centre has not pursued the matter because India does not want any trouble with Nepal, with which it shares a blow-hot, blow-cold relationship.
The Tea Board wrote in a letter to the commerce ministry last year that ‘…because of its popularity, name, fame and uniqueness, there has been a constant effort to encash the same by some unscrupulous elements in the tea trade by passing off teas imported from a neighbouring country as Darjeeling tea. Sale of such imported teas as Darjeeling tea has deprived the Darjeeling tea planters from getting genuine price of their produce thereby causing huge financial loss to them.”
The ministry had then assured that it would work out modalities to make it mandatory to produce sanitary and phytosanitary certificates for importing any tea consignment from Nepal, said the sources in the board.
Failing to elicit any positive response from the Centre, the tea planters have now sought the state government’s intervention to address the crisis faced by Darjeeling tea.
Nepalese teas, grown in the eastern Himalayan districts of Jhapa, Panchthar and Dhankuta contiguous to tea plantation areas of West Bengal, can easily be passed off as Darjeeling tea because of its similar look and texture. The only thing missing in it is the muscatel flavour and delicate taste of a Darjeeling tea that has earned it the sobriquet ‘champagne of teas.’
“That reputation is now under threat as Nepal teas are often being sold as Darjeeling teas,” said P K Bhattacharjee, the secretary general of the Tea Association of India (TAI).
To ensure tea sold with the Darjeeling tea tag is an authentic one, it has been registered as Geographical Indication under the provisions of the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999 in 2004-05.
But the GI tag failed to provide adequate safeguards to the brand in the absence of strict quality regulation of imported tea as mandated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
“In the absence of strict regimen necessary to delve into quality aspects as provided under FSSAI, adequate safeguards to examine phytosanitary aspects of imported tea are missing,” said Bhattacharjee.
India has FSS (Import) Regulations, 2017 for ensuring import of FSSAI compliant teas into India. “However it has come to our notice that these import regulations are not adhered to in the case of import of tea from Nepal,” he pointed out.
This generous approach has allowed uninterrupted entry of Nepalese teas into India. According to a TAI figure, the import of Nepalese teas to India went up by a whopping 43 per cent from 2019 to 2020.
India imported 10.88 million kg of tea in 2020, as against 7.58 million kg in 2019. Incidentally, during the same period, production of Darjeeling tea dropped by 15 per cent, from 7.96 million kg in 2019 to 6.70 million kg in 2020.
The dip has created a huge demand supply gap, which some unscrupulous tea traders and distributors are trying to fill with “fake” tea from Nepal. To prevent this corrupt practice, the TAI has submitted five suggestions to the government.
First, regular scrutiny needs to be undertaken by the Tea Board and FSSAI to ensure imported tea from Nepal is compliant with FSSAI regulations.
The country of origin must be mentioned in all packages for all imported teas and in order to ensure integrity and transparency across the value chain, all imported teas must comply with the food safety packaging and labelling rules, the TAI suggested.
It further felt the need to restrict entry of Nepal tea to a single point, so that FSSAI can develop adequate infrastructure for ensuring compliance of FSS (Import) Regulations, 2017.
The Tea (Distribution & Export) Control Order 2005 needs to be strictly enforced to prevent unauthorised imports and distribution of Nepal teas in India, the TAI said, adding procurement of sanitary and phytosanitary certificates for import of each consignment of tea should be made mandatory.
Manna said it was now for the Centre to act in the interest of the Darjeeling tea. Will they?