The Centre is scrutinising a proposal to impose stringent rules to regulate the legal and illegal flow of tea from Nepal amidst the souring of relations between the two countries after the Himalayan nation upped its territorial dispute with India.
Following a nudge from the Tea Board of India, the commerce ministry was working out modalities to make the production of sanitary and phytosanitary certificates for import of any consignment of tea from Nepal mandatory, sources in the board said.
The ministry is also actively considering the board’s proposal to come out with a notification making it mandatory to specify the country of origin of imported teas by wholesalers, packers and retailers.
The government reportedly decided to act after the Tea Board’s secretary in-charge Rishikesh Rai last week, in a series of letters to the under secretary in the commerce ministry, Anjali Anand, reminded of the threat posed to India’s famed Darjeeling tea by the unregulated import of tea from the neighbouring country.
“…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 of teas imported from a neighboring 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 board said in one of the three letters it sent to the commerce ministry.
Planters say Nepalese tea could easily be passed off as Darjeeling tea as they are similar looking. Only the tea grown in the neighbouring country does not have the same muscatel flavour of a Darjeeling tea.
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The import of tea from Nepal particularly shot up after 2017 as a four-month-long agitation in the Darjeeling hills over the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state that year had paralysed operations in the region’s 87 tea gardens.
For the past few years, tea planters and tea bodies have been raising the issue with the central government, seeking protection. The government, however, had been looking the other way.
The Tea Board pointed out to the ministry that in the past six years, around 71.9 million kilos of tea were imported from Nepal. “It is to be noted that there is no known national standard fixed by the Government of Nepal for teas produced in their country. Though we have FSS (Import) Regulations, 2017 for ensuring import of FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) complaint teas into India, the said regulations are not being enforced fully in the sense that out of 34 parameters of tea only three to four parameters are checked,” the board said.
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“This generous approach has allowed uninterrupted entry of Nepalese teas into India. Tea being an item of mass consumption in India, any tea which is not FSSAI compliant could pose serious health hazard for the consumers,” it further added.
This generous approach of the government is all set to change now, sources said, as the relations between the two countries deteriorated after Nepal released a political and administrative map depicting Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh as its territories even though India too lay its claim over the areas.