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It’s premium Darjeeling Tea, but from Nepal: How ‘fake’ tea is threatening the pride of India

Tea imports from Nepal rose by over 60% last year and this year, till June, it crossed over 50%. Growers say only solution is banning the sale of loose Darjeeling tea.

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Kolkata: Darjeeling tea growers have long suffered from regular political agitations and strikes. Then came the Covid-induced shutdowns and post-pandemic losses. And now they are facing a new threat — tea from Nepal that is allegedly being pushed as offerings from the hills, branded as Himalayan Darjeeling Tea.

From allegedly copying premium estate organic tea packaging to passing off inorganic offerings as Darjeeling ones, tea growers here are facing a variety of issues. 

The Indian Tea Association (ITA) has flagged these with the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the West Bengal government as tea import from Nepal rose by over 60 per cent last year, and this year it has crossed over 50 per cent until June.

The rising tea imports from Nepal has rung an alarm bell from the grower of world’s finest and most premium Darjeeling Tea, which comes with a GI tag.

To add to the troubles of the tea connoisseurs, the duplicate Darjeeling tea from Nepal appears to be inorganic in nature and high on carcinogen, because the growers there use pesticides, alleged experts.

The ‘menace’ of ‘duplicate or fake’ Darjeeling or Himalayan long leaf — as it is being marketed to the retailers and to the mixers for blending — is ruining the already struggling Darjeeling tea industry, claimed the producers and exporters of Darjeeling. 

Speaking to ThePrint, ITA secretary Sujit Patra said these issues have been raised with authorities of the state and central governments concerned. 

“Huge quantities of indigenous tea coming from Nepal and being blended with regular CTC (crush, tear, curl). They are being passed off to the customers as Himalayan Tea or long leaf tea. Himalayan Tea is specifically Darjeeling tea,” said Patra.

“We have written to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and requested them to ensure regular quality checks by the FSSAI. It needs to check for 34 chemicals in tea, but there is a breach. We need to ensure proper testing of such tea,” he added.

Patra highlighted that Nepal doesn’t need to bear any export duty due to its free trade agreement with India, and the import figures are “alarming”.

“This is ruining our Darjeeling tea industry. We are getting complaints from growers that some Chinese or Korean origin tea is coming via Nepal using the free trade route,” he added.

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Tea Board’s concerns

The Tea Board of India, a statutory body under the commerce ministry to regulate tea cultivation and export, said in a notification last year that around 60 million kg of tea was imported into India in the previous three years, out of which only 23.43 million kg was re-exported, underlining that the rest 36.92 million kg was sold domestically.

The notification dated 10 August 2020 directed distributors and exporters to comply with the rules — distribute or export only under a business licence.

In another letter to the commerce ministry last year, the Tea Board said Food Safety and Standards (Import) Regulations, 2017 “are not adhered to in the case of import of tea from a neighboring country”. 

“Out of 34 parameters set by FSSAI for tea, only three or four parameters are checked before allowing the teas into India. Such relaxation can be hazardous for Indian consumers. FSSAI has delegated its power to other authorities which might be one of the reasons for such non compliance,” the board wrote, while requesting for “restricting the entry point of tea into India through Land Custom Stations”.

Tea Board chairman P.K. Bezboruah admitted that a “fair amount of tea” is being imported from Nepal, which looks and tastes similar to Darjeeling tea and is really difficult to differentiate.

“The main problem is India having a free trade agreement with Nepal. That is helping the growers or the businessmen in Nepal. This problem cannot be resolved by banning Nepal tea. We are trying to maintain a good relationship with our neighbouring country. So, to minimise such imports we are trying to get some laws in place that require the growers or the traders to put the place of origin mentioned in the boxes,” he told ThePrint. 

“We are trying to impose regulations and strict checks on imported tea from Nepal. Stopping tea imports totally will go against our bilateral relationship with Nepal. We have moved the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and got a response from them. The new laws will be notified soon,” he added.

The Print sent detailed queries to D.J. Narain, Director General, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, which is under the commerce ministry, through message and email for a comment, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.

According to a spokesperson of the Nepal Embassy in India, the Nepal government has not received any communication on the issue from New Delhi.

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‘Practice has to be stopped’

ThePrint spoke to local growers and exporters on the issue, who noted a loss of market share.

“Due to this Nepal tea menace, we are losing the international export market and the domestic market as well. In the past 12 months, we lost at least 5 per cent of export market share to this imported tea,” Kolkata-based Chamong Tee Exports chairperson Ashok Lohia said.

“The only solution the government and the industry can now come up with is having packaged tea for Darjeeling produce. The sale of loose Darjeeling tea has to be banned. We can minimise the adulteration this way,” Lohia said.

A tea expert, who is a member of the Darjeeling Planters Association, said that while Darjeeling tea is GI tagged and organic in nature, the produce coming from Nepal is inorganic.

“They use pesticides, which are high on carcinogenic values. The tea connoisseurs, who are paying a huge amount of money expecting organic estate tea, while buying from retailers, are probably ending up paying for inorganic tea from Nepal,” said the member who didn’t wish to be named.

Patra said these concerns are being raised routinely and ITA has received a positive response from the commerce ministry and the state government. “This practice has to be stopped, otherwise the industry, which is now sinking, will vanish soon,” he added.

With inputs from Nayanima Basu.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

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