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The strange case of Darjeeling tea

November 07, 2003 14:22 IST

If you can't brew champagne in California (even though you use the same sort of grapes) but have to call it sparkling wine or something equally silly, why should you be able to call tea grown in Kenya or Sri Lanka from the same sort of tea plants as you find in Darjeeling, Darjeeling tea?

According to the Darjeeling Planter's Association, 40,000 tons of tea are passed off in the world as Darjeeling and "consumers of these 40,000 tons of tea are being misled into believing that they are consuming Darjeeling tea when in fact they are not."

This writer first came across this question in July 1985 while on a visit to Darjeeling with Purno Sangma, who was minister of state for commerce then. The Darjeeling Planters Association had arranged the trip.

As I recall, Sangma gave his beatific smile and promised to "look into the matter" apparently unmindful of the fact that his ministry was, at that very moment, busy opposing the inclusion of Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in the new round of trade talks that the US had proposed in 1982. O tempora, o mores!

How times change. Today, India is busy making the case that Darjeeling tea can be grown only in Darjeeling and basmati rice can be grown only in Dehra Doon.

Both, it seems, have the special geographic qualities needed to grow the real thing. This, by the way, was the basis on which the vineyards of Champagne in France won their case back in the 1970s.

The proper name for the basis for establishing this kind of thing is "geographical indications" now. It falls in Section 3 of Part II of the Agreement on TRIPS.

In a recent paper C Niranjan Rao*, who is a consultant at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), discusses the issues involved.

Rao gets his teeth properly into it all and the paper is worth reading for the sheer detail it provides.

The 40,000 ton question is whether the higher level of protection that is available to wines and spirits under Article 23 should be available to Darjeeling tea and basmati rice also.

Rao thinks not, because he says that while Article 23 protection is indeed discriminatory, it makes no sense to extend it to other products like Darjeeling tea or basmati rice.

Instead, he says, developing countries "should experiment with Article 22 protection for some years and if the results are unsatisfactory should then ask for enhanced protection."

Far simpler and cheaper, he says, to go the trademarks route via logos. "The producers of Kenya would not be able to use the Darjeeling tea logo if it is protected in Kenya or it could be stopped at the border of the importing country if the logo is protected in that country." Or, "protection afforded by Article 22.3 in respect of trade marks seems to be sufficient."

Will there be any takers for his proposition? Unlikely, because amazingly, the list of problems that afflicts Darjeeling tea today is identical to the one Sangma was given that rainy day in 1985.

Thus, first, most of the bushes are more than 100 years old because the planters have not bothered to replace them at the required rate. The best yield comes between 30 and 50 years.

"The rule of thumb is that 3 per cent of tea bushes should be replaced every year, while the current rate is only 0.5 per cent per year." The old age affects both yield and taste. And with every postponed year, the cost increases.

Secondly, in 1985, the USSR used to buy the bottom end of Darjeeling tea to mix with their Georgian tea to fool upmarket Russians. Now that market has collapsed completely  and the bottom has fallen out of the market. And even Indians don't want the summer and autumn flushes.

The result: the growers in Darjeeling have been bleating on and on to the government, which has done precious little to address the real problem, which is inadequate investment. Instead, it is focusing on trying to protect the unprotectable.

That leads to the inevitable question: if the planters in Darjeeling, by not investing enough, are not giving us proper Darjeeling tea, but something quite inferior, an approximation if you will, why should we not get something that approximates it better -- never mind where it is grown?

* Geographical Indications in the Indian Context: A Case Study of Darjeeling Tea, ICRIER Working Paper No 11, September 2003.

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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan