Darjeeling tea estates up for sale for tourism | The Financial Express

Darjeeling tea estates up for sale for tourism

There are around 377 tea estates in North Bengal with 26.4 million workers.

Darjeeling tea estates up for sale for tourism
The total tea production of tea estates was 163 million kg in FY22, against an annual average of 188 million kg. (IE)

The West Bengal government’s decision to allow tea tourism and related real estate development on 15% of tea garden land has prompted a number of garden owners to hive off tea estates, though the workers’ demand of conferring them rights of tea garden land has come in the way of such conversion.

Most of the workers have been staying in the gardens for generations, and they have demanded land rights on which they can arrange for home stays for tea tourism. “There is a conflict of interest among the tea garden owners and workers, due to which very little tea tourism is fructifying in the hills of Darjeeling,” a Darjeeling Tea Association member, unwilling to be named, said.

While the state government has allowed 15% of the tea estate land to be developed for tea tourism, it has also announced that garden workers would be allowed to develop home stays in their respective houses. But garden workers have demanded a legislation to get land rights, which the state government is yet to work on. The West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) framed the policy of allowing 15% land use inside tea gardens to develop tourism back in 2019.

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While none of the large players that own gardens in Darjeeling are thinking in terms of hiving off their tea estates for tourism, single-garden owners — mainly small local players — are looking at opportunities for either direct sale of their estates, or roping in a partner to develop tea tourism, related real estate or tea tourism products.

According to Sanjay Sarkar, a small garden owner in Alipurduar, a number of deals have taken place among small garden owners in the recent past, but resistance from garden workers are growing stronger.

There are around 377 tea estates in North Bengal with 26.4 million workers. Of this, 87 tea estates are in Darjeeling, 188 in Jalpaiguri and 102 in the Terai. The total tea production of tea estates was 163 million kg in FY22, against an annual average of 188 million kg.

According to Darjeeling MP Raju Bista, the 28-member parliamentary standing committee on commerce has made a strong pitch for conferring land rights to tea garden workers of Darjeeling, Dooars and Terai regions, and has asked the Centre to make a legislation that confers land rights to workers. Although providing land rights to the workers come under the ambit of the state legislature, the Centre could intervene through a legislation in Parliament.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has already directed chief secretary HK Diwedi to bring about suitable amendments to laws to allow workers to set up home stays. But nothing in this regard has happened so far.

Some of the bigger and heritage tea gardens like Happy Valley, Glenburn, Margaret’s, Singtom and others have opted for home stays and resorts inside the gardens but these are costly, beyond average visitors’ affordability. These gardens have opened an additional channel for tea-tasting and sales of aromatic high-quality and high-value tea, generally sold in smaller volumes in global markets. Tea tourism has been sustaining under such models on a small scale. Although these home stays have been mainly looking for foreign tourist arrivals and have tied up with various operators across the globe to market their tourist products integrated with tea sales, foreign tourist arrivals in Darjeeling have not been up to the expected mark.

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Planters have been unable to run garden operations smoothly in the absence of international buyers from Europe and Japan, who used to buy good volumes of Darjeeling tea. A liquidity crisis, high wages and falling tea prices are impacting the profitability of Darjeeling planters, forcing them to look for buyers. Recessionary pressure in Europe, a top export destination for Darjeeling tea, is keeping buyers away from the premium brew. Japan has reduced buying from Darjeeling since 2017, with agitation in the hills stopping estates’ operations for four months. Japanese buyers never came back with full vigour since they were sceptical about supply issues, PK Bhattacharjee, secretary-general, Tea Association of India, said.

Increasing demand for orthodox black tea in the Iranian, Saudi and Turkish markets have offset the demand loss that has happened in the traditional European and Japanese markets. The commerce ministry estimates a 9-10% increase in value of exports in FY23.

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