Tea is and has always been a political commodity. From the days of the East India Tea Company’s trade monopoly and the Boston Tea Party to today, tea continuously finds its way to the center of political discourse.This summer, that’s unfortunately the case in West Bengal, India. In this region—home to Darjeeling’s many tea plantations—there is a majority ethnic Nepalese population known as the Gorkhas. For centuries, Gorkhas have campaigned for their own state within India called Gorkhaland. This summer, the government announced it would introduce the Bengali language to West Bengal schools, which currently teach Nepali, Hindi, and English. Some Gorkhas interpreted the addition of Bengali as an affront to their status as the ethnic majority in the region, and began staging protests that grew violent.
As a result, production on Darjeeling “second flush” tea has been suspended since June 9. Second flush teas—also known as muscatel tea, which we wrote about a while back—are beloved and priced high for their special flavor.
This unique flavor actually comes from insects. In May, June, and July, cold winds bring thrips and jassids to Darjeeling. They eat tea plants, leaving behind a substance called terpene, which gives the tea a very specific flavor that many say you simply know when you taste.
Second flush tea is a casualty of the Gorkha conflict, and an expensive one at that.
The India Times says that second flush teas account for about a quarter of the total tea produced in Darjeeling, and account for a much greater percentage of total tea revenue in the region.
The Darjeeling Tea Association reports that tea producers in Darjeeling have lost about $40 million in potential revenues due to the shut down so far.
“This is 20 percent in terms of volume and 40 percent in terms of revenue,” A.N. Singh, managing director of Darjeeling tea producer Goodricke Group, told Reuters. “This is a complete disaster for the industry.”
Expect price hikes on muscatel tea in the near future, as producers have to charge more to make ends meet while production’s on hold, or brands spike their prices to contend with the fact that no second flush tea is coming this season.
Tea consultant Angela Pryce told Reuters that she expects brands to sell off their 2016 season second flush teas for now, but that even that supply will dry up by this September.
The ethnic conflict at the root of this tea shortage has a long history:
Back in 18th century, the Gorkhas actually controlled Darjeeling, but then surrendered the region to the British in 1816.
And in the 1980s, violent Gorkha protests for statehood claimed 1,000 lives.
India has a long history of different ethnic groups demanding—and receiving—states of their own. It happened as recently as 2013, when the state Telangana was formed out of Andhra Pradesh, and in 2000, when the states Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Uttarakhand were all carved out of already existing states in response to violent protests.
Let’s hope that for the citizens of this region—and tea lovers around the globe—this turmoil comes to a peaceful resolution soon.