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Storm in a cup?

On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, this 22 April, we had announced our decision to donate 10 per cent of all our sales proceeds for a month to a Darjeeling-based environmental NGO, Save the Hills. On our main website we had briefly highlighted the environmental challenges faced by Darjeeling hills, while announcing our plan.

Most of you, our readers and our customers, I am sure would appreciate to know more about the place from where your teas come from. So here is an attempt to give you a better understanding of the issues facing Darjeeling.

Darjeeling Tea and Climate Change

For the third year in a row, the first flush Darjeeling was delayed and under-harvested. The winter rains ran short yet again. First flush, also known as the Spring Flush (“flush” is basically the new leaves and buds that sprout on tea bushes with the onset of spring and following subsequent prunings), is harvested and manufactured between late-February to around early-April. The total first flush production for Darjeeling was down by 35 percent this year, according to the Tea Board of India.


[caption id="attachment_142" align="aligncenter" width="590" caption="A news headline about the drought delayed First Flush in Darjeeling"]news[/caption]

Ramesh Kumar Boruah, Advisory Officer, Tea Research Association, Darjeeling, pointed out that on 11 April 2010, Darjeeling recorded a temperature of 28 C (82.4 F) with a humidity at 48%. The temperature was up 4C than normal and the humidity 7% lower.

This reflects a disturbing, and possibly a growing trend. The question whether this is part of the global climate change is inevitable.  The mountains are certainly getting warmer with the rainfall pattern becoming erratic and rise in the frequency of extreme weather incidents. The long term implications of the climate change on Darjeeling tea industry could be serious. The same concern would apply to other tea-growing regions of the world, particularly those in the highlands where the exacting quality of the tea depends largely on a precise kind of weather.

But even more immediately for the Darjeeling tea industry, including the tea drinkers, higher prices tea due to lower production is a challenge. First flush prices have shot up, effecting retailers and customers alike. While there is no palliative to ease the present pain to the pocket, it may be helpful to focus on the larger issue here.

The Himalayas


[caption id="attachment_130" align="aligncenter" width="717" caption="The Himalayas from space. The windswept arid Tibetan plateau is on the right and the lush alluvial plains of India and Nepal on the left. "]The Himalayas from Space[/caption]


Darjeeling is situated in the eastern Himalayas of India, close to the border of Nepal and Bhutan. The Himalayas (Sanskrit: abode of snows), itself, is a 2400 km (1491 miles) long range of mountains with the tallest peaks on the planet. The colossal scale of the Himalayas is reflected in the fact that the tallest mountain outside of Asia is Aconcagua in the Andes at 6962 meters (22,841 ft); Himalayas has more than 100 peaks exceeding 7200 meters (23,622 ft).

The mountains rise abruptly from less than 500 meters to more than 8,000 meters which results in a diversity of ecosystems that range, in only a couple of hundred kilometers, from alluvial grasslands (among the tallest in the world) and subtropical broadleaf forests along the foothills to temperate broadleaf forests in the mid hills, mixed conifer and conifer forests in the higher hills, and alpine meadows above the treeline.

Notably, the Himalayas is one of the largest sources of the freshwater. It has around 15,000 glaciers which hold about 12,000km3 of freshwater. The Himalayas is also the greatest area of permafrost and glaciers outside of the poles. It sustains two large river systems, the Ganga-Brahmaputra Basin, which in turn sustains northern India and Bangladesh, and the Indus Basin which takes care of most of Pakistan’s water requirement. Altogether, more than a billion people are dependent on these river systems for their existence.

The Himalayan ecosystem sustains nearly one-third of the world’s humanity. Indeed, for the people living in this region, Himalayas is the home of the gods.


[caption id="attachment_132" align="aligncenter" width="737" caption="The town of Darjeeling over which towers Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world."]Darjeeling Panorama[/caption]

Melting Mountains

But this sacred range – that actually forms a vital link to the other eco-systems of the world – is under threat. In the face of burgeoning human population, development and global climate change, these tall proud mountains are being brought down to their knees as it were.

While the snow lines and glaciers are receding in the higher reaches, in the lower inhabited areas frequent and devastating landslides is a regular occurrence due to deforestation and unplanned growth. To exacerbate matters, political tensions are rife in South Asia - comprising India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan - over water-sharing agreements.

An important note about receding glaciers in the Himalayas: Recently the claim by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – which was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 – that most of the glaciers in Himalayas will melt off by 2035 was found to be erroneous. The scientist on the panel who had first made the assertion in 1999 later clarified that it had only been a “speculation.” Scientific bloopers happen.

However, having lived in the mountains for most of my life, I can tell you the days do kind of feel different. For instance, mosquitoes were unheard of in Darjeeling town say 10 years ago. Now we have them, as well as ceiling fans which would have been an novelty just a few years ago. The hills are more denuded of forests than ever before and the villages and towns keep spreading.

The Challenges for Darjeeling

We have already talked about the impact of changing weather on the tea industry in Darjeeling. The troubles in the tea industry have far-reaching implications for the local population. Nearly half of the million-strong population of Darjeeling hills are dependent directly or indirectly on the industry. It employs bulk of the population as “laborers” in the garden. With very few other economic options, the fate of the hills currently is determined by its tea.


[caption id="attachment_133" align="aligncenter" width="717" caption="Darjeeling tea gardens employ around 50,000 people regularly, while taking in additional 30,000 labor during harvests."]Tea workers[/caption]

The tourism industry is the only other economic pillar of the hills. However, due to unplanned growth and a crumbling infrastructure the bulk of the visitors today are low-end spenders. Such tourism tends to take more than give to both the environment and the economy.

The town of Darjeeling has the notorious distinction of being the most populated mountain region of the world. According to the Census reports of 2001, more than 10,000 people lived per sq km, or per .6 mile. This is a nightmarish situation considering that most of the population is literally perched on the hill sides.

Only last year in May 2009, a cyclone hit the hills triggering a spate of landslides. The damages mainly took place in urban areas, with nearly 20 people losing their lives.


[caption id="attachment_135" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="A house near Happy Valley Tea Estate on the outskirts of Darjeeling town destroyed by landslide."]darjeeling landslide[/caption]

A lack of effective governance, compounded by a two-decade long political movement in the hills for a separate province, has left the region completely absent of any kind of planning. It has meant for the people at large economic hardship, a political uncertain climate and a fast deteriorating environment. Worryingly, it has also meant no hope of succor from the government during times of crisis. Most of the rescue and relief during the May landslides were done by the locals – absolutely untrained – themselves. Many of them became part of the casualties.

One of the biggest causes of landslides is deforestation. My father, who was born in a “forest village” in Kurseong (30km, or around 19 miles, east of Darjeeling town), worked for 40 years in the forest department of the region. Consequently, I grew up making regular excursions into the forests which is receding too at an alarming rate. While the good and expensive wood go towards construction in the nearby towns, bulk of it is being used as “free fuel” by villagers. Wildlife has now virtually vanished.

Needless to say without the forest cover, landslides are frequent accompanied by loss of life and property. For the same reason, a serious depletion has occurred in the aquifers and the springs that are a source of drinking water in the hills. During the “dry season” the per person availability of water in Darjeeling is only one-third of the national standard.


[caption id="attachment_138" align="aligncenter" width="644" caption="Villagers negotiating a landslide. Photo: Save The HIlls"]villagers on landslide[/caption]

Tea Industry and Landslides

Darjeeling has 78 tea gardens with a collective coverage of 17,500 hectares. Landslides often strike the tea gardens as well. In July 2003, around 17 people were buried alive in Gayabari tea estate of Mirik. During the same time Makaibari tea estate lost of a lot of their tea land to landslides. Over the years the scars of landslides are emerging over more parts of the hills, including tea gardens.

It is believed that tea bushes are actually a good landslide deterrent. The roots of the bushes are long and strong enough to bind the steep hill slopes. Also the maintenance of drainage systems – which is more regular in the tea gardens than in non-tea garden areas – helps in preempting landslips.

However, a recent spate of indiscriminate road construction all over the hills, without any regard to planning, by the local government have caused many big and minor landslides to occur. The tea estates have experienced similar problems.

There is no collective policy by the tea industry to tackle the environmental problems facing the hills. However, by maintaining the vast swathes of gardens, which they need to, the hills are largely protected by default.

The gardens only need to ensure that their forests (every garden has to maintain forests on a certain portion of their land) are taken well care of.

Also by going organic, the tea industry is helping the general environment. But more tea gardens need to turn organic. Right now only around 25 per cent of the Darjeeling tea gardens are organic.

Save The Hills

Save the Hills was formed by retired Indian Air Force, Wing Commander, Praful Rao. Rao, whom I have known personally for nearly a decade, never takes things lying down. While it is easy in the hills to be overwhelmed by the lack of both public and private initiatives on social issues, Rao began by taking on consumer-rights issues single-handedly and then picked up the issue of landslides in 2007. He launched STH the same year.

In a short period, Rao has managed to highlight the problem of landslides in Darjeeling at a national level. STH last December won a national-level award, MANTHAN, for “innovative use of blog” for environmental activism.


[caption id="attachment_139" align="aligncenter" width="719" caption="STH President, Praful Rao, making a presentation on the use of internet and digital medium by STH to spread awareness about landslides. STH was shortlisted by Digital Empowerment Foundation, a Delhi-based organization for the Manthan Awards for innovative use of blog in taking the landslide issue to world audience. Photo: Save The Hills"]Praful Rao[/caption]

Rao certainly has gone much beyond just blogging. He has trekked into remote areas to document landslides in the hills and also frequently traveled to Delhi and Kolkata, the power-centres, to lobby for more attention to the problems of the hills. He also tirelessly organizes workshops in the hills to spread awareness among the people about landslides.

It is our honor to help STH.

You will find a more comprehensive information about Darjeeling hills and landslides in Rao’s blog which I invite you to visit

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