The famed tea gardens of Darjeeling are finding it difficult to maintain the quality of their harvests due to rising temperatures, longer dry spells and erratic rainfall
Surendra Lama, who has been running a convenience store at Ghum in Darjeeling district for the past 40 years, laments that the hills are no longer the same, as they are getting warmer with each passing year.
“We have seen those days when the area outside my shop used to get covered with a white sheet of snow and it remained chilling cold for several days,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “But things are slowly changing with the increase in temperature.”
It has been widely observed that local temperatures are rising and rainfall is becoming increasingly erratic in Darjeeling district of West Bengal, which is famous for its aromatic teas. The tea gardens, which form the economic backbone of the eastern Himalayan district, have been reeling under the impact of the weather changes.
Tea is grown in five different valleys in the region — Darjeeling, Mirik, Teesta, Rambang and Kurseong — and each of them is at a different elevation, with a different weather pattern. The ideal temperature for growing tea in the region is between 18 and 30 degrees Celsius.
Scientists say that the need of the hour is to devise ways to protect the world famous Darjeeling tea rather than to mourn over the changes in climate. “It is a worldwide phenomenon and not just restricted to hills. It’s would be a waste of time if we constantly brood over it as the temperature will continue to rise,” Mrityunjay Choubey, senior scientific officer at Darjeeling Tea Research and Development Centre (DTR&DC) in Kurseong, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Our focus is to find new ways to protect the quality of the famous brew.”
His concern is not without reason as the production of tea has taken a hit in the past few years, “The production of Darjeeling tea has come down drastically,” says Sumon Majumder, a senior tea taster with Darjeeling Impex Ltd that runs the Namring tea estate in Darjeeling. “In 2012, the annual tea production stood at 10 million kg, which fell to 9 million kg in 2017.”
Untimely first flush
He terms the untimely first flush harvest as the major visible sign of climate change, “The first flush is normally from March to mid May but we are noticing that the flush is getting advanced to February due to increase in the temperature. It is becoming so warm during the day that bud breaking is starting early,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “There have been severe rains in May this year, which has impacted the quality of the first flush. The heavy rains cause dormancy of leaves and their texture changes because sun rays are normally expected during May.”
A 20-year-study done by DTR&DC in Kurseong has found that maximum temperature has risen by 0.51 degree Celsius while total annual rainfall dropped by 56 mm and relative humidity by 16.07%. Even the sunshine hours have risen from 3.03 to 5.71 in two decades.
The study done from 1993 to 2012 found that climate change has lead to a decline in overall production of Darjeeling tea in terms of green leaf production per hectare. The production of green tea, which stood at 1,828.47 kg per hectare in 1993, dropped to 1,061.12 kg in 2012.
Scientists are now suggesting different measures to the owners of the 87 tea gardens in Darjeeling that they can undertake to protect the tea bushes from the adverse impacts of climate change.
“We have been encouraging the owners to grow shade trees as they not only protect the tea bushes from the direct rays of the sun but also the leaves falling from the trees make the soil more nutritious. We are also laying stress on integrated farming that involves less use of chemicals,” Choubey said. “The sowing of drought resistant plants like B157, P312, T78, AV2 are really helpful as the spells of drought are becoming longer in the hills.”
Longer dry periods
The usual dry period in Darjeeling is from October to January, but now it has stretched to April, stressing the tea plants. “A brief round of drought is conducive to tea growth, but the longer spells are dangerous. There has also been a change in the pattern of rainfall. The rainfall has become uneven. Sometimes, there are heavy showers, which are quite harmful to tea gardens as it leads to soil erosion that takes away the topsoil and exposes the rocks. Heavy rains also increase the dangers of landslides that lead to accidents and causes destruction in the gardens,” Prahlad Chhetri, assistant director at Tea Board India, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The rise in temperature is equally harmful as it increases pest infestation which affects the quality and quantity of the tea.”
In September 2012, landslides triggered by heavy rain caused extensive damage in six tea gardens in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. In July 2015, around 40 people lost their lives to landslides in Darjeeling.
Chhetri, who has spent his childhood in the hills, rues that massive deforestation coupled with unplanned constructions has taken a toll on the local climate. “I have been staying in the hills since I was a child but those days were relatively cooler,” he said. “Massive deforestation and the haphazard constructions with increase in vehicular movement and pollution have affected the climate.”
Scientists are stressing on organic farming to deal with climate change, “We are also trying to convince the growers to switch to organic farming as it minimises the use of pesticides and other chemicals which are harmful to plants. But the owners are reluctant because it normally takes 6-7 years for the shifting to take place and they are not ready to incur losses for that period,” Choubey said. “We are also laying emphasis on crop diversification, which suits the small growers, as they can sow potatoes and other vegetables for a short duration, say between Octobers and March, when it is the dull season for tea.”
Biswajit Bera, director of research at the Quality Control Laboratory of Tea Board India at New Jalpaiguri, points to rainwater harvesting as another alternative to provide continuous water to the tea bushes. “It is necessary to deal with erratic rainfall by promoting rainwater harvesting,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Small drains passing through the gardens that remain dry should be given water supply. Moreover, development of superior adopted cultivars is also necessary to save the tea gardens.”
Some of tea gardens like Namring, one of the largest tea estates in Darjeeling, have adopted measures to deal with climate change. “We have done massive afforestation in our garden and are making use of the natural sources of water. We have paid tremendous focus to self-irrigation, as Darjeeling now receives just 4-5% of the total annual rainfall between October and March. A tea bush spread in one hectare needs up to four inches of water every month to survive, or else it stresses the plants,” H.R. Chaudhary, superintendent manager of Namring, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “We have also planted grass like Guatemala and citronella that not only prevents soil erosion but their mulches also suppress the weed growth.”
Other gardens like Balasun Estate, run by Jayashree Tea and Industries, in Kurseong are planting Vetiver, a type of grass, along its garden, which is helpful to check soil erosion on the slopes.
Majumder, the senior tea taster who is also known for creating the famous Darjeeling Oolong tea, cites longer plucking rounds as another reason for drop in quality, “The quality of tea is also getting hampered because of tea plucking rounds, which has increased from seven days to 10-12 days due to labour shortage. We make around 300 kg Oolong tea a year and nearly 250 kg of it is exported.”
Pranab Kumar Biswas, founder of the Center for Mitigation Climate Change and Global Warming, a non-profit in nearby Siliguri, rues that several tea garden owners in Alipurduar and other places are yet to understand the seriousness of climate change. “We basically try to create awareness among tea garden owners for installing instruments that measure the rainfall and temperature, but most of them hardly seem interested in it,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “It is necessary to collect data to gauge the effect of climate change on tea gardens.”