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Can Kangra tea reclaim former glory with coveted EU PGI tag? Industry has been cooling since 1900s

Shimla: There was a time when the fragrance of Himachal’s homegrown Kangra tea spread far and wide. Plucked fresh from the slopes of the verdant Dhauladhar valley, the tea was coveted by connoisseurs in Kabul and Central Asia, awarded gold medals in London and Amsterdam, and extolled as “superior to that produced in any other part of India”.

But that was in the late 19th century. Over the past many decades, Kangra tea slowly lost steam, with growers and admirers dropping away. But now there is reason to perk up.

Last month, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, granted Kangra tea the protected geographical indication (PGI) tag, which will come into effect from 11 April.

An EU PGI tag is designated only to agricultural products that are unique to a specific region and meet strict quality standards. The label helps growers differentiate themselves in the market, gain a wider international customer base, command better prices, and also provides legal protection against the imitation or misuse of the product name.

Kangra tea growers are hopeful that these benefits will help revive their flagging fortunes and help them surmount challenges in production and marketing, as well as to overcome reputational losses due to ‘copies’ in the market.

Kangra tea is available in black, green, and oolong varieties under various grades as specified in the EU’s document on it. In a tweet, the EU Agriculture handle described it as having a “nutty, woody aroma and a sweet aftertaste”.

According to the government’s Tea Board of India, it is milder in flavour than the famous Darjeeling variety

Speaking to ThePrint, Abhimanyu Sharma, a Palampur-based factory advisory officer at the Tea Board of India, said that Kangra tea is cultivated on over 2,300 hectares of land in Dharamshala, Shahpur, Nagrota Bagwan, Palampur, and Baijnath in Kangra district, as well as in Jogindernagar of Mandi district and Bhatiyat in Chamba.

Sharma said the EU PGI tag will provide the tea with an opportunity to reclaim its former glory in European and other international markets.

Palampur-based tea grower and exporter Sachin Butail told ThePrint that he was hopeful as well.

“This is a big achievement. Stakeholders should be encouraged and supported to improve the quality of their products so that the maximum amount can be exported to foreign markets in order to fully reap the benefits of the EU GI tag,” he said.

“We need global market support to ensure our product finds the right platform. The Indian market is already highly competitive,” he added.

Here’s a brief look at the history of Kangra tea, the issues affecting the industry, and what has been done so far to revitalise it.

Also read: Darjeeling’s identi-tea is losing its steam. Nepal isn’t the only problem

Rise and fall of Kangra tea

Kangra tea was first planted by a British enthusiast and was quickly adopted by many other growers, said Sharma of the Tea Board of India.

“William Jameson, superintendent of the Botanical Gardens at Saharanpur and the Northwest Frontier Province, planted the first tea plant in Kangra In 1849,” Sharma told ThePrint, adding that the next decade saw approximately two dozen other tea estates crop up in the region.

“The area under tea farming increased to nearly 10,000 acres (around 4,000 acres), producing 1,000 tonnes annually,” Sharma claimed.

The Kangra district gazette of 1882-83 noted that the tea was “probably superior” to other Indian varieties, pointing out that demand for it was “steadily increasing and much is now bought up by natives for export via Peshawar to Kabul and Central Asia”. The tea even won gold medals in the London and Amsterdam markets in 1886 and 1896, respectively, attesting to its quality.

However, the 20th century was not so fruitful for Kangra tea. The 1905 Kangra earthquake destroyed tea factories and other establishments and it took years for locals to cover up the losses.

Since then, the industry has never reached its former heights due to various factors, although the government has been making efforts to revive it.

Government push

Last year, the then BJP government in the state vowed to double Himachal’s tea production in the next five years.

“The state produced around 10 lakh kg of tea in 2021-22. Efforts are on to increase the production to 20 lakh kg over the next five years,” then agriculture minister Virender Kanwar had told reporters last June.

According to a state agriculture department official, to expand cultivable area under tea and raise its production, Palampur’s Chaudhary Sarwan Kumar Himachal Pradesh Agriculture University had planted 800 saplings at its agriculture research stations at Malan, Kangra, Bara, Barthin, Sundernagar, Bajaura and Dhaulakuan. “Orchard integration of tea is also being explored to offset area loss,” he said.

However, tea growers who spoke to ThePrint said they wanted tea farming to come under the purview of the industry department rather than the agriculture department, as had been the case until 2009.

Farmers argue that tea farming is an industry and therefore should be overseen by the industry department, as this would be beneficial from a marketing standpoint.

What ails Kangra tea growers today?

The approximately 2,310 hectares of land currently under tea cultivation in Himachal Pradesh is largely confined to the foothills of the Dhauladhar mountains.

The state agriculture department official quoted earlier said that the main challenge confronting the Kangra tea industry was production, with yield per hectare declining significantly over the years. Shortage of labour and marketing constraints are also common problems, he added.

“Most of the tea gardens are very old, generally over 80 years in age, which is affecting their productivity,” he explained.

Naval Thakur, a member of a tea growers’ society in Kangra, said that replanting and rejuvenating plantations was “very costly” and most growers were not interested in focusing on this area.

Tea estate owners also said they faced difficulties in securing funds due to the reluctance of banks to mortgage the gardens.

“Those with an additional source of funds can afford to rejuvenate their gardens, but those solely dependent on tea gardens find it difficult to raise money,” explained Pawan Kumar, a tea grower from Baijnath.

Under the Land Revenue Act of Himachal Pradesh, land used for tea plantations cannot be sold, making it unattractive for banks to mortgage these lands for credit since they cannot recover their money by selling it off.

There are other issues too. A 2019 study in the Indian Journal of Agricultural Research noted that most holdings — 96 per cent — are less than an acre (0.40 hectares).

“The area under tea plantations is dwindling due to the lure of high real estate rates coupled with lack of skilled labour,” the paper said, adding that lack of mechanisation also affected productivity.

Estate owner Sachin Butail said small tea holders lived “hand to mouth”, while larger estates also grappled with “labour issues and shrinking profit margins”.

He added that tea farming is a labour-intensive task and that new generations are less interested in farming due to the lower profitability of the industry. “Very few local people work in summer seasons, and for 90 per cent of the work we have to depend on migrant labour from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal,” he added.

No local market, bad copies

While Kangra tea has gained renown in the global market, it is not commonly used in Himachal Pradesh — not even in Kangra district.

According to the agriculture department official, approximately 4,000kg of Kangra tea was exported to foreign countries in 2021-22, with the primary markets being Germany, the UK, Russia, and France. The remaining 90 per cent of the tea was sent to the Kolkata auction yard, where it was sold for Rs 160 per kg in 2021-22.

“There is no local market for Kangra tea. Tea produce is sent to the Kolkata market for black and Amritsar for green tea,” said Deepak Sharma, a local tea grower.

He said he wanted the government to help popularise Kangra tea in Himachal so “locals consume it and tourists who come here ask for it”.

Deepak Sharma further claimed that Kangra tea had suffered a reputational loss due to unscrupulous market practices.

“In the Kolkata market, we have heard that our product is blended with some other tea and sold under the brand name of Kangra tea. This adversely affects the quality and reputation of Kangra tea,” he said.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: Is bajra the new wheat? How ICAR’s turning humble millet into versatile, ‘luxury’ ingredient

Source: The Print

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