KOLKATA (Reuters) - New separatist protests by ethnic Nepalis in Darjeeling hills are hampering tourism and threatening to cut production of the area’s eponymous tea by more than 20 percent, industry officials said on Tuesday.
The Gurkhas called an indefinite strike on Monday demanding their own federal state, “Gurkhaland”, which they want carved out of the eastern state of West Bengal to protect their heritage.
“We are going all out this time in our demand for a separate Gurkha state,” Gurkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader Roshan Giri told Reuters by phone.
The delayed monsoon has already hit early tea production in West Bengal and threatened agricultural output across India, although India’s farm minister on Monday said rains will improve. Gurkha protests have hit Darjeeling, a picturesque Himalayan hill station known for its British colonial-era legacy and tea tourism industry, since 2008, but this year’s round is targeting tea production during the harvest season.
The production of Darjeeling tea may fall 20-25 percent in 2009, industry officials said.
“The agitation will worsen the situation since the delayed monsoon has already affected the production of first flush during April-May,” said Sanjay Bansal, chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association.
Darjeeling tea totals 7 percent of India’s tea exports and the region churns out about 9 million kg (19.84 million lb) of quality brews that fetch 5-6 times the price of normal CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea.
“The agitation will kill the industry and destroy our overseas market. The immediate fallout would be delayed despatch,” said Rajiv Lochan, owner of Lochan Tea Limited.
The peak harvesting season for Darjeeling tea is April-June, after which quality and prices fall.
The protests also hit the region’s tourism industry.
“Darjeeling is the only place in eastern India which witnesses high footfalls of foreign tourists. Now all that is going to end with frequent strikes,” said Anil Punjabi, regional chairman of the Travel Agents’ Federation of India.
“There is a drop of 50 percent in tourist inflow in the region owing to the protests,” he said.
At least 1,200 people died in the first Gurkhaland campaign in the 1980s, but protests ended after Gurkha leaders accepted limited autonomy.
New protests erupted in early 2008, but both the communist-run state government and the federal government rejected the demand for a separate state.