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Culture: Darjeeling's New Gorkha Overlords

Something historic happened last week. Something with such mixed blessings it’s difficult to really even interpret it’s possible long term ramifications yet. But I’ll certainly try. Those of us who really love our Darjeeling teas may already be aware, but most people won’t be. Darjeeling is now ruled by the Gorkha.

Let’s take a step back for a few moments and look at a bit of history. In the early 1980’s during a time of formidable unrest a new group formed called the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Their purpose? The formation of an entirely new and independent country, Gorkhaland. Their justification for this activity was related to their cultural heritage.

Once upon a time, the greater Darjeeling region, and a large portion of West Bengal was actually part of Nepal. The King of Nepal in order to avoid war with English India parted with the land in order to ensure peace and prosperity for his people. During this period new borders were drawn and the Gorkha people who once were Nepali were now Indian. Still to this day the Indian people don’t always accept the Gorkha as equal citizens. They’re usually relegated to servanthood and lower-wage menial jobs.

The Darjeeling region has been under fairly constant threat of violence from the GNLF for the past three decades. I can see the Indian government’s desire to put this difficulty behind them. Combined with the recent and pervasive redistricting of the “States” in India we begin to see a pretty clear trend toward more accountable and empowering government bodies throughout the country. Of course, we want that.

The problems arise when a group such as this seeks independence from the country which has housed them for so long. These hinterlands in India which have provided us some of our favorite and most prized teas over the years are at risk. It’s great the GNLF has focussed primarily on diplomatic means to their ends  very recently, but I don’t personally believe this will last.

Just this past Spring the GNLF worked to influence the tea industry by raising wages for the growers and pickers of those very teas. Obviously we want to better the living conditions of these people. We care for them and we care for our teas. The embargo they controlled raised the wages from forty two Indian Rupees (INR) a day to ninety some INR a day. This is the equivalent of maybe two dollars a day.

Those of us in the US would cry a never-ending trail of tears if we made that little. There are some pretty major differences in our societies and economies though. Ninety rupees a day is a fairly decent wage, especially in the extremely rural areas of the country where tea is grown and produced. Most of the workers have their housing, education, meals and basic necessities covered by their employers who are required to upkeep the little communities which have grown up around their fields.

The societal progress in India isn’t really something for a foreigner to interfere with. To be honest I’ve been very hesitant to even write this post because I believe a people should forge their own path. But what I don’t want is for a group such as the GNLF which has been very prone to violence over the years to gain enough control to feel legitimate enough to continue to forcefully push for their independence and the formation of Gorkhaland. Not all the occurrences are historic either. There are some very recent examples of GNLF incited and instigated violence in and out of the regions in India where they’re initially from as a people.

My long-term worry is that the Gorkha will use their newfound autonomy to build a decent governing style over the next five or so years and gain legitimacy, only to then squander that legitimacy on seeking independence instead of a wider acknowledgement of their people and more equal rights and opportunities. This is however, exactly what I see happening through other groups who are following in the GNLF template from Darjeeling.

With the rapidly increasing prices in production in multiple regions it becomes more and more likely we’ll see the cost to consumers increase rapidly as well. This activity could very well stunt the loose leaf product economic growth compared to its bagged or bottled counterparts. Something which may work out for the workers, but not for the grower/producers or the worldwide consumers.

While workers in Darjeeling have seen a relative doubling of their wages in the past few months a new group in Siliguri is looking to go even higher. Pushing cost per day to roughly 250 INR versus the 67 INR that group is making now. Of course, these labor disputes are natural, and having them occur during the production season gives the workers more leverage than if they struck during the Winter season.

My hope is for modern negotiation tactics and political processes to step in and mitigate certain risks of groups returning to past violent tendencies. If they don’t, disruptions in tea production are inevitable, the larger fear of violence and turmoil in northeastern Indian tea growing regions is likely to continue and with it concerns over diminishing quality due to lack of care over extended periods of time.

This story is original content and is an opinion held by me and does not reflect general sentiment in the growing regions at the time of publishing.