My family has been owning and managing Darjeeling tea gardens for four generations now. And Selim Hill Tea Garden, in Darjeeling, has been with our family for three decades. However, when the pandemic hit last year, like many other tea gardens in Darjeeling, Selim Hill too was brought down to its very knees.
Darjeeling’s Tea Estates evoke a romance, legacy and history that fascinates and continues to thrill, but beneath that veneer lies a dark truth about the impact that climate change, socio-political turmoil, a declining export market, and exploitative middleman, have had over the course of the last decade, on Darjeeling’s tea estates and its local communities. However, the lockdown was the final straw. Unable to sustain further losses, my family was on the verge of selling off Selim Hill Tea Garden as well.
Selim Hill is located near Kurseong, and spans over a 1,000 acres. Half of this lies under dense forest cover, which counts amongst its inhabitants, hornbills, peacocks, elephants, leopards, myriad different kinds of spiders, and various varieties of snakes. It is rich in avifauna and a bedlam of trees. I have always had a deep personal connection with the garden, and it was important for me that Selim Hill did not fall into the wrong hands, given the large amount of interest it was garnering among ‘development’ minded realtors. And so, I asked my family for some time, and decided to understand the true nature of the problem that was facing the estate.
Exactly one year ago, when the lockdown ended, I made my first road trip from Calcutta to Darjeeling with my parents, and my brother. We drove for 16 hours covering over 600 miles and reached Selim Hill. If the garden was to be revived, we realised that it was important to actually live at the estate itself. And so, over the course of the last one year, we decided to spend every alternate week at Selim Hill, doing the same arduous road journey, back and forth, each time, so as to avoid the Covid bug.
The more I got involved, the more I realised that the true nature of the problem went far beyond merely the pandemic. If Selim Hill or any Darjeeling tea estate was to survive, it needed to have a large-scale paradigm shift in method, mindset, and marketing approach. When I told my friends, who also share an intimate bond with the estate, about its potential sale, they decided to help out in coming up with a solution. Soon, Ishaan, a high school friend, who also has an intimate connection with Selim Hill, began joining us on our trips, and together, we started delving deeper into the dilemma that faced us: If Darjeeling makes the best teas in the world, how is it that these tea gardens are still not able to make any profits?
After trekking to each and every part of the tea estate, many a tea tasting session, extensive reading, research, and conversation with veterans from the trade, and under the mentorship of Rajah Banerjee, we finally realised what the main issues facing us were.
First, Darjeeling Tea was beholden to the exploitative export market. Darjeeling has to produce teas to the specification of international clients, which not only leads to crop loss, but is also usually at a pittance. Second, Darjeeling produces teas in four seasonal “flushes” or harvests, but the tea gardens are only able to sell their First and Second Flush teas. They are unable to find a customer for their monsoon and autumn flush teas. However, there was no reason for such a hierarchy of harvests to exist in Darjeeling tea. Each of the four seasons produces a different kind of tea, each with its own liquoring, aroma, flavour profile, and story. Each had its own legend and together they encapsulated the romance of Darjeeling.
Our solution was rather simple— why don’t we create a subscription system, whereby the customer can book at the beginning of the year, their annual supply of seasonal teas from Selim Hill, and we would dispatch it every quarter, as and when its prepared. This way, we would be able to offer the freshest, seasonal teas, directly from the farm to the customers. And since the customer would be committing to purchasing all four flushes at the beginning of the year, we could offer it for a very affordable sum of Rs. 2,100, thereby benefitting both the customer, as well as the tea garden. Therefore, no longer would Selim Hill have to be dependent on the export market.
While we thought that we had chanced upon a simple, but elegant solution, every person from the tea industry that we spoke to thought that we were fools. We were constantly reminded that no tea estate would agree to such a model. And yet, not only my family, but Rajah also saw the value in the model we had created. And so we decided to move ahead.
Darjeeling is the only region in the world, where the unique forces of nature come together to offer the magical spectacle of the same tea bushes preparing 4 different kinds of teas through the year, as the seasons change. This is something that must be celebrated, understood and enjoyed. But our mission involves more than just celebrating this magic, and bringing it to an Indian audience. We wanted to work towards a truly holistic revival of the tea estate, and so, along with Rajah, we also decided to create The Selim Hill Collective— an organisation that works towards community welfare, wildlife conservation and the ambitious task of reimagining the space of the tea garden itself. Dorje is currently working with the Selim Hill Collective, under the chairmanship of Rajah, on two main projects— a large-scale reforestation campaign that has been launched in the name of our subscribers, and secondly, through a conversation series titled ECHOES, we are trying to spread awareness about the decline of Darjeeling and the urgent need for its revival.
Both Dorje, and the Selim Hill Collective are based out of the newly renovated and rechristened Second Chance House at the estate. We renovated the heritage structure, which was originally built in 1871, over the course of the year, preventing any damage to the original building. My mother decided to rename the house to Second Chance, as a symbol for our attempt to bring about a Darjeeling Tea renaissance in India, and thereby help rejuvenate the local community of the tea estate.
Two weeks ago, we made our 20th trip ever since our first, last year. We are yet again in a lockdown, and Selim Hill is on its last leg. We strongly believe that Dorje’s subscription model can not only be a beacon of hope for Selim Hill but also a torchbearer for other tea gardens in Darjeeling as well. Dorje’s mission is to work towards a sustainable, and inclusive revival of Darjeeling.
Ishaan, who used to be a former Investment Banker, and I, who used to work at a think tank in Delhi, have since quit out jobs to work on this full time.
We hope that you will subscribe to our unique plans, become a supporter of Selim Hill and the activities of the Collective, and in the process, fall in love with this place that has captured the hearts of so many of us.
Do follow our social media pages- we hope to bring to you stories, tales, and legends, about the garden, its community, and the rich biodiversity that nurtures your teas!