Rajah Banerjee is the former owner of Makaibari Tea Estate, and pioneer of the organic movement in Darjeeling. He is currently serving as the Founding Chairman of The Selim Hill Collective. The following is the transcript of our conversation with him.
Sparsh Agarwal – The theme of this talk is “Darjeeling – A Second Chance.” But let me tell you a little bit about why it is so? The house that was built in 1871, was in shambles much like the state of Darjeeling now. After an entire year of working on it in 2020/21, we named the house Second Chance as a moniker for what we are trying to do. And so that brings me to my first question, Rajah-Is Darjeeling in decline? Does it need a second chance?
Rajah Banerjee– That’s an understatement. Darjeeling is keeling over. Everybody who was anybody has almost fled. People who were running it well want to sell out now. Why? There are five or six main points and I will try to distill the essence for you –
The first one – Archaic, colonial hierarchical management which should have gone with the British, but it still exists. Second – The indifferent and inept fertilisation plan post organic that has resulted in further crop decline and nobody knows where it will actually end. In the last 30 years, the crop has less than halfened. Third issue – There are not enough initiatives for women empowerment. They are still exploited. Fourth – Also the conditions prevalent in tea gardens are less than minimal. There is a lack of quality primary and secondary education, very poor medical facilities and total lack of basic essentials such as basic health and hygiene. There is hardly any water supply. Lastly – Complete inefffective use of technology. Unless we address and redress all these issues there will be a lot of pain for Darjeeling.
Sparsh Agarwal– Can you tell us about how important it is for owners to live in the tea estate? You mentioned that Absentee landlordism is an issue that affects the tea garden itself.
Rajah Banerjee– Darjeeling is spectacular. There is a diversity of flora and fauna which cannot be seen anywhere else in the world in such a small place. Tea is a surplus of this botanical diversity. Therefore each tea garden has its own unique character, flavour and quality.
Let us first understand the role of a manager. A manager has to motivate and inspire. To motivate and inspire you need to earn your respect. the colonial hierarchical system demands respect. So we need a makeover, a big change. How do we gain this respect? By walking the talk. So the new generation of managers must apply to this and they must be re-educated and the whole management structure should be geared up for the makeover management and that’s what the collective is going to do.
Sparsh Agarwal-Please take us through the impact of of climate change for the region of Darjeeling.
Rajah Banerjee – When I first joined tea in 1978, you could predict the weather definitely. Then came the reign of the communists and it became a free for all. Everybody cut up all the forests and planted a lot of tea. Whatever little balance you had with the permaculture situation was either grabbed or turned into tea. So, it became hopelessly monocultural. The moment this happened you lost the balance of the predator cycle. and climate started changing. Moreover there was a great influx of people from all over the place. Gorkhas were flung out of Bhutan, North East and they were all congregating here. This created a short fall of space and buildings started sprouting everywhere – all available space and particularly the greenery went for a toss. So there was unchecked urbanisation, land grabbing and knocking down the forest to build a shack.
Damming the Teesta has also added to that. Tampering of the Tibetan and Indian plates is going to prove quite dangerous. The free flowing Teesta, which is a glacier river has been turned into a stagnant pool with huge changes in aquatic life and a lot of stress to the Tibetan and Indian plates. Watch it, any disturbance to that will create major earthquakes. it is a siesmologically prone zone.
Climate change has played a big role on crop patterns. the first flush is never on time, the second flush is never on time and these are the two principal earners that stabilise the Darjeeling Tea Gardens. When you don’t want sunshine, you get elevated temperatures in the winter so the insect breeding situation goes out of hand with the attendant bird line that feeds on it. This has created havoc with the insect population going berserk particularly helopeltis, red spider and the attacks on tea. Going back to permaculture – It is not impossible to do. To do that we need everybody’s co operation from the ground up. How to work at it? That is another aspect that the Collective is thinking of.
Sparsh Agarwal – In light of the pandemic, how serious is the crisis compared to the 1970’s and what kind of solutions do we need. Please tell us more about the creation of a domestic market for Darjeeling tea.
Rajah Banerjee – Absolutely.
At Makaibari, I realised that 60 percent of my tea was post second flush. As a result I created a packet for the domestic market which did very well. I launched the Makaibari packet teas which knocked off all the other packet teas and became my barter or bargaining chip for the first and second flush vintages and the exoticas.
The Lopchu and Happy Valley tea packets were created by my grandfather and all of these were finely tweaked by me. All of these were done to capture the domestic market. All of this was done with the base point of marketing it in India.
Sparsh Agarwal – Would you say part of the solution for Darjeeling tea gardens is to be less beholden to international clients and all the different middlemen who are part of this chain and try to somehow get directly to the customer itself.
Rajah Banerjee – Yes, we have to use technology very cleverly and if you can ensure an education process of source of origin which the collective envisages and which you have already created with Dorje, pack it at the factory and use technology and reach to go out to the people that you are getting it from the source of origin at your doorstep.
The Selim Hill Collective and Dorje should be addressing, the economics, politics and the environment.
Sparsh Agarwal – Do you think the Darjeeling tea industry has made a mistake in not being able to market the story, originality and the uniqueness of each of Darjeeling’s four flushes to the customers?
Rajah Banerjee – Very little has been done to educate pepple about the source of origin. Let us call the flushes, vintages. Always remember that quality and quantity are never synonymous.Darjeeling tradition is an artefact. It is an artisanal industry. In fact it is not reallly an industry, it is a handicraft. To promote this handicraft in the right forum and in the right way is very critical. We must create and educate a process about source of origin and what it is all about.
Q (Ms. Aravinda Anantharaman): Despite all these challenges that you have enumerated and despite long years of struggle in darjeeling itself, what makes Darjeeling tea still relevant?
Rajah Banerjee– You arrive at three climatic zones which translates into a diversity of flora and fauna which cannot be found anywhere in the world. that is a special part of it and when you talk about the terroir of Darjeeling you are not only talking about soil, the genesis of the plant, the season of harvest, but you are talking about the fifth factor which the French sommaliers cannot even comprehend. It is an area specific microfiber. Insects, birds make the contribution. That is the magic of Darjeling.
Darjeeling is actually Dorje ling .
In 1835, there was only one monastery in Ghoom. Between the first and second flush (in April) there is a banjee period. It is during that time that monks would line up on the top of a hill in Ghoom. and look down across the plains and look at those clouds sweeping up the Bay of Bengal. The moment they could see the flashes of lightning, they knew they were in for a nor-wester hit or kalbaisakhi hit in four hours and they would start their chanting – “Dorje ling”, as the clouds approached, the chanting escalated, Four hours later the clouds would be right over them and you thought it was the end of the world with the purest lashing of this fierce summer nor-wester. The Brits could not pronounce the word Dorje-ling.
Dorje meaning thunder, ling means land – Land of the thunderbolt which was created during this phenomena. This shower which breaks the long winter drought transforms it magically after one gush from spring to summer releasing all the summer life forces. There’s a buzz there. It’s a magical period. Come along to experience it.
To hear the entire recording of the event, you can head over to our YouTube page.