Interview of www.indiateaportal.com on sept 13, 2005 with Dr. N.G. Hazra, Ex-Project Director of Tea Board, DTRDC

Q: Darjeeling tea has tremendous acceptance world side; taking this brand value of “Darjeeling tea" into consideration, please tell us about the major thrust areas of Darjeeling Tea Research and Development Centre

Hajra: The major thrust areas of research are

  • Evolving low cost/ high production technologies and genetically superior planting materials.
  • Hybridization and clonal selection.
  • Break inter-flush, winter dormancy.
  • Micropopagation of elite clones.
  • Molecular approaches for productivity improvement.
  • Study on the effects of various environmental constraints on growth and yield.
  • Establishment of a gene bank.
  • Investigation of the biogenetic pathways leading to the formation of chemicals responsible for flavour and quality during processing and manufacture of green leaves.
  • Effect of the enzyme RUBISCO in tea cultivars.
  • Integrated weed management.
  • Discriminatory fertilizer recommendation and refinement of fertilizer recommendation.
  • Map of soil to show heavy metals such as zinc, copper etc.
  • Study nitrate nitrogen contamination of the soil and its consequent contamination of water.
  • Economic control of blister blight disease.
  • Identify and development of bio-control agents and evaluate their utility in integrated pest and disease managements.
  • Monitor the level of pesticide in the end product.
  • Transfer of technology by the use of modern extension tools such as on-farm evaluation, front-line demonstration, mass communication media (audio-visual aids and extension literature), and the training of supervisors and growers.

Q: What are the major research achievements of your organization?

Hajra: The major achievements are:

  • The traditional method of replanting tea by manual uprooting of old tea bushes is expensive and promotes soil erosion. This research centre has formulated recommendations as an alternative to the traditional method which would preserve the top soil and involve less expense.
  • Tea plants takes as much as 7-8 years to come into full bearing in Darjeeling hills. Evaluation of different methods of training of young plants has been done and pegging was found to be most advantageous in bringing up young plants.
  • The performance of some clones released for Darjeeling gardens was re-evaluated in respect of growth, yield, quality, pests and drought tolerant. The comparative performance had indicated superiority of the clone Bannockburn 157 (B157) for large scale commercial cultivation. Other clones which could be used in order of priority are Phoobsering 312 (P312), Tukdah 78 (T78) and Tukdah 383 (T383).
  • Gas exchange property of Darjeeling tea has been studied in depth.
  • The conventional technique of vegetative propagation has been standardized.
  • Plucking intervals in respect of quality and yield has been standardized.
  • A soil-fertility status viz. N, P & K map of Darjeeling tea growing soils has been published and map of soil to show heavy metal viz. zinc has been released.
  • Different sources of sulphur fertilizer have been examined and their efficacy in rectifying the deficiency of this mineral has also been established.
  • X-ray diffraction studies of the soils of quality and non-quality sections of Darjeeling tea gardens have been made. The genesis of the soils of this area has also been outlined on the basis of detailed morphological, physico-chemical and mineralogical analysis.
  • Pesticide residue data has been generated and it was revealed that the application of different conventional inorganic pesticides at recommended doses did not leave any residue beyond the permissible limits of various Asian and European countries.
  • An integrated pest management package has been developed in order to address pest problems.
  • Blending of leaf of clones and commercial jats, and the appropriate proportion to be used during manufacture has been standardized.

Q: What are the major agro-climatic and environmental factors in Darjeeling hills that sustain the inherent Darjeeling tea aroma in the Darjeeling tea?

Hajra: The rare flavour is a result of combination of plant genes, temperatures, soil chemistry, elevations and precipitation unique to the Darjeeling hills.

Q: What are the Different flavours associated with Darjeeling Tea?

Hajra: “Muscatel” flavour.

Q: It is reported that certain regions of Nepal are also claiming that they are producing Darjeeling grade teas. What is your viewpoint in this regard?

Hajra: Tea producers of neighbouring Nepal are producing similar looking Nepali tea. The combination of natural factors stated earlier that gives Darjeeling tea its unique distinction is not found anywhere else in the world. Hence, this finest and most delicately flavoured of all teas has acquired the reputation among the consumers over the years. The Tea Board has already launched a Darjeeling logo, which authenticates its origin, and denotes that it contains 100 percent Darjeeling tea. Since tea from other markets is traded as 'Darjeeling tea,' the Tea Board has applied for a geo-national registration of 'Darjeeling tea' to promote it is as a brand in the international markets.

Q: Organic tea is another area of extreme importance in the current scenario. What is the extent of Organic tea estates in Darjeeling hills?

Hajra: With the growing consumer awareness regarding food safety, health and environmental issues, organic tea (a value added product) sector has been emerging as an attractive area for the exporters of Darjeeling tea. Organic tea producers could seize the emerging opportunity of the niche world market. In India, the cultivation of organic tea started in Darjeeling and spread to the twenty tea estates and sections of some tea gardens in the hills. The organic tea cultivated area is around 4000 ha in Darjeeling hills.

Q: What are the health benefits of Darjeeling tea?

Hajra: Tea has always come with a positive health message ever since the Chinese started drinking tea. Research shows tea has many medicinal values, such as antibacterial, antiviral, anticariogenic and anticarcinogenic properties. Notwithstanding, tea and its polyphenols are emerging to be the best alternative for preventing cardiovascular and age related diseases. Tea should be the beverage of choice in hospitals, which might facilitate recovery of the patients. Tea is a great drink for modern lives. One thing is for sure though: regardless of how it drinks, green, black, with milk, lemon, sugar, spice – is still a best bet.

Q: In comparison to the normal tea bushes, the yield level of Darjeeling tea bushes is significantly low. What are the causes for the same? Since there is great demand for Darjeeling tea worldwide and also production being location specific, what are steps taken to increase the yield?

Hajra: More than 50% of the tea in Darjeeling is China and China hybrid type whose shoots are very small. About 12,500 shoots of two leaves and a bud from these bushes make one kilogram of tea, whereas a broad leaf Assam jat can produce the equivalent quantities of tea with less than half of shoots. Much smaller shoots or much lighter weight of the shoots due to which a large number of shoots is to be required to take one kg of Darjeeling tea. However, the average processed Darjeeling tea yield is 500 kg ha-1 which is well below the all India average of 2000 kg ha-1. In Darjeeling, more than 80 percent land area under tea nurtures bushes, which are over 50 years old. Apart from the old age of the plants and the high rate of vacancy, elevation, the hills offer various types of stress conditions, such as low temperature, low soil moisture in winter, most of the areas remaining foggy during major part of the year; high humidity; low levels of solar radiation; the sloping terrain, which are likely to affect growth and yield of tea significantly.

To increase yield, the tea bushes are to be rehabilitated by both short and long term methods. In the short term, tea estates of Darjeeling should undertake rejuvenation and pruning of the tea plantations with inter-planting at the rate of approximately 3 to 5 percent of their total tea bearing area. This will enable the tea estates to get the returns much earlier (within 4 to 5 years from the time of operation) than uprooting and replanting. In the long term, the tea estates should uproot and replant bushes with appropriate clones at the rate of approximately 2.5 percent of its total area so that in 40 years their tea areas will be completely renovated.

As tea is cultivated on steep slopes in the hills, soil erosion has been a major problem. It has been estimated that proper soil conservation in Darjeeling hills will result in a 20 percent increase in crop yield. To deal with the problem certain established soil conservation measures should be undertaken in tandem with need of the specific area.

Q: What are the major challenges in-front of Darjeeling tea?

Hajra: Despite increase yield and retention of quality, the other challenges are:

  • The industry should adopt advance management practices/ new available technologies and cost of production should be brought down.
  • Increasing the worker productivity through labour reforms.
  • Increasing the domestic consumption.
  • Tea as a beverage is also facing stiff competition from the soft drink market. This threat can be met to a certain extent by introducing value added products in direct competition to the soft drinks. In Darjeeling, every garden has its own specialty and could offer a range of at least 65 exciting flavours from 65 functioning gardens. It is very much important to chalk out the target consumers, their taste preferences and then develop product category. However, retailers are currently started asking for tea by the ‘estate name’ and ‘flush’ rather than by origin.
  • The industry must plan for the quality and safety standards that are likely to be more demanding in the years to come. In a highly competitive world market we need to be not only prepared to ensure such safety standards, but also to guard against any deficiencies being pointed out to act as a non-tariff barrier. A step further in this direction is to integrate the concept of HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point). This system provides for analyzing the hazards that are likely to occur at the various stages of tea growing, manufacturing and marketing and take appropriate corrective action so as to ensure that the final product reaches the consumers as a safe item.

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