The royals at Buckingham Palace can't do without it on any morning, nor can the Sultan of Brunei and billionaires in Japan. Their morning cuppa is made of premium tea which comes from Makaibari, a garden nestled in the mist-kissed hills of Kurseong in North Bengal. But Makaibari's claim to fame is not just that its produce fetches the highest prices in the world—the oldest tea garden in the subcontinent, it was also the first to go organic, a pioneering experiment that attracts researchers from all over the world.
Though Makaibari Tea Estate is spread over 1,670 acres, tea is grown only on 550 acres, while the rest is covered with sub-tropical forest that is not only vital to the garden's bio-dynamic sustenance, but is also home to over 450 species of birds and animals. Chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides haven't been used in the garden for decades. It is also unique in being a tea garden where the labourers are genuine stakeholders and share a part of the enviable profits.
Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, Makaibari's proud owner, says his premium tea established a record two years ago when it fetched the highest price at an auction—Rs 18,000 a kilo. But that's nothing compared to the prices he gets through private sales—Banerjee sells his finest variety, Silver Tips Imperial (sun-dried and 'handcrafted'), to the Sultan of Brunei for Rs 2.5 lakh a kilo, while his green tea sells in Japan for nearly Rs 4 lakh a kilo. The British royals pay about Rs 2 lakh for a kilo of Silver Tips Imperial, a name that has been copyrighted by Banerjee.
Banerjee, a fourth-generation planter—his great-grandfather G.C. Banerjee purchased the garden from Captain Samler, a British army deserter who established the garden in 1859—says Makaibari's decades of harmonious coexistence with mother nature has led to the evolution of a new insect (he says it is the only such evolution in recorded history) that he has named Tea Deva. "When life forms are becoming extinct all over the world, the fact that this unique insect (which looks like a tea leaf) has evolved here is nothing short of a miracle," Banerjee told Outlook. The Tea Deva, which feeds on insects that harm tea leaves, has attracted the attention of entomologists worldwide.
Makaibari's journey down the organic path started in 1954 when Banerjee's father noticed the erosion of topsoil from the slopes on which the tea bushes grew. "He immediately started creating grass banks—one acre of it for every ten acres of tea bushes—from which the grass would be cut at regular intervals and laid on the earth between and under the bushes. This mulching process preserved the topsoil, stymied the growth of weeds, retained soil moisture and when the cut grass decayed, nourished the soil," recalled Banerjee.
But that was just the beginning. Banerjee then tried to persuade his father to stop using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. His organic experiment began on a three-acre, isolated patch of the estate: "I got together a dozen workers and every night for more than three months, we stole cow dung to apply in the area and used crushed neem leaves as pesticides. When the plucking season arrived, I had the leaves from this patch plucked and processed separately. During the tea tasting sessions, every time my dad would taste this tea, he would say it was excellent. He finally agreed to let the whole garden go organic," says Banerjee.
The tea bushes are also interspersed with neem trees, leguminous shade trees and shrubs like crotolaria, indigo ferrateysmani and felminigia, and fruit trees like jamun. Each serves a purpose—the roots of the leguminous trees give out nitrogen that nourishes the soil. The fruit-bearing trees attract birds that also feed on insects that can harm the plants.
Banerjee, a brown sahib to the hilt with a clipped British accent, springs to life when he steps outside his modest office, whose walls are covered with certificates and accolades from all over the world. Dressed in khaki jacket, hiking boots, breeches and a planter's hat, he treks jauntily through the steep slopes of Makaibari. After his daily inspection, he rides one of his thoroughbred horses back to the bungalow.
He purchases all the fertiliser he uses—cow dung compost—from his workers. He distributed 1,200 cows among his 600-odd workers and that was also his way of empowering the women, who earn by selling the milk. The cow dung also fuels biogas plants, so that the women no longer have to waste time going to the forests to collect firewood. Banerjee has initiated other schemes to augment the workers' earnings. He employed Om Chetri, a worker, to run a small retail shop just outside the tea factory. "I get a salary and 18 per cent of the sale proceeds," said Chetri. That's quite a sum—during the tourist season, sales can be as high as Rs 12,000 a day. He has also started a successful eco-tourism venture run wholly by the workers—tourists are put up at cottages in the workers' villages, and the workers get to keep all the earnings.
Bonuses for the workers are much above industry standards. They also get a share of the profits. "In about ten years' time, I want to parcel out the entire tea garden area (except the forests) to the workers. After all, they're the rightful owners of this land since they've worked on it for generations. I'll purchase the tea leaves and run the factory," said Banerjee. Clearly, Makaibari hasn't yet completed its journey in scoring 'firsts' and establishing benchmarks.
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