Tea pesticide flavoured. Darjeeling’s famous brew, laced with pesticides, poses a threat to public health
Your morning cup of Darjeeling tea could be lemon or honey flavoured. It could also be pesticide flavoured. That is because the tea estates in Darjeeling continue to use large amounts of pesticides to increase production. In turn, they perpetuate potential health hazards for the estate workers and the consumers, besides killing their own exports.
Annual production of tea was once as high as 15 million kg. A meagre portion of the overall produce from the country, yet a renowned product. The label ‘Darjeeling tea’ carried within India and abroad, as advertisers like to call it, a quality tag. But in 1992-93, Germany refused to import consignments found laden with the pesticide Tetradifon, used against spider mite larvae, exceeding the permitted maximum residue limit. And it was laden not laced. One kg of tested sample from the consignment contained 240 microgramme of Tetradifon, 24 times above the acceptable limit. A few tea estates went organic. But most continue to use pesticides. Harish C Mukhia, a consultant for the Specialised Agricultural and Industrial Consultancy on Tea and manager for six organic tea gardens, says, “Plenty of herbicides and pesticides are used on steep slopes to control weeds and pests. This greatly degrades the soil, leaving it barren.”
The pesticide trap It is a vicious cycle. The tea bushes have grown old. ” About 60 per cent of the bushes are as old as 100 years or even more,” says Madan Tamang, owner of an organic tea estate bordering eastern Nepal and Darjeeling. He adds, “No systematic and steady uprooting and replanting programme has been undertaken in the last 50 years.” The innate immunity of the bushes has reduced. More and more pesticides have to be used to maintain the yield. Ganesh Lama, an old hand at the Rungneet Tea estate in Darjeeling, says, “We spray pesticides for higher production. We are aware of the dangers of pesticides, but have no choice, we need to produce a good quantity,” he adds. Ramesh Chandra Gautam, senior scientist in the division of agronomy at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, New Delhi, says, “Overuse of pesticides has led to pests becoming immune.”
But, Ranen Dutta, secretary Darjeeling Planters’ Association, wants everyone to believe differently. “The whole issue of converting to organic farming is just a fad and I am not interested in fads.” He, in other words, doesn’t care about what the consumer ends up sipping, tea or pesticide laced water. Or about the health of the 50,000 workers in the tea gardens of Darjeeling.
Information on the possible health hazards caused by exposure to pesticides is now in public domain. They are known to cause skin and allergic reactions, common ailments among the tea garden labourers. Other worse illnesses include loss of memory, cancer, lung and kidney damage and enzyme imbalance.
Keshap Pradhan, a journalist with The Telegraph, based in Siliguri, has this to say about a particular tea estate producing the world’s costliest tea, “It is obvious their tea is replete with herbicides because the workers are not allowed to eat with their bare hands.” The tea produced in the garden was sold at Rs 13,001 per kg in 1999. Wonder how much they have spent on their own workers. With workers drinking water flowing down from the pesticide sprayed hills, questions about the link between the many ailments prevalent in the area and the pesticides sprayed fly thick in Darjeeling.
Plenty of physical deformities have been observed among children in many tea estates. “There are many cases of shrinking limbs, big bellies and very big joints among the tea estate labourers,” says Nar Shankar Rai consultant to World Wide Fund for Nature, India, There are many cases of gastrointestinal diseases, pulmonary disorders and suicides cases among the tea workers as well.
One of the most commonly used pesticides in the gardens of Darjeeling is monocrotophos. According to S B Lall, additional professor at the National Poisons Information Centre under the department of Pharmacology in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, “Monocrotophos is one of the most dangerous pesticides.” It comes under the hazardous and toxic chemicals list of the Union ministry of environment and forests.
No one has yet taken a deeper look into the pattern of diseases and the link with the overuse of pesticides in Darjeeling. Till somebody does, it’s the consumers who will suffer.
Reported by Lian Chawii from Darjeeling