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Rajah Banerjee inspects his tea plants on Makaibari Tea Estate. (Photo by Aroon Thaewchatturat)
Tea Leaves

Darjeeling's tea king wants an organic agricultural revolution

Pioneer points the way to cooperative future for India's farming

Life is chaos; the world is chaos, according to Rajah Banerjee. "The only constant is change. What are we doing here and where are we going? We need to answer these questions to be free, to find our way."

This is hardly the way one might expect a Darjeeling tea-plantation owner to introduce himself. Banerjee, 70, took over his father's Makaibari Tea Estate in 1970, creating what has been described as the world's most expensive tea: It retailed for $1,850 per kilogram in 2014.

I met Banerjee in 2004, having traveled into the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal to find the man who was revolutionizing the tea industry and making a profit. He has always been a maverick. He would ride horseback through his plantation, clad in a planter's uniform, encouraging his workers. When an employee threatened to shoot a guard outside his office, he talked the assailant down.

Under Banerjee, Makaibari shunned fertilizers and pesticides. He focused on permaculture, mulching and keeping a third of his land forested -- to protect against soil erosion and depletion, while offering a home to leopards and other wildlife. Since 1988, Makaibari has been producing only organic tea, the first plantation to do so in Darjeeling.

But in recent years the industry has lurched between crises. From 2008 to 2016, the region's commercial tea output dropped from 11.5 million kilograms of tea leaves to just 8.1 million kilograms. The sector's problems are twofold, according to Banerjee. "The plantation owners are absentee landlords. They continue the British style of management from Kolkata, controlling vast tracts of land and exploiting huge numbers of people without investing anything for 30 years."

Then in recent years, the Gurkhas, Darjeeling's ethnic majority, began agitating -- often violently -- for separate statehood. "The region was frequently closed down and the industry went into complete starvation," he recalled.

Banerjee had special plans for Makaibari: He wanted to pass it to his female workers. He also introduced a homestay program for employees to develop new income sources and provided education for children. But following a major health scare in 2014 and lacking a suitable heir, he had to make a drastic decision.

"The ladies, due to the political turmoil, were not ready to take over the entire tea garden. So I had to sell most of the shares to a consortium, the Luxmi Group, a Kolkata-based corporation," he explained. Then, in March 2017, Banerjee's ancestral home burned down, destroying four generations of memories and family heirlooms.

"This was a sign to move on, to expand on my philosophy elsewhere," he said. "The industry is no longer sustainable. What it needs is partnership, not ownership." Technology, in Banerjee's view, is the key. "Youngsters are connected nowadays. They have dreams and no longer want to toil all day for a pittance. The only way to bring them on board is as partners. And that's not happening."

I expressed nostalgia for the times we hiked through Makaibari, finding leopards' paw prints and watching workers on the emerald-green terraces. But the "King of Darjeeling tea" has abdicated. "I realized I was a tree planter. It's what made Makaibari special. I can replicate this strategy anywhere," he said. Following this credo, Banerjee in March decided to give away his remaining 12% share of the estate to his workers. His mission now is rooted in his belief that Indian agriculture urgently needs a revolution. "There are 800 million farmers [in India], half of them women, all of them marginalized. No one in the political sphere cares about them. I want to help especially women to become grass-roots activists."

Banerjee's new agricultural venture, Rimpocha, aims to show farmers they can get a return on their investment in six years if they go organic. With significant resistance to corporations such as U.S. multinational Monsanto, which some critics blame for fueling the crippling debt load among farmers, and issues such as climate change to tackle, Banerjee says a true "green revolution" is overdue.

"With a holistic approach that incorporates sound farming practices, consideration for the environment and better politics, India could be the world's organic food bowl. That's why I am moving beyond tea into other products such as rice, lentils and dried fruits."

Banerjee has no thoughts of retirement. "India is in need of harmony, and the country's fundamentalist forces need to be opposed. Agriculture is a key to that. Healthy soil produces healthy mankind. It's simple, really."

Tom Vater is a Bangkok-based journalist and writer.

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