The premium leaves of Darjeeling

Though Darjeeling Tea was the first product to be awarded GI tag in India after the passage of Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act in 1999, Tea Board had to fight long battles to establish its geographical uniqueness

The premium leaves of Darjeeling

The gardens are brushed by thick clouds and cool mountain air and washed by pure mountain rain. The rainfall on the leaves sings a song of green and the earth gives up its warm breath. Darjeeling Tea yields its highly sought subtle fragrance only in this climate. And at daybreak, when the birds begin their morning songs, the sun's rays transform the mist into dew pearls on the leaves.

The sun traces its path across the heavens leisurely. Stars that are unreachable suddenly seem ready to be touched. The hum of nocturnal life which characterizes the mountains sings a melody that has to be felt rather than heard. A cool rustling breeze dances across the land. The earth is as majestic as the tea that is born there."

— From the website of The Tea Board of India

For the last two centuries, Darjeeling has been known not just for the best views of Kanchenjunga but also for the exquisite bouquet of the finest quality 'golden flowering orange pekoe leaf'. Much like 'champagne' (the sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France), the crystal in Bohemia, and the whiskey in Scotland, the product had a very clear identification with its geography.

The association of a region with a product received the first formal recognition in 1883 at the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Trademarks, Designs, Utility models, Service marks, Trade names and Geographical indications. This was followed by the Madrid Agreement on the Repression of False or Deceptive Indications of Source on Goods in 1891, and the Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origin and their International Registration in 1958 (Lisbon Agreement). Finally, in the TRIPS Agreement, a special section on GIs was incorporated under Article 22.1 which defined GIs as "indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member (of the World Trade Organisation), or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin".

After India joined the WTO in 1994, the need for a legislation on this subject was felt, and this led to the passage of the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999. Products registered with the GI tag got legal protection and exclusivity with regard to the geographical origin. As per a UNCTAD study, it helped in boosting the products' demand, thereby helping the producers of the goods. The GI tag is valid for ten years and can be renewed further for ten years. In India, GI tags are granted to agricultural goods, natural goods, handicrafts, and industrial goods. Darjeeling Tea was the first product in India to be awarded the GI tag in 2004-05. The initiative was taken by the Tea Board of India which also applied for, and obtained the exclusive use of the name and logo of Darjeeling tea as Certification Trade Mark in the United Kingdom and the United States. The logo of Darjeeling tea was also registered as a collective mark in Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia, Egypt, and Lebanon, and as a trademark in Russia and Japan. However, registering the name was not enough. Wherever and whenever nay instance of misuse was reported, Tea Board initiated legal action and won cases in Japan, France, Russia, Norway, the United States, Germany, Israel, and Sri Lanka. It must be placed on record that without adequate legal protection it would be difficult to prevent the misappropriation of Darjeeling Tea's identity.

At this juncture, it must be clarified that all tea produced in Darjeeling district is not entitled to be classified as Darjeeling tea. Only the tea that is cultivated, grown and processed in the Sadar Subdivision, and the hilly areas of Kalimpong, Kurseong and Siliguri Subdivisions have the right to use the logo and style of Darjeeling tea. Teas coming from this region have a particular and unmistakable flavour, and muscatel aroma that yields a light, golden liquor with its unique flavour. While earlier almost all gardens were producing only the conventional orthodox (black) teas, of late, many gardens have started the production of green, oolong and white teas as well. These too have been covered under GIs.

Thus, tea gardens in the foothills and plains of Siliguri are excluded from this club which produces less than 10 million tonnes of the 1,300-1,400 million tonnes of tea produced in India. As against an average price of Rs 200 per kg for tea elsewhere, Darjeeling tea commands a three-time premium – fetching anywhere between six hundred to eight hundred rupees per kg on an average (2021)

Therefore, when you sip your Darjeeling Tea, remember that there has been a battle royale to protect its identity. And it is well worth it!

Views expressed are personal

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