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Dry season rings fear of loss
- Planters apprehend drop in first flush

Darjeeling, Feb. 12: A dry winter spell this year ' the first in a decade ' has set off the alarm in the Darjeeling tea industry.

With the winter rain failing to make it on time, the Darjeeling tea, which depends on nature for its muscatel flavour and exquisite bouquet, is set to lose a substantial percentage of its first flush, fear planters. The first flush, which usually starts from February end-early March, commands the highest price in the global market.

Rajeshwar Singh, the senior manager of Badamtam tea estate, said: 'There has been no rain since October end and if this continues, it could have a severe impact on the premium first flush.'

The Darjeeling industry produces 9,000 tonnes of tea annually. Of this, 80 per cent is exported. The crisis can be gauged from the fact that planters are already apprehending a loss of around 40 per cent of the first flush. The lack of rain could also have a severe impact on the quality of tea and the future of the industry, as this would mean that the overall production could nosedive this year. It could also delay the first flush.

Apart from the relatively dry November, the crucial 'Christmas rain' ' as the planters fondly call it ' too has skipped its date. 'If there is rain next week, we can at least salvage something,' said Singh.

Records show that Darjeeling usually receives around 13 mm of rainfall in November, 6 mm in December and 10 mm in January. In February, it is usually 21 mm. There have been instances when Darjeeling has received about 51mm rainfall in January, much to the delight of the planters.

Sandeep Mukherjee, secretary, Darjeeling Tea Association, summed up the planters' mood as gloomy. The weatherman's forecast has not helped much in lifting the spirit.

Subir Sarkar, the met-in-charge of North Bengal University's weather station, admitted that such dry spells during winters had not taken place in the last decade.

Usually, disturbances in the western sector brings rain to north Bengal every year. This time, it has been an exception. 'Right now, a western disturbance is developing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there has not been any rainfall here,' said Sarkar.

Though meteorologists have not been able to understand this 'puzzling' phenomenon, Sarkar maintained that the northward movement of the jet stream ' an air circulation that takes place 5 to 6 km above the earth's surface ' could be one of the reasons.

'At times, the jet stream is known to attract the wind system and this probably explains why the western disturbance is reaching the Tibetan Plateau and even Kashmir, but not moving across to this region,' said Sarkar.

Planters are, however, hoping that the western disturbance will return to its normal course and bring rainfall to the region in the coming week.

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