The hand that held two leaves and a bud is trying out a pair of shears in the gardens of Darjeeling — possibly for the first time in 165 years.
The steel blades are being wielded to pluck tealeaves to limit the impact of absenteeism. The shears, typically used to cut roses, are also helping to reduce the interval between plucking cycles, which is crucial to maintaining the flavour of the Darjeeling Tea.
But the use of hands also plays a role in the flavour — the human touch ensures that the perfect combination of two leaves and a bud is plucked, whereas machines can tear off additional leaves if not done expertly.
The industry has been forced to make a choice that exacts the least qualitative price.
The gradual switch from hands to shears for plucking leaves has been prompted by the dwindling number of garden workers. The workforce has almost halved in the past few years because of low wages, better opportunities elsewhere and lack of interest among the aspirational younger generation.
The Darjeeling Tea industry now employs 55,000 permanent workers and 15,000 temporary labourers.
Manpower compulsions have prompted the shift. But there is a feeling in the hills that the shears could mark the beginning of the end of a tradition — exemplified by the Darjeeling Tea logo of a woman holding two leaves and a bud — that has lived on for 165 years.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said the manager of a tea garden in Darjeeling. “With absenteeism at such a high, we had to experiment with new ideas and the shears are working fine,” he added.
Tealeaves need to be plucked in cycles of seven to eight days. But with the number of workers decreasing, the gap between the cycles had increased to 10 to 12 days, which was affecting the quality of the brew.
By using shears, planters have managed to bring down the gap to around eight days. Tea is produced within a day of plucking, and any delay affects quality.
Hand-plucking of leaves gives Darjeeling Tea its unique flavour, but the industry has been left with little choice as the use of shears is a lesser evil than an increased gap between plucking.
“If we are to only concentrate on hand-plucking and keep the gap between rounds at 12 days, the quality of the tea will deteriorate,” the manager said. “It is better to use shears and get quality leaves within seven to eight days,” he added.
The gardens have not shifted entirely to shears. “It depends on the workforce available. Now, it is a mix of hand-plucking and shears,” the manager said.
According to the manager, there has not been any noticeable change in quality because of the use of shears. “Even in hand plucking, leaf grade accounts for 50-55 per cent of the produce, while the rest are broken and fanning grade,” he said.
Garden workers said the two-leaves-and-a-bud grade can be segregated from the other leaves by using fans. “The wind usually blows away the other leaves,” said a worker.
The shears being used in the hills are manually used. Mechanised plucking machines are difficult to use on hilly terrain.
Workers said the shears had increased productivity. “We can cover more area now. It is not too difficult to move around with this instrument,” said a worker.