Tea everywhere but not a decent drop to drink

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The Independent Online

If there is one thing almost impossible to find in teetotal Pakistan it is a decent cup of tea. Not that tea isn't drunk here. In a country where alcohol is banned, Pakistanis brew nearly 150 million kilograms a year. The problem is the quality.

If there is one thing almost impossible to find in teetotal Pakistan it is a decent cup of tea. Not that tea isn't drunk here. In a country where alcohol is banned, Pakistanis brew nearly 150 million kilograms a year. The problem is the quality.

After Partition in 1947, which left all the Raj plantations in India, and Bangladeshi independence in 1971, Pakistan now has to import every single tea-leaf.

No great hardship, you might think, when the fragrant and productive hills of Darjeeling and Assam are right next door. But no. Such is the bitterness of the 50-year feud with its neighbour that Pakistan buys its tea from Kenya, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burundi, anywhere except India.

Manzoor Ahmed Yusufi, a foreign trade official in the Ministry of Commerce, says so little is imported from India that it doesn't rank among Pakistan's top 50 trading partners. "Trade with India could be easy in terms of distance and we know we would like many of each other's products," he says. "But we don't have good relations, so it doesn't happen."

Pakistan spends £125m of its precious foreign exchange on importing tea, and the results are mixed, in more ways than one. In Karachi, the tea is blended into combinations potent enough to withstand vigorous boiling along with three times as much sugar. The outcome is a treacly-brown, bitter brew, slopped out in the men-only tea stalls of the bazaars and to steely-eyed truckers on the Grand Trunk Road.

As with most commodities in Pakistan, there are alternative sources. Nearly 25 million kilograms of contraband tea arrives in Pakistan's markets every year, most via Afghanistan. But the alluring black pyramids on display are rumoured to be plumped up with recycled tea, burnt wheat husks and even dried blood.

The absurdity of the neighbourly trade impasse has not been lost on the tea industry. But, somehow, politics always gets in the way of improving the national cuppa.

One Indian trade delegation had the misfortune to land in Pakistan on the day India tested its nuclear bomb in May 1998. Another Indian tea visit last week coincided with Pakistan's Kashmir Solidarity day, when anti-Indian vitriol was at its nastiest.

With no foreseeable change in cross-border trade, Pakistan is now trying to do for the teabag what it claimed to do with the nuclear bomb: produce its own. Despite having far from ideal soil or climate, a home-grown tea plantation is being carefully nurtured in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Waist-high amid 33 acres of neatly pruned tea bushes, Dr Rauf Khan, director of the National Tea Research Institute, surveys his crop with pride. "Our tea has good aromatic components and caffeine levels," he says. "And I like the taste."

A processing plant to produce a ton of black tea a day is being built. The patriotic pouring of the first cup of Pakistani tea is being trumpeted as a VIP event in April.

There is even foreign interest in Pakistan's tea potential. Just along the valley the Lever Brothers multinational has persuaded 120 sceptical local farmers to grow tea. Lever Brothers believes that Pakistan could eventually produce a yield similar to Sri Lanka. But they are careful to keep patriotic fervour off the boil.

"You hear the government saying it will produce the number one or number two tea in the world," says area manager Kurshid Lodhi. "But it will still be a tea for blending."

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