Patna: Come May and the litchi farmers of Bihar prepare to send the much awaited, sweet and juicy fruit off on its seasonal journey across the country – from the largest litchi growing state to impatient customers in metros and cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Lucknow.
This year, the flowering of trees indicated a bountiful harvest in terms of quantity as well as quality of fruit. There is only one problem, though. The nationwide lockdown, which has been imposed to prevent the spread of the COVID 19 infection, has created such a disruption in demand and supply that almost two-thirds of the state’s litchi production may remain unsold. The sorrows of Bihar’s 45000-odd litchi farmers, labourers and traders involved in the production, packaging and marketing of the fruit have doubled.
It is a bleak scenario. There is an obvious decline in demand. Further, the strict norm of social distancing will affect the most crucial phase of plucking and packaging the fruit (from early May to mid-May). Finally, there is still no green signal for unhindered transportation – both within and outside the state – to reach the markets.
The window of opportunity is slim – the litchi season lasts from about mid-May to mid-June.
The stakes involved are considerable. Bihar accounts for 40% of the national production. Litchi is grown largely in the districts of Muzaffarpur, the litchi bowl of India, Vaishali, East Champaran (all three districts falling under the Tirhut division) and Samastipur.
According to the Tirhut Agriculture Department, out of Bihar’s Rs 1,000-crore litchi business in 2019, Muzaffarpur’s contribution was Rs 400 crore. And, of the 32,000 hectares of land under litchi cultivation in Bihar, about 12,000 hectares happen to be in Muzaffarpur. Litchis produced in other districts are mostly collected in this district and dispatched to their destinations.
Almost 60% of litchi growers in Bihar are small farmers and their distress in the time of lockdown is quite apparent.
Take the case of Prabhu Sah, 48, a small farmer and small seasonal trader from Sandhadamber village in Muzaffarpur district. “We market the litchis ourselves locally so as to get a higher net profit, but the ongoing health emergency has upset all our plans and pushed us into deep financial distress.”
The disconsolate farmer added, “The fact that we were looking at a harvest that was better in quantity and quality has only made things worse. Our problems have multiplied.”
The lockdown has meant that for the fruit plucking workforce, mostly young and middle aged labourers, the seasonal work the orchards provide has been a non-starter.
Sanjit Kumar, a 21-year-old daily wage worker from Motipur block in Muzaffarpur district had just one thing to say: “The coronavirus scare has snatched away our livelihoods. As the flowering pattern was very encouraging this year, we were looking forward to earning well. Our work involves plucking fruit from the orchards and packing it into wooden boxes for transportation.”
Many daily wage workers this correspondent spoke to said the work in litchi orchards comes at the right time, when wheat harvesting is at its last stage, and it helps them supplement their earnings. Sarita Devi, 38, is one such agricultural labourer. She said, “We work on a daily wage of Rs. 200 for one month and twenty days, watering the trees, spraying insecticide, and taking 15-20 days to pluck and simultaneously pack the fruit. It is hard work in scorching summer but comes as a relief for us as we have more earnings. The lockdown has spoilt everything and left us without resources.”
Litchi cultivation offers a livelihood to many as it provides both on-farm and off-farm employment. Small and marginal farmers get additional income from growing litchi on their homesteads. On an average, a litchi orchard provides employment to six daily wagers.
As a crop litchi has the advantages of a ready market, high yield and demand in local, domestic and export markets and can easily be grown in a suitable climate. In fact, litchi cultivating areas are now being notified as ‘litchi belts’, earmarked for commercial production.
Commenting on the circumstances brought about by the lockdown, the president of the Litchi Growers Association, Bachcha Prasad Singh, who spoke to The Wire over the phone, mentioned that the litchi business has been affected for the second consecutive year. In 2019, unfounded rumours that eating litchi caused Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) among young children adversely affected the consumption of litchi and this year, he points out, the pandemic-induced lockdown has thrown the litchi business out of gear.
Pointing to the fact that the litchi comes to the market by mid-May, Singh said it seemed unlikely that they would be able to achieve the target on time. Local markets aside, it is the mandis of Delhi and Mumbai which are prime destinations – about 1,500 and 1,000 tonnes respectively making their way to the national capital and commercial capital. The fact that both metros are still seeing a rise in the number of COVID-19 infections is bound to affect demand and supply there, said Singh.
Besides, for the fruit to reach the market on time, it has to be plucked on time. How much of the fruit is plucked in the coming days remains to be seen, he remarked.
According to Singh, they are looking at a sale of only one-third of Bihar’s litchi crop this year. Lakhs of people whose fortunes are tied to work opportunities in commercial plantations, ranging from growing and managing orchards to harvesting and post-harvest activities, are facing a crisis of survival, rued Singh.
Emphasising the importance and potential of the fruit, he said the Shahi Litchi, an extremely popular variety of Bihar, received the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2018. The GI is used for a product that owes its uniqueness to its specific geographical origin, which means that litchi growers outside the state can no longer pass off their fruit as the Shahi Litchi. By the same token, it puts Bihar’s litchi grower in a position of advantage.
That Bihar is looking at a bumper crop of the Shahi Litchi this year is not providing much consolation to the big farmers in the business, considering the marketing aspect has been crippled due to the lockdown. Usually, big farmers who do not want to get involved in marketing their litchi harvest rely on a pre-harvest contract system, where the Pre- Harvest Contractors (PHCs) take charge of the orchard, around January. The PHCs further subcontract the orchard work to wholesale or commission agents who undertake the harvesting, packing and transportation of the produce to the market. The lockdown has not given PHCs the space to operate.
On its part, the Muzaffarpur district administration has expressed the hope that since there have been no cases of people being infected by the coronavirus, plucking may take place. But transportation outside the district and state continues to pose a challenge. While officials have assured litchi growers that they will help with the logistics and arrangements required to transport the fruit once the lockdown eases, the reality is that they may not be able to go even beyond the district.
The director of the Muzaffarpur-based National Research Centre on Litchi (NRCL), Dr. Vishal Nath, told The Wire that if the lockdown eases in certain areas of economic activity, it would help people involved in different stages of the litchi production, harvest and marketing chain, i.e., growers, labourers and traders.
NRCL data indicates that the export of litchi is mainly confined to SAARC countries, notably Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan. UAE is also an export destination. Moreover, there is excellent potential for expanding the export market to Gulf Cooperation Council countries as well.
Taking all things into consideration, the NRCL Director was of the view that without letting up on the critical norm of social distancing, fruit-plucking and post- harvest activities should be carried out.
The next few weeks will show whether it will be the season of the litchi or a season of crisis in the time of lockdown.
Saurav Kumar is an independent journalist.