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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 26, Dated July 05, 2008

Distressed Delicacy

Many would die for the litchis of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur, but the growers are struggling to survive the bad harvest, reports ANAND ST DAS

LITCHI, THE queen of fruits in India, is currently under attack in her own palace — Bihar. After leading the country’s litchi production for decades, climatic setbacks this year have shrunk production, by volume and in quality. Growers have suffered losses and exporters are disinterested after last year’s surplus production and impressive exports.

“Sudden weather changes forced us into distress sale, because litchi is the most perishable of fruits, fresh only for 36 hours,” said Bholanath Jha, a litchi grower in Muzaffarpur. “It is time the government developed a cold chain for litchi storage and regulate the market to free us from the stranglehold of traders,” says Jha. He admitted that his returns this year were less than his expenditure.

Bihar, which harvests 3.5 lakh tones from 30,000 hectares under cultivation by about 55,000 growers, accounts for nearly 65 per cent of India's annual litchi production. The well-drained, calcium-rich loamy soil on the banks of the 300- km Gandok river from Narkatiaganj to Khagaria has seen litchi orchards flourishing for centuries.

Muzaffarpur district is globally known for the unbeatable aroma, tasty pulp and attractively bigger size of its shahi litchis. Blessed with suitable agro-climatic conditions, it produces both the Shahi and China varieties over 10,000 hectares.

But the state’s production this year slumped to just two lakh tonnes, due to erratic weather conditions. While last year’s export from Bihar was about 100 tonnes, it is expected to be much less than half that figure, say litchi experts.

Crop loss has also hampered Bihar's litchi honey production. While the state yearly produces 4,000 tonnes of high-quality litchi honey and exports a good part of it, these figures are likely to halve.

KP Thakur, who sells litchi pulp and seedless litchi under the Litchika brand name, says he sent back over 100 truckloads from his factory in Muzaffarpur this harvesting season due to bad quality. "The quality of this season's harvest was so bad I did not want to harm the brand I have built,” says Thakur.

The delicate litchi crop suffered because of unseasonal rain and the subsequent high temperatures, explain scientists at the National Research Centre for Litchi (NRCL) in Muzaffarpur, a body of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). "Heavy rains in late September 2007 caused water stagnation and litchi plants flourished only vegetatively. A steep rise in temperature in the critical aril-formation stages in late March and April and absence of any rain deprived the flowering plants of sufficient moisture and relative humidity. This badly harmed the pulp development in litchi fruits,” NRCL director Dr KK Kumar told TEHELKA.

In the harvesting season of May, over 50 percent of Muzaffarpur's prized Shahi litchis got sun-burnt because of high temperatures. Only 20 percent of Bihar's litchi production this season was of export quality while the rest was used in the domestic market mainly as juice and in direct consumption.

Scientists, however, hold growers equally responsible for the disaster. "While weather fluctuations are the main reasons for this year's crop failure, litchi growers have been neglectful towards proper management of plant nutrition, pesticides, canopy development and irrigation in their orchards despite our best efforts," said Dr Rajesh Kumar, a litchi specialist at NRCL.

"Muzaffarpur's soil has the potential to produce 25 tonnes of litchi per hectare, but production has hovered around 10-12 tonnes. This is due to a casual approach to pre- and post-harvest orchard management by the growers here,” said Dr Kumar.

BOTH GROWERS and exporters have suffered because the marketing infrastructure is abysmal. Without a cold chain for bulk transport, litchis are sent in wooden boxes by trucks and railway parcel vans. There have been longstanding demands for a pre-cooling facility, a sulphur treatment plant and cold storage space at Muzaffarpur's Narayanpur-Anant railhead, but nothing has been done. With poor infrastructure and losses eating into orchard space and growers selling acreage under litchi cultivation, Bihar’s share of India’s litchi cultivation area has come down by five percent in the past five years.

To save and savour the luscious litchi, a better supply chain has to be created. Since climate change cannot be controlled, it is important not to further stress this perishable fruit. •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 26, Dated June 05,2008

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