Patna: Navin Kumar and Suresh Choudhary, both litchi-growing farmers from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, are worried and apprehensive of big losses again this year in light of the fast rising COVID-19 cases across the country. After they suffered heavy losses due to the lockdown between March and June last year, the farmers fear a repeat given the rise in cases and with governments taking up tough measures to tackle the situation.
They are two of thousands of litchi-growing farmers in Muzaffarpur and in neighbouring districts –known as litchi hubs – who are uncertain about their future as they all depend on selling this sweet and juicy summer fruit to make a living.
With the ongoing second wave of COVID 19 across the country, including in Bihar, litchi-growing farmers are tense as traders from other states are either not making their way to their villages to purchase the fruit or are showing little interest in finalising deals.
“We are in deep trouble. We are heading for a big loss like last year.Traders from outside have yet to purchase litchi orchards due to the fear of COVID-19 and likely poor quality of fruit in view of changing climatic conditions,” said Navin, a resident of Minapur block.
Early last month he and others were expecting a bumper harvest and good income but changing climatic conditions like the early onset of summer and fear of the COVID-19 pandemic have been posing serious challenges. "Nearly 75% of the orchards of litchi-growing farmers were not sold last season because traders from other states failed to turn up due to the lockdown.This year the growing fear of the pandemic is giving us sleepless nights. If traders will not purchase litchi orchards, we will be left with no other option,” he added.
Suresh, the owner of a large litchi orchard in Bochaha block, said he was afraid of the pandemic leading to a semi-lockdown like situation if not a total lockdown. "This will badly affect our annual profits from litchis. Our worst fear, of history repeating itself, is haunting us," he added.
A middleman-cum-local litchi trader, Manish Kumar Singh said traders from Maharashtra, including Mumbai and Pune and those from Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat are enquiring about likely harvest dates and assessing the size and quality of the litchi orchards via video calls. "However, they are not ready to finalise the deal,” he added. Most farmers who own litchi orchards are still waiting for traders to purchase the trees for harvest next month. "Earlier, traders used to purchase fruit trees by the end of March," he said.
Singh said that traders generally visited them from March to the second week of April “to purchase our litchi orchards with the right to harvest. There are no traders this year. No traders from outside have visited us so far due to the fear of COVID-19,” he said.
The litchis are green at the moment, and will take at least between 30 to 40 days to ripen to red.
Dinesh Kushwaha, another farmer from Aurai block in Muzaffarpur, said the situation was far from ideal due to the pandemic last year. "This time around the fear of COVID-19 is again a big problem for medium and small litchi growing farmers, who are fully dependent on traders from outside. There is nothing we can do except wait for traders," he said.
Kushwaha claimed that bigger litchi farmers were in touch with traders and had managed to strike deals. “They are rich farmers; they can take a risk but farmers like me have no option,” he added.
Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, also known as the 'land of litchis', along with its neighbouring districts, accounts for more than 62% of the country's litchi production, a figure which was earlier at 70%.
Bholanath Jha, a big litchi growing farmer, said in Muzaffarpur alone litchi orchards were spread over nearly 12,000 hectares. Between 12,000 tonnes to 15,000 tonnes of the fruit is grown in a normal year with the annual trade estimated at between Rs 200 and Rs 400 crore.
Litchi Utpadak Sangh officials said more than 5,000 big litchi growing farmers were likely to face another bad year for business which will also hit thousands of local labourers. People are required to pluck the litchi in the orchards, load and carry them, and finally package them in wooden boxes for shipment.
Till date a few labourers have been engaged in making light wooden boxes, used for packaging litchis. With hardly a month left for the litchi to ripen and be ready for harvest, thousands of wooden boxes are needed to package the fruit.
According to them, it takes at least over a month to prepare the thousands of wooden boxes.
Officials of the National Research Centre on Litchi (NRCL), in Muzaffarpur, said the fear of COVID-19 may hit farmers.They said that the traders, middlemen and agents of exporters from Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata used to arrive ahead of harvesting and purchase orchards from the farmers by paying money in advance which helped them.
Muzafffarpur’s shahi (royal) litchi is famous for its bigger size, unique flavour, aroma and taste and is unique to the region. According to a report by the Horticulture Department, there are 45,000 litchi-growing farmers in Muzaffarpur.
As per the official website of the state health department, COVID-19 cases have risen many fold over the last ten days.There were only 74 cases reported on March 30 in the state, a number that rose to 1,527 on April 7. COVID-19 cases are likely to rise in the state. If not checked in the next few days, the situation may turn from bad to worse, a senior health official said.