Patna: Despite a likely bumper crop next month, Brij Mohan Singh, Dinesh Prasad Kushwaha and Sanjay Kumar, litchi-growing farmers from Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, are worried. With the lockdown extended till May 3, they fear that traders will not be making their way to purchase the fruit.
Till March 20, the three farmers were happy with their crop and expected profits after litchi trees had flowered heavily. The anticipation of a good harvest has dimmed three weeks later, they are upset and tense due to extended lockdown.
“We are certain of a bumper litchi crop by the second or third week of May, but where are the traders?” asked Singh, a litchi farmer from Saraiya block in Muzaffarpur. Singh said that traders used to visit them from March to the third week of April “to purchase our litchi orchards with a right to harvest. There are no traders. No traders from Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Benguluru, Uttar Pradesh or Nepal have visited us so far due to the lockdown,” he said.
Singh said that he had sold his litchi orchard to a trader from Mumbai by the first week of April, last year. However, this year is a different story. “Traders have not come down due to the lockdown. They assess the size of the orchard, quality of litchis and likely harvest before purchase,” he added.
The litchis are green at the moment, and will take at least between 20 to 25 days to ripen to red.
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%.
Dinesh Kushwaha, another farmer, from Aurai block in Muzaffarpur said that lockdown is a big problem for medium and small litchi growing farmers, who are fully dependent on traders from outside. “What can we do except wait for traders after the lockdown is lifted in the first week of May. But nothing is certain about it,” he said.
Kushwaha claimed that bigger litchi farmers were in touch with traders and managing to strike deals. “They are rich farmers, they can take a risk but farmers like me have no option,” he added.
Sanjay Kumar from Minapur block in Muzaffarpur has a similar story. He expected a decent income this year but with no traders in sight, his hopes have turned into dreams. “This 40- day long lockdown is likely to hit us hard. We are not shopkeepers who will sell litchis on the side of the road, we are farmers,” he said.
Singh, Kushwaha and Kumar are three of thousands of litchi growing farmers of Muzaffarpur.
Litchi Utpadak Sangh president Bachcha Prasad Singh said that time was running out. “This is a big worry for over 5000 bigger litchi growing farmers alone,” he said mentioning that bad business for litchi farmers will also hit thousands of local labourers. Labour is required to to pluck litchi in orchards, load and carry them and finally package them in wooden boxes for shipment.
He said farmers have been forced to sell their produce at much lower prices, as the fruit is highly perishable if not kept in a high-tech storage facility, which is not available to most farmers.
Bholanath Jha, a big litchi growing farmer, expressed serious concern about the fact that the making of light wooden boxes, used for packaging litchi, has not even begun yet. With hardly a month left for the litchi to ripen and be ready for harvest, thousands of wooden boxes needed to package litchi cannot be made as sawmills are shut due to the lockdown.
Jha has asked Muzaffarpur District Magistrate Chandrasekhar Singh for permission to prepare wooden boxes during the lockdown. “We have requested the district administration to allow us to make the boxes and licences for vehicles to send the litchi outside after the lockdown is over,” he said. The DM has assured him of an action plan to help litchi growing farmers in the district.
Jha said that till date, the government has only given promises and assurances to litchi-growing farmers and that “these promises remain in their files. Take, for instance, a repeated assurance of theirs to start a cargo service from Patahi airport in Muzaffarpur to help the farmers. It has never started.”
According to him, it takes at least a month for preparing the thousands of wooden boxes.
However, Vishal Nath, Director of National Research Centre on Litchi (NRCL), in Muzaffarpur, said the lockdown will not affect business and that farmers were in touch by phone and making deals. “NRCL is working for litchi marketing, packing and transportation. We have demanded that the government arranges boxes and transportation for the litchi after the lockdown is over,” he said.
He however admitted that traders, middlemen and agents of exporters from Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata arrive ahead of harvesting and purchase the orchards from the farmers. “They pay money in advance to litchi-growing farmers which helps them,” he said.
Muzafffarpur’s shahi (royal) litchi is famous for its big 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.
Litchi farmers are already facing challenges of adverse weather in recent years. Experts have cited climate change and the quality of litchi was hit hard by unexpected variations of temperatures in April and May, according to farmers and scientists.
Litchi is very sensitive to variations in temperature, rainfall and humidity. Farmers like Singh and Yadav said pest attacks have also increased in their orchards.