Mumbai: Indian summers are incomplete without the iconic Alphonso mangoes, which are famous not only too. But, this summer, mango lovers will have to wait for COVID-19 to end to relish mangoes this season, as the complete national lockdown has brought the Alphonso industry to a standstill.
Maharashtra's Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts produce 95% of the entire Alphonso production of India. Generally, Alphonso farmers pack the fruits in boxes at home and send these via trucks or tempos to Navi Mumbai's Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC). There the agents buy the boxes and either sell these in the domestic market or send the better quality fruits to the international market.
On March 21, a day before the lockdown began in Maharashtra, approximately 8,000 boxes arrived at the APMC. One box carries an average of five dozen fruits. This was just the beginning of the season. On March 21, the rate for per box was around Rs 3,000.
Here, it is important to understand what a “better” quality fruit means, that is, the ones meant for the export market.
A farmer categorise fruits in his own farmyard before packing the boxes. In the ‘best quality’ box, fruit is bigger and its skin is completely clear. The smaller ones with few spots on the skin are considered ‘better quality’. A box that carries such fruits could have five to six dozen pieces. There’s a last quality, which generally sells in retail domestic market,which holds about seven dozen mangoes per box.
Now, on March 21, around 8,000 boxes landed up in the APMC, which means around 40,000 dozen mangoes were up for sale in Mumbai. Usually, the mango season goes on till May end. The peak time is April and May. On a daily basis, a minimum of 20,000 boxes arrive per day during the peak season fromthese two districts, about a total of one lakh dozen mangoes.
This year, the APMC market has been closed since the pastfive days. On Monday, March 23, the market got only 10,000 boxes, as around 50,000 boxes couldn't reach Mumbai.
There is a huge economy allied to the Alphonso mango business, from mango producers to labourers to transporters to APMC agents as well as labourers in the market. This chain survives only ifthe produce reaches the market on time. During the lockdown, this entire chain has collapsed.
Prabhudesai brothers are well-known mango farmers in Rantagiri. They have completely stopped plucking mangoes. "We are waiting for the government to give us some kind of relaxation for sending mangoes to Mumbai. Otherwise, this industry will need a minimum of three years to revive from the losses," said SandeshPrabhudesai.
There are 50 labourers dependent on Prabhudesai brothers, who work in the farms for almost six months a year. The work entails plucking mangoes, spraying chemicals and fertilisers. This is the state of just about one mango producer. There are thousands like him in these two districts.
AnkushRane is from Mond, Devgad tehsil of Sindhudurg district. He is a landless labourer. He works in mango and cashew farms in summer and paddy farms in monsoon. In normal summer days, Rane leaves home at 6.30 in the morning and is back by 8 p.m. His food, tea and breakfast are at the farm. He used to be paidRs 450 a day. But now he is sitting idle at home and waiting for the lockdown to be lifted. "We poor have no one to care for us. Government will give us rice and wheat. But who will take care of our other expenses? This was our only season to earn good money," said Rane.
Generally, a mango farmer sends his boxes by paying a local transporter. During the season, trucks and tempos from Western Maharashtra and even Mumbai go toKonkan because of surety of work. Generally, one 1612 Tata truck carries upto 500 boxes. A truck owner getsRs 150 per box. So, one trip to Mumbai gives him Rs 75,000. In one month, he gets 10such trips minimum. So, in one season, this means around 25 trips. Generally, one truck owner earns around Rs 15-17 lakh in one season of two-and-half months.
Right now, nobody knows how many days the business will remain suspended. "This is a huge loss for us. There are many truck drivers who won't be able to pay EMIs now. Nobody talks about our losses," said MarutiPatil, a truck owner and driver from Kolhapur district,
who comes to Kunakeshwar area of Devgadteshil for transportation activities.
Every year, around Rs 500 crore economic activities are generated in these two months in these Alphonso-growing districts of Konkan. In fact, the horticulture industry, mainly mangoes, have transformed the fortunes of one of the most backward districts of Maharashtra. Just 40 years ago, people from Konkan used to live on money orders sent by family members in Mumbai. Now they are earning well. But, this lockdown may push them back, the impact of which could lasttill at least three years.