The ongoing lockdown due to COVID-19 has put a stop to all businesses around the globe, except for essential services. It has primarily damaged an entire season in agriculture and the horticulture sector. But, the story of oranges is an exception. As this juicy fruit contains Vitamin C, essential for increasing immunity in the human body, oranges are still in demand. And orange growers of Maharashtra, mainly from the Vidarbha region, have survived the unprecedented slowdown of economic activity.
Baliram Hiraman Jadhav from Morshi tehsil of Amravati district in Vidarbha is an orange farmer. He has orange trees spread over two acres of his farm land. Generally the period between December and March is the peak season for oranges. This year, Baliram has associated himself with Maha Orange, a federal body of orange growers who help with selling produce in the domestic and international markets. Baliram grew almost seven and a half tonnes of oranges this year. Due to the farmers organisation, he could send almost six tonnes to Mumbai for export. But, after the lockdown was announced in India, he had to sell those oranges at a lesser price.
“I got Rs 30,000 for four tonnes and Rs 25,000 thousand for one and half tonnes of oranges. Had the remaining one and half tonnes of oranges gone for export, I would have earned more money," said Baliram. He added that oranges were in demand this year before the lockdown. "Oranges help to increase immunity, so they fetched a good price this year. Frankly, we have not got affected like cotton or pulses growers as oranges were in demand," he said.
The Vidarbha region and Marathwada, to a lesser extent, are the orange growing regions in Maharashtra. In Amravati district, almost 70,000 acres of land has orange plantations. Nagpur grows the fruit over 30,000 acres and Wardha grows them over 20,000 acres while all eight districts of Vidarbha have at least 5,000 acres of land for orange plantations. Almost 1.5 lakh acres of land has orange plantations in the state, which generally produce around 5 lakh tonnes of oranges per year.
But, despite the acreage under cultivation, oranges have been neglected over the years. The Vidarbha region is mainly known for its cotton production. Over the last few years, many got into the business and tried to put things in order. They formed a federal body named Maha Orange which could help farmers to get to markets, avail guidance and get all other kinds of help. This body was promoted by the Centre as well as the state government. That changed the scenario in the last three years. The farmers established a supply chain to Mumbai from where they could reach the international market.
Last year, Maha Orange arranged for Vidarbha oranges to be exported to Sri Lanka, Dubai and other Gulf countries. So, the farmers got an advance booking this year. Almost 25 containers were booked by Gulf countries and Dubai with one container generally holding between 20 to 24 tonnes of oranges. So, almost 500 tonnes of oranges were booked by the Gulf countries alone. By March 24, Maha Orange sent 20 containers to these countries, but the other five containers stayed back.
"This was the first big year for Maharashtra's orange growers who have been looking for a new market. There was demand and there was production but due to the lockdown we could not deliver it," said Shridhar Thakare, Chairman of Maha Orange.
But, even before the new-found supply avenues, Maharashtra’s oranges used to travel to Bangladesh and South-East Asian countries. Bangladesh has been a major importer of oranges from Maharashtra. This year, almost one lakh tonnes of oranges have been exported to Bangladesh. “This year, farmers got a good response from Bangladesh. Morshi in Amravati district is a major centre for the collection of export quality oranges. The Morshi market got a good response until the lockdown," said Thakare.
Hanumant Bopanwar is an orange grower from Umred tehsil in Nagpur district. He has orange trees in one and half acres of his land. But the fruits have gone to waste due to the lack of transportation. "I have almost two tonnes of oranges in my farm at the moment, but there is no transportation; the market is also closed," said Hanumant.
There are many orange growers like Hanumant too. They have had a good crop this year but the closure of domestic markets and transportation has become a major hurdle. Despite being given passes to carry their produce in trucks to any location in the state, they know that selling oranges in the open market is not possible either.
"Who would take two to three tonnes of oranges to the market? The police is not allowing us to sit anywhere. Major markets like Mumbai and Pune are no longer an option. It is the same with Bhopal or Hyderabad. So, orange growers are not taking the risk to take their fruits to major cities on their own, like tomato growers," said Chandrakant Thakur, another orange grower from Tiosa in Amravati district.
Various businesses ranging from real estate to steel to vegetables are facing huge setbacks due to the lockdown. The horticulture industry is also faced with huge losses to produce like mangoes, grapes, and pomegranates, among others. Orange growers have not suffered in the same way but the lockdown has disturbed the possibility of making inroads into new markets, as well as getting good profits from domestic markets as well.