New Delhi: It’s been a tough three years for litchi farmers in Bihar, the biggest producer of the fruit in India. In 2019, the sweet succulent fruit found its name attached to an acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) outbreak that left dozens of children dead in Bihar.
The Covid lockdown followed in 2020, and heavy unseasonal rainfall in September-October came as a further blow. This year, Cyclone Yaas — which made landfall in Odisha last month and lashed Bihar with heavy rains and winds during peak litchi harvest season (a month-long period between May and June) — left vast quantities of the fruit damaged.
For a fruit that comes with a short shelf-life in the best of times, the back-to-back knocks have left farmers reeling. Dip in demand and crop loss over the three years have meant losses of over 50 per cent, say farmers in Bihar.
“There have been heavy losses to litchi farmers every season in the last 3 years. This year, during peak season, fruits were thrashed to the ground from trees by Cyclone Yaas leading to over 50 per cent damage to production,” said Baccha Singh, president of the Bihar Litchi Grower Association who himself owns a 6-acre orchard in Dumri, Muzaffarpur.
“Out of the major 12 litchi-producing blocks in Muzaffarpur, only 3 were spared. Everything has been destroyed in litchi orchards in the remaining blocks.”
Singh said his earnings had fallen to less than a third of the returns his orchard yields on average.
“With a productivity of 10 tonnes/hectare (one hectare is 2.47 acres), estimated costing of Rs 25,000-30,000/hectare (Rs 10,121-12,145/acre), and returns at Rs 50,000/acre, my litchi orchard would provide me with an income of Rs 3 lakh-3.8 lakh every year, which stood at just Rs 1.20 lakh this year,” he added.
He said the severe dip in production, coupled with the fruit’s short harvest season, has led to an increase in its market price as well. “In Mumbai, which is a major market for us, litchi was priced at Rs 2,000-2,300/10kg this year against the usual Rs 1,500-1,800.”
A sensitive fruit
India is the second largest producer of litchis in the world after China. The fruit is grown on small trees. Popular for its sweet taste, the fruit is also known to be rich in Vitamin B1 and Vitamin C, apart from proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, fibrous matter, calcium, phosphorus, and iron.
In Bihar, more than 45,000 small and marginal farmers are engaged in litchi cultivation. The fruit is cultivated over 32,000 hectares in Bihar, with an annual production of 3-4 lakh metric tonnes.
Apart from Bihar, the fruit is cultivated in several other states, including West Bengal, Assam and Punjab.
In Bihar, district Muzaffarpur is the epicentre of litchi cultivation and the shahi variety cultivated here holds a GI tag in recognition of its distinct characteristics, including size and unique flavour.
Litchi season in the state arrives in full swing from the third week of May, around 20-25 May, and lasts only till the 2nd-3rd week of June.
The fruit comes with a short shelf life. Its quality can deteriorate in two-three days after harvest, but can be extended to 2-3 weeks with post-harvest treatment. According to the National Research Centre On Litchi, which falls under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the fruits’ post-harvest losses have been assessed to the tune of 18-23 per cent on average.
“Litchi is a very sensitive crop that has to be transported within a couple of days as, under direct sunlight, it starts deteriorating within hours,” said Birendra Singh, who owns a 3-acre litchi orchard in Semra, Muzaffarpur.
A grim 3 years
Over the past three years, the first assault on the farmers came in the form of the 2019 AES outbreak, which led to 160 deaths, most of them young children, primarily in Muzaffarpur.
Some doctors have linked the deaths to a combination of factors — malnourishment, missing an evening meal, and certain toxins in litchis that they say just prove the final trigger.
Children from poor families often pick up the fruit from the orchards. If a malnourished child then skips the evening meal, it can lead to night-time hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels). Toxins in litchis block the body’s bid to synthesise glucose from fatty acids, and this proves the final straw, doctors say.
However, local farmers say that the deaths triggered a rumour that litchis caused the disease.
As a result, litchi sales worth at least Rs 100 crore suffered.
Then came the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, which disrupted supply chains across industries.
“While litchi price due to AES rumours plunged from Rs 800-1,000 for a 10kg box, to Rs 100-200, during the lockdown last year, 90 per cent of the fruits remained on trees as the farmers didn’t pluck them due to non-availability of traders and vehicles to transport the crop, despite the customers’ demand,”said Bhola Nath Jha, who owns a 20-acre orchard in Muzaffarpur.
Unseasonal rains in the latter part of last year added to farmers’ woes as prolonged precipitation is potentially harmful for the crop, especially at the time of flowering.
“Heavy unseasonal rainfall in September-October last year led to waterlogging at the roots, causing a delay in flowering. Hence, flowering and fruit-bearing was delayed and reduced by over 30 per cent,” said Baccha Singh. “This was aggravated by the Cyclone Yaas, due to which fruits fell from trees and were damaged, leading to poor quality and prices.”
Cyclone Yaas, which made landfall on the coast of Odisha on 26 May, caused heavy rains and winds in Bihar for two days.
“The cyclone damaged litchis on 26 May at the peak of the shahi litchi harvest season, which spans from 20 May to 30 May, after which the season for the China variety kicks in. The shahi variety provides maximum price and returns to farmers because it courts the highest demand,” said Birendra Singh.
The bigger farmers, Singh added, were able to protect themselves against the losses to some extent.
“As fruits were damaged due to the cyclone and were lying on the ground, big farmers quickly arranged transport and dumped their damaged produce with traders and markets to recover whatever they could,” the orchard owner said. “However, small farmers like us were left to face losses as traders won’t send vehicles just for us.”
Mukteshwar Singh, who owns a 4-acre orchard, said “demand drop rendered 75 per cent and 90 per cent of the production in 2019 and 2020 completely useless”.
“The losses were aggravated by transportation costs which were double of normal prices,” he added. “The losses (in earnings) of these three years have remained above 50 per cent with a dip in demand and crop loss. At the same time, just the chemical input in litchi production has increased from Rs 10,000-15,000/acre to Rs 25,000/acre in these years.”
How to help farmers
Speaking about the high perishability of litchi and the damage caused by the weather upsets, Sheshdhar Pandey, the director of the National Research Centre On Litchi, said the “deterioration in litchi starts from the evening on the day it is harvested”.
“The outer skin starts to decay first whereas the pulp starts to get worse after two days. Due to unpredictable weather conditions, its quality can turn out to be poor sometimes, as is feared this year. It requires a specific climate — off-season rains and unexpected temperature fluctuations disrupt overall fruit growth, including the content of the fruit, its acidity, and sweetness ratio,” he added.
Pandey said “unseasonal rains in the flowering and fruit development stage” this year have caused “the average size of fruit” to go down from 30 grams to 22 grams”.
“Moreover, there has been at least 20-25 per cent damage to litchi production caused by the cyclone,” he added.
Talking about potential solutions to help farmers, he said, “Due to the short shelf life of litchi, local and nearby consumption should be promoted.
“Moreover, food and beverage processing plants related to litchi fruits should be developed for easier price realisation for farmers as in current times the fruits have to be sent to distant metro cities, decreasing its marketing value.”
Orchard owner Bhola Nath Jha of Muzaffarpur said the continued battering was putting some farmers off the crop.
“In 2019 and 2020, the litchi production was above average compared to the crop damage this year. However, litchi farmers in the state have been waiting for profit for 3 years now and even the area under the fruit has started to decrease as farmers are shifting to other crops,” he added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)