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Harrowed farmers in Rajasthan bid adieu to kinnow, uproot their orchards in bulk

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By Amarpal Singh Verma
Sri Ganganagar, June 21 (Ajit Weekly News) Soaring temperatures and ill-timed closure of canals for maintenance left kinnow farmers in Rajasthan’s Sri Ganganagar district, with no choice but to switch to sowing moong, cluster bean and cotton crops.

“What could we do? Harvests were negligible in the last couple of years. Both blooms and fruit dropped for the third consecutive year. Due to scarcity of water, I could not sow anything this year. Now onwards, I intend to focus on cotton and wheat. Since this year, the season for cotton and wheat has already gone by, I sowed the less water-intensive crops (moong and cluster beans),” farmer Ranveer Jhatwal from Chak 25ML told 101Reporters.

Jhatwal had been growing kinnow on 24 bighas of land for 15 years. But last year, he uprooted his orchards from 12 bighas, taking out the remaining this year.

But Jhatwal is not the only farmer to take such an extreme step. Several small and big farmers in Rajasthan have been doing so. Heat and lack of irrigation ruined 80% to 92% of the orchards this year, forcing nearly every farmer to uproot his orchard, as compared to just a few who did so last year.

Statistics furnished by the Horticulture Department reveal that out of 11,540ha under kinnow, 115ha of orchards were uprooted until May 17, and by June 3, the figure stood at 289ha.

Farmers continue to uproot their kinnow orchards in every tehsil of the district.

The kinnow disillusionment

Orchards made their first appearance in Sriganganagar within two to three years of the Gang Canal coming up in 1927. However, it was in the past two decades that horticulturists saw fruit orchards literally bloom in the district. Even as sweet lime, guava, pomegranate, dates, amla and lemons thrived, kinnow was their most profitable fruit. While incentives extended by the National Horticulture Mission were a big draw, pest infestations on their cotton crop resulting in huge losses finally saw farmers opt for kinnow cultivation. Sriganganagar district alone produces 80,000 metric tonnes of kinnow annually, a large part of which was exported to China, Russia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Australia and Bhutan.

Joint Director of Agriculture (retd) VS Nain, who served earlier in Sriganganagar, said: “Wheat, mustard and cotton were the crops traditionally grown in this district. But when expenses on pesticides rose sharply following caterpillar attacks around two decades ago, harried farmers were compelled to spray nearly 30 to 40 rounds of pesticides to save a single crop of cotton. This was when they switched to kinnow. And it didn’t disappoint them either; they earned ample profits on every crop. Unfortunately, the last three years brought them repeated losses and forced them to uproot their orchards.”

Narrating his woes, farmer Mahendra Kumar of Chak 25ML recalled how his 50-bigha orchard once fetched him Rs 35 lakh to Rs 40 lakh annually, but he couldn’t break even in the last three years.

“In 2020, there was very little produce, and in 2021, I earned a meagre Rs 5 lakh after spending Rs 7 lakh on inputs. This year, the intense heat and lack of irrigation caused the blooms and fruit to drop. Two years ago, I uprooted 10 bighas; last year, I uprooted another 12 bighas; this year, I uprooted another 5 bighas of orchard land,” Kumar said, adding that he now intends to grow cotton since crop from a single bigha can earn him up to Rs 1 lakh.

Usually, one has to wait four years for a kinnow crop after planting an orchard and hold on for seven years before one can harvest the best fruit. But presently, even farmers who planted saplings only two years ago are uprooting their orchards, anticipating losses in future.

Farmer Bhupendra Singh of Chak 11ML had laid his orchard on 9 bighas of land at a total cost of Rs 6 lakh to Rs 7 lakh. He has uprooted his entire orchard. With a heavy heart, Singh said, “What is the point in keeping this orchard, when I cannot profit from it? My neighbour, farmer Jagseer Singh, also uprooted his two-year-old orchard.”

Excessive heat and lack of irrigation water also led farmer Ashok Chaudhary of village 24GB to uproot his orchard.

“There were no blooms for the past two years. Excessive heat wilted my plants,” Chaudhary told 101Reporters.

“Last year, I uprooted 15 bighas of my orchard and planted mustard on this land, which yielded 5 to 6 quintals per bigha of produce. Recently, I uprooted another 10 bighas. Cotton has also proved more profitable than kinnow for me.”

Explaining why uprooting their orchards is their best option, farmer Jhatwal said, “One has to spend Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 per bigha every year on the kinnow crop. It’s a burden when the produce falls short consecutive years.”
Mercury spike, water scarcity — the biggest threats

Assistant Director of the Horticulture Department Priti Bala pointed out the temperatures in March were unprecedentedly high in the last two years.

“Temperatures between 25 degrees Celsius and 30 degrees in March-end are ideal for flowering. But this year, temperatures touched 40 degrees, she explained. “High temperatures can cause flowers and fruit to drop. This was also the time when canals were shut for repairs, preventing farmers from accessing much-needed irrigation water.”

Analysing the situation, VS Nain noted that the Water Resources Department must keep the needs of farmers in mind as and when they shut off irrigation canals for necessary repairs. Currently, they are turned out in April-May, which is when orchards need irrigation water.

The rising prices of cotton in the mandis also drew farmers to cotton cultivation, Bala added. Though the department has advised farmers to remain patient “since cotton prices can also be unstable”.

Furthermore, the failure of the kinnow crop has not been confined to Sriganganagar alone, Agriculture Officer (Horticulture) Rajendra Nain in Horticulture Department Sriganganagar told 101Reporters.

High temperatures wreaked havoc on the fruit trees in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana; compelling farmers in Abohar and Fazilka districts of Punjab and Sirsa in Haryana to uproot their orchards.

Seeking compensation for the threat to their livelihood

When orchards are uprooted, there’s a threat to many kinnow-related industries, as well. There are around 36 kinnow packing and grading establishments in the district, each set up with an investment of Rs 35 lakh to Rs 1 crore. These grade the kinnow, apply preservatives on the fruit and pack them for export.

Babu Khan Rizvi, the owner of one such wax and grading plant, told 101Reporters, “The destruction of the orchards spells disaster for us. If the orchards are uprooted, what will happen to us? Each plant employs around 100 to 150 labourers. Us factory owners and workers will have to pay the price.”

In light of these developments, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Youth Wing has submitted a memorandum to the district administration. BKU (Youth Wing) District Secretary Shivprakash Saharan emphasised, “The government ought to conduct a survey, and fix an amount of Rs 1 lakh per hectare as disaster relief compensation.”

Kinnow growers get just one crop a year, but the inputs needed are equal to that required for two crops, he pointed out. Hence, the administration must offer corresponding compensation.

Claiming that the losses were much higher in reality than that reported by the authorities, Saharan also said that these orchards should be notified under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana to be eligible for insurance.

(The author is a Hanumangarh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

–Ajit Weekly News
amarpal/svn/

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